By Judith Scherr
Perhaps best known for his leadership in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and in the founding of TransAfrica, a lobbying group promoting “enlightened” U.S. foreign policy in Africa and the Caribbean, Randall Robinson is less known for his steadfast support for Haitian democracy and sovereignty.
Robinson, who now lives on the island of St. Kitts with his wife and daughter—and wrote about his decision to get out of the United States in his book Quitting America—is a personal friend of ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide. His wife Hazel Robinson and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums both worked as lobbyists for Haiti under Aristide.
In his new book, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President (Basic Civitas Books, New York, 280 pages, $26), Robinson tells the detailed story of the abduction of the Haitian president by U.S. officials. His primary sources are the Aristides and a Haitian pilot, who witnessed the event.
The importance of Robinson’s landmark book is not simply the revelation of the true story of Aristide’s abduction. Through the story of the kidnapping, Robinson unwraps the history of Haiti, showing us how a singular act of aggression is but one significant action within 200 years of attempts by foreign powers to subjugate the struggling black nation.
Randall Robinson will speak and sign books Thursday, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at an event sponsored by Marcus Books at Allen Temple Baptist Church, 8501 International Blvd, Oakland. Tickets are $5 for the event, $30 with the book.
“Poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” is a descriptor so often used for Haiti by State Department spokespeople and most the world’s news media that what many of us in North America have come to know about Haiti is limited to the tiny nation’s abject poverty, illiteracy, criminality and inability to govern herself.
In this context, the media told us—when it bothered to report the event at all—that in 2004 a Haitian president faced with a fierce armed revolt took advantage of a waiting U.S. jet and benevolent American diplomats to escape to safety.
Most North Americans believed that story disseminated by the Associated Press and others.
In An Unbroken Agony, Robinson sheds fresh light on the Feb. 29, 2004 kidnapping of Aristide, whose name one finds today scrawled large on the walls of Port-au-Prince’s impoverished slums and whose photograph is still held high when protesters march through Haiti’s streets.
Robinson places the Feb. 29 abduction—literally a U.S., France and Canada-backed coup d’etat—within the context of the nation’s 200-year struggle for sovereignty.
That struggle begins with slavery. “French slavery in Haiti was not only the most profitable worldwide for the French but also the most cruel,” Robinson writes.
Those who would become free Haitians began their revolt in 1791 and won independence in 1804. The nation of former black slaves, however, was not well received in Thomas Jefferson’s United States, where slavery wouldn’t be abolished for another six decades.
“Most everyone everywhere—enslaved and enslaver alike—recognized that the countdown to slavery’s end … had been set ticking by the Haitian Toussaint L’Ouverture and his triumphant army of ex-slaves,” Robinson writes.
The U.S. and Europe greeted the black nation’s birth with an economic boycott. And, strange as it may seem, in 1825 France imposed a debt on its former colony equal to $21 billion in 2004 U.S. dollars “as compensation from the newly freed slaves for denying France the further benefit of owning them,” Robinson writes.
The ravaging of Haiti included a brutal U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934 resulting in the deaths of some 15,000 Haitians. During that time the United States repaid Haiti’s debt to France, imposing its own $16 million obligation on the Haitian people, which Haiti did not pay off until 1947.
The U.S.-supported dictatorial rule of father then son Duvalier (1956-1986) would further impoverish the exploited masses.
“Haiti on an operational level could be likened to racialist South Africa,” Robinson writes. “In exchange for the trappings of state power, the dictator Francois Duvalier and his black successors gave to the white and mulatto upper class a free hand to exploit the huge black, largely illiterate labor force in any way it saw fit.”
A priest who later gave up the priesthood, Aristide became known and loved among the masses for preaching the dignity and rights of the poorest of the poor. He was elected president in 1990, despite the hostility of the upper classes given free reign by the Duvaliers and the post-Duvalier regimes, but was toppled in a military coup after only nine months in office.
Ending the brutal military rule, President Bill Clinton supported Aristide’s return to Haiti in 1994, imposing conditions including the privatization of some Haitian industries.
Among Aristide’s first acts on his return was to abolish the military, some of whose former members would become rebel leaders in 2003-2004.
After the five-year presidency of Rene Préval—president again today—Aristide was re-elected in 2001. His attempts to ease the burden of the poor, such as doubling the minimum wage to $2/day, provoked the anger of the upper classes and their American friends.
Destabilizing the second presidency
Robinson explains how the United States undermined Aristide’s second presidency through propaganda and support for both political and military opposition.
He quotes Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., on the efforts of the International Republican Institute: “‘The fix was in: The U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Republican Institute (the international arm of the Republican Party) had spent tens of millions of dollars to create and organize an opposition—however small in numbers—and to make Haiti under Aristide ungovernable.’”
To elucidate the U.S. role in training and arming the rebels, Robinson quotes from a report of the Investigation Commission on Haiti, written by attorney Brian Concannon, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and others, that says the rebels were armed and trained in the Dominican Republic.
“‘U.S. military officials have confirmed that 20,000 M16 rifles were given by the U.S. to the Dominican Republic after November 2002 and admitted that many of those rifles were now in the hands of the Haitian rebels,’” the report says.
Further destabilizing Haiti, Washington blocked $146 million Inter-American Development Bank aid that was to fund projects such as clean drinking water, health, education and roads.
In the buildup to the Feb. 29 coup, the rebel band took over a number of small Haitian towns by seizing local police stations. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told former Congressman Ron Dellums—and the media erroneously reported—rebels were poised to capture Port-au-Prince, a city of some 3 million persons, and kill the president.
Robinson describes what was really going on: “The few police brave enough to contest [the rebels] had no way to answer their firepower. The rebels, outfitted smartly in baggy camouflage with bulletproof vests and steel helmets, had good reason to expect that the mere sight of them would scare the bejesus out of lightly armed policemen defending a lightly staffed police post, miles and mountains distant from Port-au-Prince.”
The military activity was a “smokescreen” to pressure Aristide to resign, “not a serious army,” Robinson says.
A truck carrying television crews followed the rebels, whose task “was to terrorize the countryside outside of Port-au-Prince—to hack, murder, burn, loot, raze—to tear a fiery swath of destruction across the northern half of Haiti … and maximize the news media’s coverage of what appeared to be the inexorable fall of the democratic government, village by defenseless village,” Robinson writes.
Did the Aristides leave voluntarily?
Robinson says they would have packed bags and told close friends, which they did not. They were actively making preparations for interviews in the following days with Tavis Smiley and George Stephanopoulos.
The U.S. media was complicit in making it appear that Aristide left voluntarily, Robinson says. “The American television networks had been airing old footage shot in natural light at the Port-au-Prince airport showing President Aristide without his wife, shaking hands and making his way along a line of government ministers before boarding a nearby commercial aircraft. The networks represented the footage to be pictures of the president’s voluntary departure from Haiti.”
The reality, Robinson says, was that U.S. officials put the president and his wife on an airplane before dawn Feb. 29; the aircraft was not a commercial plane; no members of the Aristide government and no media were at the airport. The Aristides were taken to the Central African Republic against their will.
Robinson tells how he, along with Rep. Maxine Waters and others, flew to CAR and secured the Aristides’ release.
Despite having an elected president in Haiti today—after two years of U.S.-backed unelected rule—the country has not regained its sovereignty and Aristide remains in forced exile in South Africa.
Haiti continues to be controlled by foreigners, including a military occupation by some 8,800 United Nations troops.
“Sadly, real democracy remains a long way off for Haiti,” Robinson concludes. “For how can any reasonable observer contend to the contrary as long as foreign powers, directly or indirectly, remain bent on preventing Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s most widely respected humanist and democrat, from returning home to his own country?”
Randell Robinson will talk about his new book Sept. 20 at Temple Baptist Church.