WASHINGTON, D.C—It was the junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, who came the closest to exposing raw political power in Haiti when he led a Senate foreign relations subcommittee’s probe into the drug trade during the early 1990s.
For 10 years, the Haitian militaryhad been deeply involved in trafficking drugs from the Colombia cartels. Kerry’s subcommittee on terrorism heard Gabriel Taboada, a former Medellin cartel operative, testify that “the cartel used Haiti as a bridge so as to later move the drugs toward the United States.”
Haitian military leaders, including the then head of the government, Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras, along with Port-au-Prince police chief Joseph Michel François and army chief Philippe Biamby, even traveled to Colombia to meet with top cartel dealers.
At the time, just before Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to take up the presidency, there was speculation in Washington that Clinton’s Justice Department would indict these major figures in a Noriega-style bust. But this never happened, perhaps because airing the information would have compromised U.S. intelligence and drug enforcement operations in the area, putting agents at risk and wrecking ops aimed at bigger fish. Instead of a straight-up indictment, Clinton went for one of his trademark fishy solutions, setting up a team of arbitrators consisting of Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn, and Colin Powell, who negotiated—if that is the word—the flight of the ruling junta to safe haven in Panama. Drugs weren’t part of the deal. And that was unfortunate, because among those who had attended the meetings in Colombia was Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, who, before Aristide, was head of something in the army called the civil-enforcement program. He later became the key figure in a death-squad gang called FRAPH. Alan Nairn, writing in The Nation, subsequently exposed Constant as a CIA asset in Haiti. On Aristide’s return, Constant was arrested, jailed in the U.S., and then quickly released and deported back to Haiti. His current whereabouts are unclear, perhaps in Queens or maybe in Haiti. But he’s bound to be behind the scenes in the planning of actions by the publicly identified rebel leaders, Louis Jodel Chamblain, a killer formerly in the army, and Guy Philippe, another army man. Whether Constant is still hooked up with American intelligence, who knows?
Under Aristide, the drug trade reportedly continued to flourish as living conditions grew worse and worse. The American intelligence agencies, which never liked Aristide and portrayed him to the press as a nutcase, did their best to straighten things out by setting up a national intelligence service in Haiti. When Aristide managed to shut down the army, the U.S. helped him create a weak national police force. And the new intelligence service? It soon began trading drugs.
As for Haiti’s economy, which the experts fuss over as if it were some odd archaeological object, it’s not all that complicated. It is based on exports, which currently means assembled goods, which produce little serious investment and leave the people either just below or just above utter poverty. The place once had a sort of sustainable small agriculture, which the best minds of the first world determined had to go; it was re-geared to mono-crop exports. That degraded the environment. American bureaucrats wanted things their way. They lost it when a few Haitian pigs got swine flu and in the bureaucrats’ hysteria over making sure the sick pig meat never got to U.S. shores, the bureaucrats insisted the Haitian pigs be killed. Instead, the Haitians would get new, bigger, and better imported American pigs. But American pigs wouldn’t eat the garbage that the Haitian pigs thrived on, and had to eat wheat-based, vitamin-laced food. They were extremely expensive to have around, and villagers began to fight with one another over who owned what pig. The project was a disaster.
But there was light at the end of the tunnel, because the ruined Haitian peasantry could move to the cities, live in slums, and work in assembly factories. Aristide himself capped this situation by accepting the IMF and other international banking terms for loans through a restructuring that essentially promised more of the same. What has happened in Haiti is not a failure of American policy planners. It is caused by a disgusting and irresponsible group of American politicians. Haiti is only of interest to American politicians when they can get something out of it. Since the Haitians for the most part are black and poor, that’s not very often. The Bush freebooters are bad, but the Black Caucus isn’t much better.
The people interested in Haiti are few and far between. Among them are members of Bush’s favored base, the Christian right. And they are appealing to the oligarchy that runs the place if only because evangelicals offer an inexpensive solution: Footing the bill for a wired-up preacher to get a couple of miracles out of a huge crowd is a lot cheaper than building a hospital. But when Christianity runs head-on into folk religions, as it often does in Haiti, voodoo can sidetrack it. Voodoo becomes a defense against American values, and a valuable aspect of Haitian resilience.
Additional reporting: Alicia Ng and Ashley Glacel