Peter Hallward responds to Paul Knox

Peter Hallward has offered the following response to Paul Knox’s recent review of Damming the Flood.

Dear Paul Knox,

Thank you for taking the time to write a substantial review of Damming the Flood. I’ve asked the Canada Haiti Action Network to post this response to your review on their website, and invite you to reply in turn.

In comparison with some of the other responses it’s provoked, I appreciate your relatively even-handed treatment of the book and the controversial topics it addresses. I agree with much of the first half or so of your review. But as you might expect, I also have some objections and questions.

1. The term ’saint’ is a fairly specific term. In connection to Aristide it has also long been a very loaded term. In what ways do you think that I describe Aristide as a saint?

2. You note that ‘a determined band of researchers and polemicists seeks to affirm Aristide’s continuing legitimacy’. Affirmation of Aristide’s legitimacy as a president elected to serve a five year term (2001-2006) doesn’t require much determination or polemic. It requires nothing more, or less, than a minimal respect for democracy and the rules of the Haitian constitution. Do you yourself question this legitimacy?

3. About reports of alleged FL abuses of human rights: how can the attempt to equate Aristide and Duvalier, which as you know became a relentless theme in 2003-2004, be described as anything other than a grotesque falsification of the situation?

4. You mention Charles Arthur (of the Haiti Support Group), and a few others, and object to my characterisation of their position. Arthur has repeatedly said that the whole period 2000-2006 was a single disastrous continuum, such that the coup of 2004, in his view, was *not* an especially significant political event. Even your own account in the first part of your review suggests that you might not agree with this. The founder of the Haiti Support Group, Leslie Griffiths, didn’t agree with Arthur’s political priorities either, and eventually resigned from the group. Is it unreasonable for me to argue, then, that Arthur’s judgement might indeed be ‘coloured’ with regards to this point? Perhaps you have a different and less bilious explanation for his interpretation of 2004, and for the similar interpretation taken by Christian Aid, PAPDA, Batay Ouvriye and other like-minded NGOs?

5. About foreign intervention (‘… yet foreign intervention was exactly what Aristide himself was calling for at that time’): do you recognise the difference between (a) Aristide’s call for a ‘few dozen’ peacekeepers from CARICOM or the UN in order to keep a small group of violent insurgents at bay, and (b) a ‘humanitarian intervention’ undertaken by thousands of troops sent by the US & its allies to remove Haiti’s elected government from office and then put in motion, perfectly deliberately, a process that would immediately target and kill many hundreds of its supporters and plunge the country into another disastrous crisis?

6. About ‘political relevance’: your argument here, if I understand it correctly, amounts to saying that popular support is less significant than something called ‘political leadership’, i.e. a capacity to sustain the ‘balancing that everyday politics requires.’ I assume that what you mean is a capacity to negotiate successfully with the adversaries and oppressors of the people who supported Aristide. I suppose Aristide might indeed have fallen a little short here, up to a point (though given the perfectly explicit instructions they were given by people like Roger Noriega & Stanley Lucas, the idea that even the most ’saintly’ president could have negotiated any sort of genuine settlement with Evans Paul, Serge Gilles, Andy Apaid & co. seems a little far-fetched). In your opinion, then, in order to qualify as a ‘proper’ and not merely ‘popular’ democrat, should Aristide have conceded even more to these adversaries than he in fact did? In other words: rather than seek to implement policies supported by the great majority of the population, a true democratic leader should instead find ways, in partnership with other ‘leaders’ representing a small and exclusive elite, to dilute or undermine them?

7. About the French debt: what is ‘bizarre’ or ‘hard to fathom’ about the request for restitution, timed to mark the bicentenary of Haitian independence? You seem to suggest that Aristide was wrong to make this particular request because France didn’t appreciate it. That’s undeniable: France definitely didn’t appreciate it. (Perhaps this is why NGOs like Christian Aid and its European partners don’t appear keen to trouble France with this particular demand). I wonder how far you might be prepared to follow this logic, and how it might inform your understanding of imperial relations with places like Algeria or Vietnam. If you are consistent, I assume you would also have to say that Toussaint L’Ouverture & co. made an even bigger mistake when they dared not only to request but actually to impose an immediate end to French slavery? At the time I believe that the French didn’t appreciate this at all; nor did the Americans, the British, or the Spanish. On the face of it, your position here seems to imply an equation of ‘political relevance’ with little more than acceptance of the current dictates of imperial power. But if the ruinous French extortion of this Haitian money was illegitimate (and I invite you to argue the contrary) then let them return the money, un point c’est tout.

8. In your introduction you note that Aristide was ‘warned that a “bloodbath” was about to occur and that foreign powers would do nothing to stop it’. This is a rather incomplete description of US ambassador Foley’s warning. Would you deny that some of these foreign powers not only refused to prevent but also actively contributed to the imminent prospect of a bloodbath? There is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that the insurgents led by Chamblain and Philippe enjoyed covert US support, and they certainly enjoyed the support of the docile US client regime in the Dominican Republic; moreover, it’s well known that Philippe and other insurgents worked closely with politicians like Serge Gilles and other leading members of the ‘democratic opposition’ to Aristide — politicians and ‘business leaders’ who most definitely received financial and diplomatic support from the US and its allies. There is also significant evidence to suggest that these foreign powers took steps deliberately to weaken Haiti’s own limited capacity to meet the threat posed by these insurgents, by depriving the police of supplies and funds, and by buying the loyalty of some prominent police commanders. In any case, I’m curious to know what you make of the argument itself, the argument made and subsequently defended by Colin Powell and his chief of staff, for instance, and which runs something like this: ‘it seems there is a risk of a bloodbath, and *therefore* the world’s most powerful democracy should force the elected president, rather than a tiny group of violent insurgents with negligible political support, to leave the country.’ In February 2004 much of the world’s media encouraged us to accept a version of this argument. What’s your own view?

9. You go on to say that Aristide was then ‘flown into exile on a U.S. military aircraft.’ Again I’m struck by your choice of words: if Aristide had wanted to go into exile he could easily have travelled, without any sort of US assistance, in the company of his small but perfectly competent Steele Foundation security team, to sympathetic neighbouring countries in the Caribbean, e.g. Jamaica. His Steele guards, needless to say, had various escape routes prepared well in advance, by land, air and sea. Why, in your opinion, was he flown instead, abruptly and in total secrecy, to the distant and dictatorial Central African Republic, a client state of France? Why describe this as a ‘flight into exile’, rather than as a form of political incarceration?

10. You prioritise ‘negotiation and compromise’. Aristide was indeed often accused of lacking these vital political skills. I find this is a little hard to understand. Leaving aside the question as to how far we might expect the elected government of a country like Canada or the US to negotiate with a little clique of sweatshop owners and ex-army insurgents who were trying to overthrow it, have you forgotten the profoundly damaging compromises that Aristide was eventually forced to make, under the pressure of relentless violence against his supporters, in 1993-94? Have you forgotten the rather extraordinary list of further compromises that Aristide made in 2001-2004, which began even before he took office? These included, among many other things, acceptance of several high-profile opponents of FL in his cabinet, acceptance of unpopular macro-economic policies imposed by Haiti’s international donors and lenders, acceptance of the resignation of seven FL senators whose victories had been contested (on trivial technical grounds) after the May 2000 elections, acceptance that the terms of senators and deputies elected in May 2000 be shortened by two years, etc. This didn’t stop Roger Noriega, a few weeks after Aristide immediately and unconditionally accepted (in mid February 2004) the last of a long series of ‘compromise’ proposals that involved him giving up almost all his power, from claiming that it was his ‘wilful refusal to give any quarter to or compromise with political adversaries’ that had justified regime change. Would you go along with this assessment? When you say ‘compromise’, do you in fact mean something more like: unconditional surrender?

11. You refer to the ‘broadest possible consensus’. I assume you know that the Lavalas governments were elected by margins that were close to double the sort of majorities won by people like Blair or Thatcher, to say nothing about people like Bush or Chirac. I’m not familiar, in fact, with any instance of a democratic system anywhere in the world that provided a clearer indication of broad popular consensus than Haiti 1990-2006, culminating in Fanmi Lavalas’ massive 75% share of the vote in the decisive elections of 2000. As anyone can see, it was the small and privileged minority who, feeling threatened by this consensus, set out to confound it. So far, their efforts have been pretty successful, and they have received the enthusiastic support of their allies in the international community and the mainstream media. Whatever your actual intentions may be, the general thrust of your review (to say nothing of your reporting from Haiti in February 2004) effectively condones and strengthens these efforts. What exactly does it mean, in this context, to recommend that Haitian political activists should now seek to forge the ‘broadest possible consensus’? By ‘broadest possible’, do you in fact mean a consensus that represents the interests of the quarter or so of the Haitian population that did *not* vote for Fanmi Lavalas in 2000? What is the real meaning of your word ‘possible’?

12. You refer in closing to an article on the ‘Politics of Prescription’, and seem dismayed by its intransigence. Your readers might not realise, from your description, that this article concerns universalisable (though certainly divisive) principles of justice and equality – the sort of principles at stake in popular and sometimes revolutionary mobilisations against feudalism, slavery, apartheid, or colonial exploitation. Why should people who participate in such mobilisations, as a general rule, privilege negotiation and compromise rather than direct confrontation?

13. If I were a Haitian, I think I would know, as most Haitians I’ve met know, that until the US, Canada and their partners stop undercutting Haitian sovereignty and change the way they manage international trade and finance, it’s going to be hard to make any significant progress at home. I certainly wouldn’t be waiting for the leaders of these countries to do much about this. But I would know, better than some Canadians seem to know, that responsibility for changing these neo-colonial policies lies with the citizens of these old pays amis d’Haïti, and not with the citizens of the country that suffers their effects. It is our problem, not Haiti’s problem. To blame the victims of our indefensible priorities for failing to ‘negotiate’ around them is simply to add insult to injury.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Hallward

Middlesex University