A Shameful Rewriting of History

A Shameful Rewriting of History: Open Letter to Alternatives Inc.
by Haiti Action Montreal
(n.d., unpublished)

Judging by Director General Michel Lambert’s June 26, 2008 open letter to Pierre Dubuc (Revisite ou rêveries?), the Montreal-based media NGO Alternatives finally seems ready to face up to the reality that on February 29, 2004, Haiti’s elected government was overthrown in a coup d’État supported by Canada, the U.S. and France. Unfortunately, this encouraging development is overshadowed by Lambert’s rewriting of history in an attempt to portray his organization as an opponent of the coup and a supporter of Haiti’s popular movements. Having followed Alternatives’ shameful stance on Haiti for years, we cannot allow the numerous misleading, incoherent and dishonest statements made by Lambert to conceal the record of his organization to pass without comment.

Throughout the brutal campaign to impose neoliberalism on Haiti, Alternatives played a small but important role in sowing confusion within the Quebec left about the imperial machinations of the Canadian government, the nature of the coup d’État and the two years of state terror that followed. By putting a “progressive” spin on the demonization of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas movement, while presenting a handful of anti-Lavalas NGOs as a “popular movement” fighting a “dictatorship”, Alternatives was indeed acting a prop to Canadian foreign policy in Haiti.

For nearly two decades, the enduring popularity of Lavalas – demonstrated time and again in elections, street protests, and opinion polls – has been the main obstacle to the neoliberal agenda in Haiti. The dilemma for the imperial powers throughout has been Aristide’s ability to mobilize the Lavalas movement around a political program, which “poses a serious threat to U.S. interests in privatization and economic reform in Haiti,” (1997 U.S. Congressional report) - an intolerable breach of economic orthodoxy. “To the distress of the Group of Friends [Canada, U.S., France]” writes David Malone of Foreign Affairs Canada, “Aristide remains the most potent political force in Haiti.”

As Pierre Dubuc explained in his review of Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood, Canada, the U.S. and France spent millions to “organize not only a right opposition, but also a left opposition” via government aid agencies such as USAID and CIDA, in order to counter the Lavalas movement. Alternatives was an accomplice to these efforts by accepting CIDA funding to work exclusively with anti-Lavalas groups, such as PAPDA, Alterpresse, and the MPP.

In the process, Alternatives adopted the perspective of their partners in Haiti, becoming blind to “the massive gap between elite (wealthy, French-speaking, internationally oriented) NGO professionals and grassroots (poor, Kreyol-speaking, neighborhood-oriented) activists.” (Peter Hallward) Less blinkered observers, however, could see clearly that anti-neoliberal NGOs such as PAPDA “do not represent the poor people of Haiti, based on their record and the evidence of their growing lack of connection to the base.” (Tom Reeves)

Despite their evident disconnect with Haiti’s popular classes, working with elite NGOs in the name of “popular empowerment” was no contradiction for Alternatives, since “NGOs are the best placed authorities to favour the expression of the populations.” (Supporting civil society in the Caribbean) Indeed, according to Alternatives, Haiti’s poor masses are too stupid to express themselves democratically without the tutelage of CIDA-funded NGOs:

In a country like Haiti, in which democratic culture has never taken hold, the concept of the common good and the meaning of elections and representation are limited to the educated elites, and in particular to those who have received citizen education within the social movements. (Haiti: Voices of the Actors)

Alternatives’ partners among the “educated elites” had no qualms about supporting a coup d’État against an elected government, making their progressive rhetoric ring hollow:

The ease with which Haiti's leftist elite and its foreign supporters joined sweatshop owners, Duvalierists and the Bush administration in a crusade to overthrow Aristide says more about the fluidity of their own political commitments than about Haiti's government. The real cleavage in Haiti has always been not left-right but up-down. When push came to shove, class allegiance trumped any professed commitment to social equality or democracy. (Brian Concannon)

Alternatives continually gave the political consensus of Haiti’s “educated elites” a veneer of left credibility by presenting it as a popular consensus. “Everybody knows that Aristide was bad,” Paul Farmer explains. “Everybody, that is, except the Haitian poor – 85 per cent of the population.”

In their monthly newspaper the Journal d’Alternatives, at public events and in meetings with other NGOs, Alternatives portrayed the coterie of Haitian groups and CIDA-funded NGOs opposing Aristide as a “popular movement” representing “a large part of civil society” against the “tyrannical” Lavalas regime. Writing just days after the coup in the pages of Le Devoir, then-Director of Alternatives Pierre Beaudet declared: “The majority of Haitians and those who have worked with them are celebrating the end of a decadent regime.” (Questions sur la tragédie haïtienne) Incredibly, Lambert has the temerity to refer to this article as evidence that Alternatives “denounced” the coup!

The flipside of Alternatives’ presentation of elite NGOs as standing for the will of “a majority of the Haitian people” was the relentless vilification of the popular classes, whose enduring support for a tyrant such as Aristide clearly demonstrated their lack of “democratic culture”. The multitude of grassroots groups that continued to support Aristide after his overthrow were reduced to a handful of “Lavalas gangs”. The thousands of poor Haitians, who time and again braved police repression to express their opposition to the coup, were denigrated as “armed partisans of Aristide” - though, curiously, Reuters and the Associated Press consistently failed to notice the possession of arms among the demonstrators. Strongholds of Lavalas support in the slums were described as “pockets of destabilization” and activists such as Samba Boukman and Ronald St. Jean were labeled “notorious criminals”.

The demonization of Haiti’s grassroots was necessary to justify the massive repression being visited upon them, as Port-au-Prince's poor understood quite clearly. “By saying we are 'gang members' or 'chimères,' the press are trying to discredit our demands for justice,” a Bel-Air resident explained to the San Francisco Bay View. “Who cares about giving justice to those criminal gang members who just sell drugs and misbehave?”

Alternatives blacked out the two years of state terror that followed the coup. Not one mention of the massacres, summary executions, and mass arrests of Gerard Latortue’s government (2004-2006), constituting “a wave of Falluja-like collective punishment inflicted on neighborhoods known for supporting Aristide” (Naomi Klein), was ever made in the Journal d’Alternatives. The only criticism made by Alternatives of the interim government installed by the Canada-backed coup - an exceedingly corrupt and repressive administration that reordered Haiti's economy along neoliberal lines - was that it was “ineffective”! (Haiti: Where should the left stand?) (Alternatives’ assessment was no doubt influenced by the fact that Yves Wainwright, a leading member of PAPDA, and Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the MPP, accepted positions in the interim government.)

Public events organized by Alternatives during the two-year coup period on the “Haitian crisis” never discussed the well-documented “pattern of persecution” against Lavalas supporters (Amnesty International); when confronted about the omission, panelists preferred to denounce questioners as “Aristide lobbyists”, who had been “intoxicated by propaganda” rather than address the matter.

Worst of all, Alternatives absolved the Canadian government of any responsibility for its destructive role in Haiti. Canada’s participation in the economic strangulation, political destabilization, and paramilitary harassment of a democratically-elected government was passed over in silence. Our government’s key role in organizing the post-coup repression was a non-issue, despite the many ways Canada was involved: CIDA employees staffed the Interim Ministry of Justice that jailed hundreds of political opponents, RCMP officers oversaw the militarization of Haiti’s police force, Canadian diplomats pushed the UN to carry out more attacks on the slums, etc. In the alternate universe created by Alternatives, Canada is guilty of no more than “remaining passive” during Haiti’s “slow and dramatic collapse.” (Questions sur la tragédie haïtienne)

Alternatives and their Haitian partners not only sowed confusion about Canadian imperialism in Haiti within the Quebec left, but within the international left as well. Alternatives helped to bring PAPDA and other CIDA-funded NGOs to several World Social Forums and on international speaking tours, where they performed their left apologetics for the coup.

Alternatives’ credibility on the left was also put to work countering the incipient opposition to Brazil’s leadership of the UN occupation of Haiti. In March 2005, Alternatives, “with the support of the Canadian government”, established a “trialogue” in Brazil between “the governments and organization of civil society of Brazil, Haiti and Canada” on how best to support the “transition”. Assisting Alternatives in this task were “several ministers of the interim government of Haiti.” (Alternatives en Haiti)

If, as Lambert asserts, it is now “common knowledge” that Haiti’s elected government was overthrown in a coup d’État backed by Canada, this has come about despite the best efforts of Alternatives. If the people of Quebec now understand better the “imperial machinations” that led to the coup, this has come about despite the obfuscations and distortions created by NGOs like Alternatives as they profited from these machinations. People are not mere “puppets” in the hands of their governments, as Lambert points out, though organizations like Alternatives that get 80% of their budget from CIDA effectively are.

We are engaged in an immense battle. Neoliberalism, which manifests itself as a militaristic and imperialist project, is not ready to give up one inch of terrain. It is a strategy without compromise, that evidently wishes to criminalize the social movement. (Rapport annuel 2001)

We couldn’t agree more with these words from Pierre Beaudet, though in the case of Haiti, it is clear we are not on same side of the battle as Alternatives.


Haiti Action Montreal


Revisite ou rêveries? Michel Lambert, June 26, 2008.

Supporting civil society in the Caribbean, Alternatives, January 27, 2004.

Haiti: Voices of the Actors, Pierre Bonin and Amélie Gauthier, Alternatives International and FRIDE, January 2008.

Questions sur la tragédie haïtienne, Pierre Beaudet, Le Devoir, March 2, 2004.

Haiti: Where should the left stand? Pierre Beaudet, Rabble.ca, October 6, 2005.

Alternatives en Haiti, François L’Écuyer, February 6, 2006.

Rapport annuel 2001, Alternatives, February 15, 2002.