This Is What Democracy Looks Like!
by Nirit Ben-Ari
On February 7 and January 25, Haitians and Palestinians (respectively) went to the polls. Haiti is an independent republic since 1804, and one of the founding members of the United Nations. “Palestine” is a territory that has been occupied by the Turks, then the British, and now the Israelis. It’s not an independent country and not a member in the United Nations. Despite these apparent differences, Haitians and Palestinians share much in common–in particular, their belief in the democratic process. Sadly, their ways of practicing democracy also share something in common; the disdain of most of the “civilized” world.
The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are to this day under Israeli military control. Despite the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel still maintains control over its borders, the flow of goods in and out of the Strip, and occasionally carries out military operations, including extra-judicial assassinations, deep inside the territory. Similarly, in the West Bank, the Palestine Authority (PA) does not have control (or has very minimal control) over borders, movement of Palestinians, or trade. Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza are essentially living in huge prisons, where their movement, their economic activity, and their police force, are mostly under the control of a foreign army.
Despite this reality, the world has told the Palestinians that they must practice democracy. Based on Bush’s “road map” from June 2002, Palestinians were asked to put in place a democratic system, consisting on democratic institutions and periodic elections, to receive the support of the so-called “world.” Which is exactly what they did. The first democratic elections after Arafat’s death took place in January 2005, and were observed by the Carter Center and declared free and fair. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen by his honorific title) won as president with 62% of the vote.
In the most recent election in January 2006, Palestinians took their despair to the polls. Frustrated with the “security” fence that imprisons them and blocks them from accessing their lands, and with the PA’s corrupted regime which cooperates with Israel, they voted the old ruling party, Fatah, out of office. Hamas won about 45% of the popular vote, which gave them a majority of parliament because of electoral rules. Why Hamas? As Israel’s military assaults and policing have destroyed all services since 2002, Hamas has filled in the gaps everywhere, setting up and running schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. “Approximately 90 percent of [Hamas’] work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities,” writes Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. But Hamas is better known for its hard-line military tactics, which have included attacks against Israeli citizens within Israel-proper.
The world watched in dismay as Palestinians counted their ballots. It was only few days after the results were made known that international voices were heard: Hamas is not a legitimate government. In fact, Hamas’ election is Israel’s wet dream. It makes it much easier for Israel to say there is no one to talk to, since Hamas refuses to negotiate. It allows Israel to act unilaterally without anyone complaining.
The Palestinians were told, yet again, democracy is good, as long as you vote for whomever we want you to vote for.
So, what does the state of democracy in the OPT has to do with the above-mentioned Caribbean nation?
Indeed, there is more in common that meets the eye.
Although Haiti has been an independent republic since 1804, it is today the poorest country in the western hemisphere. There are no checkpoints or security fences on Haitian land, and no direct foreign control over the flow of goods in and out of the country. Do Haitians have control over their country?
Consider Haitian rice and poultry production. On condition of restoring President Aristide back to power in 1994, Washington had imposed a neo-liberal economic reform, in which Haitian farmers were denied tariff protection and were hence “free” to compete with U.S. agribusiness–which receives 40% of its profit from government subsidies. As a consequence, cheap American rice and poultry has flooded Haitian markets. By 1998, the chicken industry was virtually shut down, and 10,000 jobs were lost.
This is what Haitian “sovereignty” looks like.
But Haitians have been told by the world that it will only get better if they hold free democratic elections. Which is exactly what they did.
The first free elections in Haiti had taken place only in 1989. After 30 years under the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc,” and few more years under a military junta, Haitians took to the polls in a show of democracy that was as rare in non-western countries as in western. The winning candidate, with 67% of the vote, was the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was backed by a vigorous grassroots movement, the Lavalas (“flood” in Creole). Only seven months later, Aristide and his government were overthrown in a coup d’etat that brought to power a murderous, illegal military regime. After three years of terror, the world–that is, the U.S.–intervened, and restored Aristide to power; however, only on condition that his government adopt the neo-liberal economic regime that was designated to it by Washington. A second condition was that after the end of his term (Aristide had seven months left in his term at the time of the coup) he would not run again.
The following elections in Haiti took place in 1996. With Aristide barred from running for office again, his protégé Rene Preval (Ti Rene) won with 64% of the vote.
The following elections took place in 2000. Aristide was back, and his Fanmi Lavalas won 91.81% of the vote. This time, it took Washington four years to organize a coup. In March 2004, the Marine corps invaded Haiti, put Aristide on an airplane, and dispatched him to the Central African Republic. He later sought exile in South Africa.
The country spiraled into chaos. Despite the fact that the income per capita of this country is less then one dollar a day, the Inter-American Bank withheld its loans for Haiti following Aristide’s forced exile. The reason? Haiti needs to hold democratic elections. But this is exactly what Haiti had done! The problem was, they had not chosen the right candidate.
The story of Haiti is of unending tragedy. What used to be one of the richest colonies in the world (providing a source of a good part of France’s wealth), is today one of the poorest countries in the world, with 80% living in abject poverty. American support of Duvalier’s dictatorial regime and the military juntas who came after him, as well as the imposition of neo-liberal economic adjustments, have generated endemic instability and political violence. And yet in the American mind, “hopeless,” “backward,” “savage” Haiti is in need of more American help.
On February 7, 2006, Haitians showed the world what a real democracy looks like. People trekked for days by foot in order to reach the polls. Some slept outside the polls for days before the elections. Many others stood in long lines under the fierce sun for hours before practicing their democratic right. And when finally–after much delay and attempts to circumvent and steal the elections–the results were known that Ti Rene was chosen, they danced in joy in the streets.
So, what do “democracy” and “sovereignty” mean for Haiti and Palestine?
To put it bluntly, nothing. “Democracy is good as long as you choose who we want you to choose” is the message that both Haitians and Palestinians are getting from the world. If it is the wrong candidate, then bye-bye democracy, hello dictatorship, repression, and violence. You play by our rules, or get a hammer on the head.
Ironically, Americans can learn the meaning of democracy from Haitians and Palestinians. When was the last time that in the United States Election Day was a day of celebrating democracy? According to the latest estimates, 46% of Americans don’t even vote. And most days of the year, most Americans think that shopping is a democratic duty. The days when Tocqueville was touring this country, impressed by the rich activities of the American civil society, are long gone. Americans don’t vote, don’t know in what electoral precinct they live in, who are their representatives, and what are their democratic rights.
Haitians, despite abject poverty, the world’s neglect, and the imperial aggression of their powerful neighbor, were able to overthrow a dictatorship, vote into office a truly grassroots party of their own making, and a candidate of their own choice. Against all odds, and despite the world’s disdain toward them, they have persistently continued to believe in democracy, powerfully showcased on February 7. Palestinians, despite almost 40 years of direct foreign occupation, insist on practicing their democratic rights and go to the polls–that is, if they can actually reach them–and protest with their ballots.
THIS is what democracy looks like.
“Haiti: some areas really miss tariff,” by Jane Regan, Miami Herald, Oct. 26, 2003, online at Heritage Konpa
“Haiti: US-Sponsored Regime Change,”
by Nirit Ben-Ari and Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #96, March 2004
“Haiti: Dominican authorities probe US flights over border zone”
WW4 REPORT, April 10, 2006
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, May 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution