How Our Governments Snuffed Out a Democracy And Kidnapped a President: A Modern Parable

Today, I want to tell you the story of how our governments have been torturing and tormenting a small island in the Caribbean -- but it is a much bigger story than that. This is a parable explaining one of the primary reasons why across the globe, the poor are kept poor, so the rich can be kept rich. If you grasp this situation, you will see some of the ugliest forces in the world laid out before you -- so we can figure out how to stop them.

The rubble-strewn island of Haiti is now in the middle of an election campaign that will climax this November. So far, the world has noticed it solely because the Haitian-American musician Wycleff Jean wanted to run for President, only to be blocked because he hasn't lived in the country since he was a kid. But there is a much bigger hole in the election campaign: the most popular politician in Haiti by far, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He's not there because, after winning a landslide election, he followed the will of the Haitian people to take on the corporations and redistribute enough money so their children wouldn't starve -- so our governments had him kidnapped at gunpoint and refuse to let him back.

But we have to start a little earlier if this is going to make sense. For over two centuries, Haiti has been effectively controlled from outside. The French enslaved the entire island in the eighteenth century and worked most of the population to death turning it into the sugar and coffee plantation for the world. By this century, Western governments were arming, funding and fuelling the psychopathic dictatorship of the Duvalier family, who slaughtered 50,000 people, supposedly because they were "our friends" in the fight against communism.

All this left Haiti the most unequal country in the world. A tiny elite lives in vast villas in the hills, while below and all around them, the overwhelming majority of the population live in tiny tin shacks with no water or electricity, crammed six-to-a-room. Just 1 percent own 50 percent of the wealth and 75 percent of the arable land. Once the Haitian people were finally able to rise up in 1986 and demand democracy, they obviously wanted the country's wealth to be shared more fairly. They began to organize into a political movement called Lavalas -- the flood -- to demand higher wages and higher taxes on the rich to build schools and hospitals and subsidies for the half-starved poor. This panicked the elite.

And nobody panicked them more than a thin, softly-spoken, intellectual slum-priest named Aristide who found himself at the crest of this wave. He was born into a bitterly poor family. He became a brilliant student and studied to be a priest in his cluster of tin shacks. He soon became one of the leading exponents of Liberation Theology, the left-wing Catholicism that says people shouldn't wait passively for the Kingdom of Heaven to seek justice for the poor, but must demand it here and now. (The current Pope tried bitterly to stamp out this 'heresy'.) Aristide explained: "The rich of my country, a tiny percentage, sit at a vast table overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen are crowded under that table, hunched in the dirt and starving. One day the people under the table will rise up in righteousness. It is our mission to help them stand up and live as human beings."

On this platform, he was elected in 1990 in a landslide in the country's first free and fair election, taking 64 percent of the vote, and was compared across the world to Nelson Mandela. He kept his promise to the Haitian people. He increased the minimum wage from 38 cents a day to $1, demanding the multinational corporations that employed the island's population pay a less insulting wage. He trebled the number of free secondary schools. He disbanded the murderous US-armed national army that has terrorized the population. Brian Concannon, head of the Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti, says: "It is impossible to overestimate the impact of this accomplishment on the lives of average Haitians. It has been called the greatest human rights development in Haiti since emancipation, and it is wildly popular."

Even the International Monetary Fund had to admit that over the period he was in charge and just after, Haiti's Human Poverty Indicator -- a measure of how likely your kids are to die, starve or go uneducated -- dropped dramatically from 46.2 percent to 31.8 percent.

The wealthy elite and corporations were horrified. As one Haitian businessman put it: "Everyone who is anyone is against Aristide, except the people." But why would foreign governments care about a small, bitterly poor island with only ten million inhabitants? Ira Kurzban, an American lawyer based in Haiti, explains: "Aristide represented a threat to [foreign powers] because he spoke for the 85 percent of his population who had never been heard. If that can happen in Haiti, it can happen anywhere, including in countries where the [US and Europe] have huge economic interests and extract natural resources. They don't want real popular democracies to spread because they know it will confront US economic interests." Oxfam called it "the threat of a good example."

So after Haiti had experienced seven months of democracy, the US toppled Aristide by force. Horrified ordinary Haitians surrounded his home calling for his return -- and they were fired on so indiscriminately they ran out of ammo and more had to be sent from Guatanomo Bay on Cuba. The bodies were left in the streets to be eaten by dogs.

In 1994, the Clinton administration agreed to return Aristide to power -- provided he castrate his own political program and ignore the demands of his people. They made him agree to privatize almost everything, freeze wages, and sack half the civil service. Through gritted teeth, he agreed, and for the remainder of his time in office tried to smuggle through what little progress he could, given this straight-jacket. He was re-elected in an even bigger landslide in 2000 -- but even his tiny shuffles towards redistribution were too much, and the Bush administration imposed what former US Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck called "a tightening economic noose around Haiti," blocking all external help. Professor Jeffrey Sachs notes: "The economy collapsed, and that was the deliberate result of the strangulation."

Even despite this, the Haitian people stood behind Aristide -- not because he was any kind of Messiah, but because he was doing what they told him to. The last Gallup poll showed that 60 percent supported him, compared to just 3 percent who preferred his main US-backed opponent. So when all other attempts at sabotage had failed, the US government kidnapped Aristide at gunpoint and dumped him in the Central African Republic. They falsely claimed, of course, that he had become "a maniac" and "a dictator" -- unlike, say, their murderous shariah-law enforcing ally, the King of Saudi Arabia. There's a Haitian proverb that says: "When people want to kill a dog, they say it's rabid." Aristide was not toppled because of any bad things he had done, but because of the good things he did.

After Aristide was forced out, the human rights situation dramatically deteriorated, with a massive campaign of terror and repression crushing the democratic resistance. A US Army Psychological Operations official explained the mission was to ensure Haitians "don't get the idea they can do whatever they want." The Lavalas party, by far he most popular, has been banned at every subsequent election. The next president, Rene Preval, learned his lesson: he has done everything he was told to by corporations and governments, privatizing the last remaining scraps owned by the state, and using tear gas to break up strikes for higher wages. The Haitian people rejected the whole rigged electoral process, with turn-out falling to just 11 percent. Today, Aristide is a broken man, living in exile in South Africa, studying for a PhD in linguistics. He is not allowed to return to his homeland, and it seems future presidential candidates have been terrorized out of following that path any time soon.

It's this long political earthquake -- of denying Haiti any ability to democratize and develop -- that made the geological earthquake so deadly. Bigger earthquakes in countries that have been allowed to develop has claimed almost no casualties. This thwarting was not a freak event. It is part of a plain pattern. When poor countries get uppity and tried to ask for basic justice, our governments have toppled them, from Iran wanting to control its own oil in 1953 to Honduras wanting its workers to be treated decently in 2009.

It doesn't have to be this way. This is not the will of the people, in the US or Europe: on the contrary, ordinary citizens are horrified when the propaganda is stripped away and they see the truth. It only happens because a tiny wealthy elite dominates our foreign policy, and uses it to serve their purposes -- low wages and control of other people's economies and resources. The people of Haiti, who have nothing, were bold and brave enough to campaign and organize to take power back from their undemocratic elites. Are we?

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here.

An excellent further source on this subject is 'Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment' by Peter Hallward, or the award-winning documentary 'Aristide: The Endless Revolution'.

You can follow Johann's updates on this issue, and others, at or email him at j.hari [at]