Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere with 80 per cent of its citizens living below the poverty line of two dollars a day and five per cent of people controlling 65 per cent of the national wealth. Its democratically elected government was overthrown in 1991 and again in 2004 with the help of the United States, France and Canada, three self proclaimed pro-democratic nations.
Patrick Elie, a Haitian activist who is hoping to raise awareness in a series of talks across Canada will be addressing Haiti's 2004 coup, the subsequent foreign occupation and human rights violations in Calgary Thu., Mar. 23. Elie started this tour with hope that the new Canadian government may mean an opportunity for Canada to change its foreign policy concerning Haiti.
"This weekend a meeting was held in Ottawa and Montreal concerning Haiti," said Elie, who most recently helped found a Haitian political rights organization called Sant Obsevasyon Sitwayen, or 'Citizen's Monitoring Centre.' "Instead of looking towards the future and working with the elected leadership of [Rene] Preval and his team they invited a prime minister who was rejected by the people. The Canadian government needs to pursue a new policy for Haiti. It starts by working with elected representatives of Haiti."
Haiti has a long history of political instability starting shortly after 1492 when it became a colony of France. Haiti declared independence in 1804 after crushing a French army sent to re-enslave it. Haiti remained unrecognized by France and allies for 20 years, only gaining recognition by paying the French 150 million gold francs for the French loss of 'human property.' In 1915 the U.S. marines invaded Haiti and occupied it until 1934.
In 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide won an election with 67 per cent of the vote, beating out the American backed candidate. Aristide was sworn in for just seven months before an American trained military coup took power. The Haitian general who led the coup was on the CIA payroll and American intelligence officers were present during the time of the coup. In the first two weeks of the coup over 1,000 people were killed and many who Aristide had put away for human rights abuses were back in positions of power.
"The Haitian army under the direction of the elite and the CIA under [George H.W.] Bush violently overthrew a leader with 67 per cent of the votes," explained Elie. "This broke the momentum of Haitians towards a stable society. Not only did it completely destroy the economy, setting us back 20 years but 5,000 people were killed."
Under former president Bill Clinton, Aristide was reinstated with the condition that he accept the platform of the candidate he had beaten in 1990 and that his three years in exile count toward his five year elected term. In 2001 Aristide was reelected with 92 per cent of the vote.
"They are building democracy as if it can be imposed on a people," Elie stated. "A people make their democracy and should be left alone while doing it. Some say Canada is involved because of economic interest in Haiti, in sweatshops or gold mines. Others, myself included, think that Canada's foreign policy is becoming more in line with the U.S."
In 2003 Canada hosted a meeting where North American, Latin American and European diplomats discussed the removal of Aristide. In February 2004 the democratically elected government of Aristide was overthrown by another military coup, again forcing him into exile. The military was trained by the U.S. army and funded by the U.S., France and Canada. For the next two years the political majority--the supporters of Aristide--were violently suppressed, leaving thousands dead.
After numerous false-starts, elections were held last month. Voters faced obstacles including violence, missing ballots, shortages of election officials and extremely long line-ups. Elections were found to be rigged against Preval, but after mass protests, he was elected.
"I have hope," said Elie. "Not because of Preval, but because the people of Haiti spoke and spoke loudly. They need a government that answers to the people, one that gets its power from the people, not from landed foreign powers. Not only do they want change, they need it. But with one caveat: How are Canada, America and France going to behave? Will the Haitian elite reconcile with the poor majority or will they cling to their privileges?"
Elie is confident that positive change can still be made for democracy in Haiti.
"One thing is for certain, the Haitian people are not sleepwalking," Elie said. "They will help to open people's eyes that democracy is becoming more and more just a front, where decisions are made without the consent of the people. Haitians show that democracy requires a people that are wide awake."