grassroots political activists from Haiti's Lavalas movement recently
sat in a small room watching television on the first day of the
Bush administration's war against Iraq. For about half an hour they
shifted between Canada's RDI and France's RFI Caribbean broadcasts
in French. The room suddenly broke into excited chatter as images
of thousands upon thousands of housewives, union activists and students
demonstrating against the war with Iraq filled the screen. The protestors
heralded from such far away cities as Berlin, Bern, Karachi, Madrid,
Milan, San Francisco and Washington.
a 36 year-old women's organizer and local Lavalas representative,
turned to me and asked everyone if we could change the channel to
CNN and would I provide a rough translation in English. We sat in
"shock and awe" for nearly an hour as "military expert"
after "military expert" provided sanitized explanations
of U.S. military strategy and the effects of several types of missiles
raining hellfire down upon Baghdad's population. The commentary
of these "experts" was broken only by official White House
briefings, replays of the bombs falling, and interviews with journalists
"embedded" with the advancing military troops soon to
be unleashed on the orders of President Bush.
forty-five minutes into the broadcast, a small message update scrolled
across the bottom of the screen announcing protests had begun in
San Francisco and Washington. I translated it as another well-known
neighborhood activist asked, "Why aren't they showing any of
the images of the international protests against the war we saw
on the French language stations? It is almost as if they don't exist
for the U.S.!" The room grew more excited as he punctuated
this last comment with, "It reminds me of what the U.S. press
did to us last November 25!" The consensus in the room was
that there was something dreadfully wrong with the way CNN was lionizing
official U.S. policy while almost completely ignoring the protests
against the war. The assembled Haitian activists drew a parallel
between this and U.S. media coverage of a peaceful demonstration
by tens of thousands of Lavalas supporters in Haiti last November
25th. They felt their demonstrations were ignored by the U.S. press
in a similar way while much smaller rallies demanding the resignation
of President Aristide, a position many here view as official U.S.
policy, were given unqualified weight and measure.
couldn't help but think there might be something to this comparison
as I remembered that Ambassador Otto Reich, President Bush's Envoy
for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, had arrived in Haiti the same
week bombs began falling on Iraq. Reich came as part of a delegation
representing the Organization of American States and the Caribbean
Community Council with the intention of brokering an agreement between
the Haitian government and the Washington-backed "opposition"
to Lavalas. Otto Reich is a known quantity when it comes to controlling
the press and manipulating events to achieve U.S. foreign policy
objectives in Latin America and the Caribbean.
visit was especially ominous as it coincided with reports from the
Haitian police that uniformed soldiers of Haiti's abolished army
had begun regular armed incursions into the Central Plateau region
of the country from the Dominican Republic. A March 17, 2003 article
in the Miami Herald reported, "In December, men wearing uniforms
and carrying guns stopped a car with doctors and Washington-based
filmmaker David Murdock. 'If our driver had kept going through it,
who knows if they would have opened fire,' he said last week. He
said he felt afraid for Haitians who have to travel that road regularly.
Murdock said the men held him and others at gunpoint, lecturing
them on how they would overthrow Aristide." Several policemen
in Haiti's police force have recently referred to the current situation
in the area as "the beginning of civil war in Haiti."
And now Otto Reich was in Haiti.
Reich? Is this the same Otto Reich who once used taxpayer dollars
under the Reagan administration, from within his shadowy Office
of Public Diplomacy, to cajole the U.S. press into supporting the
Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? According to The
National Security Archive, a staff report by the House Foreign Affairs
Committee (September 7, 1988) summarized various investigations
of Mr. Reich's office and concluded that "senior CIA officials
with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence
and psychological operations specialists from the Department of
Defense, were deeply involved in establishing and participating
in a domestic political and propaganda operation run through an
obscure bureau in the Department of State which reported directly
to the National Security Council rather than through the normal
State Department channels.... These private individuals and organizations
raised and spent funds for the purpose of influencing Congressional
votes and U.S. domestic news media."
Cohen is the founder of FAIR, a media watch group based in New York
- and a panelist on "News Watch" on the Fox News Channel
who wrote about Reich's return to power in the Bush administration
and his past shenanigans in the Office of Public Diplomacy or OPD.
In a June 8, 2001 piece Cohen wrote, "By covertly disseminating
intelligence leaks to journalists, Reich and the OPD sought to trump
up a Nicaraguan 'threat,' and to sanctify the U.S.-backed Contra
guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's government as 'freedom fighters.'
The propaganda was aimed at influencing Congress to continue to
fund the Contras."
his current role in the Bush administration, Reich carries a lot
of weight when it comes to U.S. foreign policy towards Haiti. Given
Reich's zealous history of opposing popular democratic movements
in the hemisphere his reconstituted role is not to be taken lightly.
Otto Reich was not above using taxpayer dollars to influence and
shape the views of millions of Americans to support a deadly cocaine-fueled
war against the Nicaraguan population, including a highly visible
campaign to demonize the Sandinistas. Reich never saw himself as
doing anything wrong so how could one realistically believe him
incapable of applying the same rules and techniques to Haiti? A
closer look at the objectivity of U.S. press reporting of recent
events in Haiti might tell whether or not this is mere paranoia
or if the tail is in fact wagging the dog.
you read about Haiti today in the mainstream press, you find a barrage
of negative stories about Aristide and Lavalas with descriptions
of demonstrations and general strikes calling for Aristide's resignation,
fraudulent elections, a politicized police force, drug-dealing officials
and violent mobs of government supporters attacking the political
opposition. The overarching message is that Haiti has become a lawless
state ruled by a leader with waning popularity whose only hold on
office is to call out the violent shock troops of his Lavalas movement.
Most stories filed by news agencies like Reuters and the Associated
Press have little room to provide any real in-depth analysis or
historical context. Stories that do probe a little deeper are almost
always exclusively negative about Haiti's current leadership or
make startling revelations pounding yet another nail of evil into
the coffin of the body politic of Lavalas. But are we really getting
the whole story? Sometimes truth in reporting can be judged as much
by what is left out and not said as by what is repeated over time.
begin with the question of demonstrations and strikes calling for
President Aristide's resignation. What is often not reported is
that the opposition to President Aristide consists mainly of the
Democratic Convergence (CD) that grew out of a project of the United
States Agency for International Development called Democracy Enhancement.
Linguist and author Noam Chomsky accurately described the aim of
the project: "The State Department 'Democracy Enhancement'
project was specifically designed to fund those sectors of the Haitian
political spectrum where opposition to the Aristide government could
be encouraged, precisely as 'pro-democracy policies' dictate."
to a source that worked in the administrative section of Democracy
Enhancement, "What began as a program to encourage participation
in the democratic process in Haiti was transformed into creating
an opposition to Aristide and Lavalas. We could get the big shots
together for a meeting but the program was never able to build a
base of support from among the people. Most of the grassroots organizations
were affiliated with Lavalas. They would show up sometimes to check
it out but were largely disinterested." If this statement is
taken at face value one has to ask how has the opposition to Haiti
suddenly burst onto the scene larger than life? If, as President
Aristide claims, the majority of the poor still support him and
Lavalas, why are we reading of demonstrations by "tens of thousands"
calling for his resignation in the mainstream press?
is said that if you repeat something often enough people will begin
to see it as the truth. One example of this is a story that appeared
in the Economist last November. The story, entitled "Frustration
boils over: The Aristide regime is holding off its enemies - but
for how long?" cited a figure of 15,000 participants in an
anti-government rally in Haiti's second largest city Cap Haitien.
The editorial board wrote, "On November 17th some 15,000 people
marched in Cap Haitien, and a former Haitian army officer with coup
experience, Himmler Rebu, urged Mr. Aristide to resign." In
truth, initial reports from the Associated Press quoted local radio
stations as estimating the crowd at 60,000 but AP was forced to
lower the estimate to 15,000 by the end of the day. Reuters quoted
unnamed police sources to have estimated the crowd at 8,000 while
local officials put the number at 4,000. The Economist instantly
transformed the figure 15,000 into reality despite the fact that
estimates of attendance at the November 17th rally were inconsistent.
The numbers game isn't as important here as the mainstream press's
ability to transform inconsistency into fact for an unsuspecting
reason for the perception of Aristide losing his support in the
mainstream press is that while giving unreliable figures of opposition
strength, reporters also omit and/or downsize the strength of contemporaneous
pro-Aristide demonstrations. This was the point being
made by the Haitian activists who compared their demonstration of
November 25, 2002 to CNN's giving emphasis mostly to stories touting
official U.S. policy in Iraq while downplaying anti-war demonstrations
during the same period. An example of this is an AP report filed
on January 3, 2003 which stated, "Since mid-November, tens
of thousands of Haitians have marched in anti-government demonstrations,
demanding that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resign for failing
to solve the impoverished country's problems." (Note how AP
rolls the canned figure of 15,000 for the anti-government protest
on November 17th into other smaller protests and instantly creates
the numerical mantra of "tens of thousands.")
same story never mentioned there was a massive outpouring of support
in the streets of the capital for President Aristide and Lavalas
eight days later on November 25. Crowd estimates from photos taken
by an independent journalist put the participants at the pro-Lavalas
demonstration at well over 30,000.
largest number ever cited in AP and Reuters for the pro-Lavalas
demonstration on November 25th was 2000 persons. During the same
period corporate news organizations published scores of photos from
the much smaller anti-government protests while not one photo of
the much larger pro-Lavalas demonstration was ever printed. By omitting
any mention and/or images of the "tens of thousands" of
people who marched peacefully for Aristide and Lavalas during the
same period, AP gave the impression Aristide had lost his popular
support and would eventually be forced to resign.
AP report filed on January 3, 2003 continued, "Aristide maintains
he has brought the country relative peace and progress, but has
been hindered by blocked aid and a combative opposition. He has
refused to step down before his term ends in 2006." You would
most likely think the man had no support left anywhere in the country
if you read the AP story without knowing about the pro-Lavalas demonstration
that took place only a week before the article was written. Instead
we are given the impression Aristide is as an isolated whiner out
of step with his own people and crying over lost foreign aid. The
Associated Press wrote the ultimate epitaph for Aristide and Lavalas
on February 7, 2003. In a piece that focused on comparing the last
days of the Duvalier dictatorship to Aristide's presidency they
reported, "Haitians have lost faith in Aristide, the former
slum priest whose fiery rhetoric fueled the uprising that toppled
Duvalier in 1986." If that is true then how do you explain
the massive rally in front of the presidential palace only four
months earlier? I guess we already have our answer to that question.
You simply ignore it or, when it comes to representing the strength
of the opposition, you simply invent it.
factor that taints the image of Aristide and Lavalas in the mainstream
press is the reported violence against the opposition. In countless
stories Lavalas is portrayed as a mindless mob serving at the behest
of a new "wannabe" dictator in Haiti. An example of this
is found in The Economist article of November 2002: "On November
20th, four people were shot dead in Petit-Goave. Two days later,
government counter-protesters filled the streets of Port-au-Prince,
the capital, with burning barricades." This was an obvious
attempt by The Economist to link the violence in Petit Goave with
the image of government supporters erecting barricades of burning
tires in Port au Prince. There is no attempt made to explain how
the two incidents might be linked because in reality they were not.
there is no question that thousands of Lavalas militants took to
the streets in the early morning hours of November 22nd and set
up flaming barricades at all major intersections in Haiti's capital,
this protest had absolutely nothing to do with the shootings in
Petit Goave. Instead, the two events are linked to imply it was
government supporters responsible for the shootings without providing
a single quote from witnesses or other corroborative evidence. Simultaneously,
Lavalas is made to look like unintelligent thugs devoid of any thoughtful
or reasonable demands.
we were given the full story from the streets of the Port au Prince
our impression of the Lavalas protestors' erecting burning barricades
would be quite different. On November 22nd the Lavalas protestors
demands were simple, allow President Aristide to fulfill his five
year term in office and put an end to what they deemed "a campaign
to destabilize democracy" in Haiti. "Let all those who
would take our freedom away know that we are willing to spill our
blood to defend our democratic rights. Aristide was elected for
five years and we are going to make certain he stays for five years,"
exclaimed 25 year-old Jean Baptiste in the poor slum of Bel Air.
A woman demonstrating in the poor slum of Cite Soleil explained,
"I came out here today to stop the Convergence and the American
government from destroying our democracy and taking our president
away from us again."
the press reporting the reasons behind Lavalas protests in Haiti
we are not given enough to understand their true significance and
meaning. Instead, we are left to freely associate the violent image
of mindless protestors burning tires in the streets for Aristide
and Lavalas. This image is less than flattering when combined with
the constant barrage of other negative stories that lead the reader
to the moral conclusion that this is a government that deserves
to fall. While there has been violence committed by some claiming
association with Lavalas, the reality is far more complex than the
black and white versions trumpeted in the mainstream press. As one
Lavalas militant put it, "It would be the equivalent of accusing
President Bush for having responsibility for every murder committed
by a registered Republican in the United States. The only difference
is that when you read these things about President Aristide in the
New York Times or the Wall Street Journal people believe it without
as a whole, one can argue that U.S. press coverage of events in
Haiti has tended to be slanted against Aristide and Lavalas while
showing preference towards the "opposition" and that famous
Bush notion of "regime change." Article after article
focuses solely on the negatives of the current government to the
exclusion of anything remotely positive. Most U.S. reporters and
their editors seem to suffer from an allergic reaction to anything
that might probe beyond a simplistic image portrayed of Lavalas.
A prominent U.S. journalist, recently working
in Haiti, once said of his editors, "Hey, I am sorry but they
are not interested in positive stories about Lavalas. I wrote it,
submitted it and they told me they were not interested." What
was the story? It told of how the government expropriated the former
mansion of a notorious Duvalierist drug dealer and assassin named
Lionel Wooley, a.k.a. "Ti Je," and worked with a local
grassroots organization to convert it into a school for the poorest
children in the township of Petion-Ville. The school now serves
over 160 of the area's poorest children and tries not to turn down
any child whose parents cannot afford to pay. With the torture chamber
under the swimming pool sealed forever, the school stands as a beautiful
symbol of transforming a gruesome legacy of the past into hope for
the future for Haiti's youngest and poorest citizens. Yet you will
never read about it in the mainstream media.
example of implicitly forbidden tales of Lavalas success in the
U.S. press is the literacy program and what are called Alfa-Resto's
that serve as a safety net for the poor. This government-sponsored
program serves hot meals from 12 p.m. until 4 p.m. and from 4 p.m.
until 7 p.m. they provide free literacy classes. In the township
of Petion-Ville alone there are 36 Alfa-Restos providing hot meals
for just 7 gourdes (about 16 cents US) a plate to an estimated 5000
people a day. The Alfa-Resto at Delmas 103 in the Ecole Communal
feeds about 100 adults per day, with 150 plates reserved for the
smallest children. Now multiply the 36 Alfa-Restos in Petion-Ville
by a thousand and you begin to get an idea of the scope and importance
of the program throughout Haiti today. The program also prides itself
on being non-partisan and providing hot meals to all comers. For
example, the local organizers at the Delmas 103 Alfa-Resto recently
reported sighting small groups of members of the "opposition"
Democratic Convergence coming in to eat as well. When asked if that
bothered them they replied, "No, they are Haitians too. We
don't have a problem if they are hungry and need to eat here."
This is a direct quote from a worker in the program who is also
a member of Lavalas, an organization that has been exclusively represented
in the U.S. press as violent and intolerant towards its political
two examples, of which there are many more, are central to understanding
the grassroots work of Aristide's Lavalas party and hence its popularity
among the poor majority. Unfortunately, you will never get the opportunity
to enjoy these stories woven from the wonderful prose of the Associated
Press, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The
Miami Herald. They are simply not interested in telling you the
whole story. It is apparently not their priority to do so and we
are left to ask why.
few select members of the Lavalas party recently described for me
what they view as the first phase of Washington's scheme for Haiti.
They defined its three major concurrent objectives as: 1) to create
an opposition force capable of seizing power, 2) demonize Aristide
and Lavalas within and without Haiti and, 3) separate the base of
Lavalas from the leadership. While some in Lavalas argue that the
first two objectives have had some limited success everyone insisted
that the third objective has been a miserable failure. They argue
the majority of the poor in Haiti still continue to support Aristide
and Lavalas despite the inventions, inaccuracies and biases of the
U.S. media against them. The inability of U.S. strategy to break
the base of their movement has led many in Lavalas to begin to openly
speculate that the ongoing attacks in the Central Plateau represent
the second phase of the plan. If they are correct this second phase
is likely to result in an escalation of armed incursions against
Haiti with the intention of overthrowing the constitutional government.
What does this have to do with Otto Reich? Given Otto Reich's history,
his current role in U.S. foreign policy and the less than objective
slant of U.S. press reporting in Haiti, it adds enough circumstantial
evidence to their argument to take them seriously.
Pina is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist who has
been working and living in Haiti for the past three years. He has
been covering events in Haiti for the past decade and produced a
documentary film entitled "Haiti: Harvest of Hope" (http://store.globalexchange.org/harvest.html).
Mr. Pina is also the Haiti Special Correspondent for the Flashpoints
radio program on the Pacifica Network's flagship station KPFA in
Berkeley CA (www.flashpoints.net).