Lessons from Haiti: Another View on the Nicaraguan Crisis
Since April 18, the solidarity movement has been struggling over how to interpret events in Nicaragua and where to push in terms of advocacy and/or speaking out. As with many people following the situation, I have watched and listened to friends take a harsh line towards one another and with me about articles I have written. While the division in the solidarity movement is not in and of itself new, the tensions have boiled over. The gulf between people over how the situation is understood and should be represented is enormous. There are even calls from some to support U.S. sanctions against the government of Nicaragua, and to expand U.S. pressure on Ortega and the FSLN to step down. My sense is that we must resist this push for U.S. intervention; the potential consequences are dire.
For myself, the ghost hovering over my understanding of what is going in Nicaragua, and more to the point, my fear for the future, is not Venezuela or Syria, but Haiti in 2004. At the time, the solidarity community was deeply divided over Aristide’s rule. His effort to craft an institutionalized party (Fanmi Lavalas) from the Lavalas movement had created divisions within that movement; his embrace of some neo-liberal policy reforms, accusations of corruption, and accusations of political violence employed against opponents resulted in many on the left moving into an oppositional position against Aristide. As with Nicaragua today, much of this division was in response to division within Haiti. Groups like Batay Ouvriye and the Plateforme Haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), all with deep ties to solidarity groups in the U.S., began denouncing Aristide and even calling for his resignation. This sounds all too familiar.
In late 2003 and early 2004, armed groups began moving from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, burning police stations and public facilities. As these groups approached Port-au-Prince, the business community was organized into the “Democratic Convergence” with other sectors of civil society, and stepped up their long-time opposition and expanded protests. On February 29, 2004 Aristide was forced to leave Haiti. Escorted to an airfield by U.S. special forces, he was put on a plane to the Central African Republic. His claim that he was forced out of office at the point of a gun, was dismissed out of hand. There was no investigation. Many on the left accepted this de facto coup. Convinced of Aristide’s failings, they accepted at face value the claim that he resigned freely. What might come next seemed to worry them not at all.
There was no constitutional transfer of power. With the parliament inactive, the United States, Canada and France essentially handed off leadership to a transitional authority under Gerard Latortue, who had worked previously with the United Nations, and was working as a business consultant and talk radio host in Boca Raton, Florida, when appointed as Prime Minister. The U.S. military was dispatched to “stabilize” the situation, eventually handing over occupation to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the fall of 2004. Though officially ended last year, a smaller “follow-up” mission continues to be a presence in Haiti 14 years later.
Between Aristide’s removal from power and Preval’s re-election in February of 2006, thousands of people died. The international “community” which had denied access to funding to President Preval during his first term, and later Aristide, opened the the aid floodgates for Latortue. Billions of dollars flowed into the country, which, to this day, are largely unaccounted for. Concessions were granted to corporations for large swathes of Haiti’s resources. It was corruption on scale that dwarfed anything Aristide had been accused of (much less proven), all coupled with political violence on a scale that rivaled (and, by some measures, surpassed) the coup regime of 1991-1994.
The solidarity community in the United States with ties to Haiti was deeply divided – a division that, whatever else was on the table, constantly came back to the question of Aristide’s rule and his future. It is hard to know what might have been achieved otherwise, but ultimately there was no effective voice to push back against the United States’ propping up of Latortue amidst widespread violence and intensified neo-liberalization. People allied in the anti-Aristide camp, would point to violence by armed groups nominally aligned with Lavalas to justify and ignore the broader destruction taking place.
Since April 18 of this year, I have had a strong feeling of deja vu. Obviously there are enormous differences between Haiti and Nicaragua. The FSLN is deeply entrenched in the economic, social and political life of Nicaragua, in a way that Fanmi Lavalas was never able to achieve in Haiti. Nicaragua’s democratic institutions are more deeply embedded, and even if one accepts the worst about Ortega’s machinations, there is a baseline of stability in Nicaragua that Haiti, under constant intervention from the United States, has not been able to achieve.
On the one hand, this means that Nicaragua is able to resist intervention to a greater degree. This is evident whether one accepts the “coup has been defeated” narrative, or the “government remains intransigent” narrative, as both interpretations speak to the resilience of the state in the face of external pressure.
On the other hand, if Ortega is ultimately forced from power, what comes next could be accompanied by even greater bloodshed, given the embeddedness of the FSLN. I am convinced that there is no way Ortega’s resignation, or even early elections, will satisfy the United States and those in the opposition who have aligned with U.S. policy-makers in the long-term. Why? Because the FSLN will remain the largest, most stable party in Nicaragua even without Ortega. Indeed, even if Ortega were to resign, unless the constitution is simply thrown out the window, a Sandinista will replace him, as his replacement would be left to the National Assembly to choose. If early elections are held, the FSLN will very likely win a large portion of seats in the assembly, if not a majority – and possibly the presidency – depending on who runs. None of this will be acceptable to the United States and allied forces in Nicaragua.
What happened in Haiti is also instructive about the future of the FSLN under U.S.-brokered regime change. In the wake of Aristide’s “resignation,” the United States transformed the political arena, defended the pillaging of the economy, and practically destroyed Fanmi Lavalas (ironically by trying to take it over in an absurd effort to clear the way for Marc Bazan – a long-time opponent of Lavalas – to run as the Fanmi Lavalas candidate in 2006). Preval’s return to power at the head of the Lespwa coalition in 2006, despite all of the U.S.’s efforts, would mark the last “free” election in Haiti. In 2010, amidst the aftershocks of the earthquake, the vote was simply discarded. The U.S.-supported candidate, Martelly, was put into a runoff in place of the Lespwa candidate who had actually received more votes in the first round. With this decision made under unrelenting pressure and threats of sanctions from the U.S. government, Martelly would go on to win, amidst widespread abstention. Lavalas was excluded entirely from the election.
For those of us in the solidarity community, I suggest we take seriously the hard-earned lessons of the Haitian example in 2004. Calling for accountability regarding the violence in Nicaragua, both from state forces and armed groups aligned with the opposition, is important; but I would emphasize that this accountability should come through domestic channels or the multilateral forums that Nicaragua participates in. This week, the government has invited the United Nations, the Vatican and members of the European Human Rights community to help mediate a new, expanded round of national dialogue. This has the potential for achieving an accounting of what has transpired, and creating a path toward resolution and reconciliation.
Continuing to call for Ortega’s removal from power, and inviting further intervention from the United States in the form of sanctions that would only further destabilize and polarize the situation in Nicaragua, seems like a really bad idea. Marco Rubio, who has led the right-wing charge against the FSLN in the Senate, has even spoken of the possibility of war in Nicaragua, and has tried to recast the crisis as a national security issue for the United States. Rubio and his partners in Congress make strange allies for those on the left, and they are certainly not the allies of the majority of people in Nicaragua. Those with such a policy orientation have no track record of bringing democracy to any part of the world. Nor, clearly, is that their intention.
As the violence on the ground in Nicaragua has subsided dramatically over the last two weeks, there is space for a conversation about long-term political solutions. We should welcome and support this opening. But inviting alliances with those on the political right in the United States, which has long sought to dismantle the Sandinista government, is about the worst thing that could be done for Nicaragua.