Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti By Jeb Sprague (review)
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Reviewed by
Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti
By Jeb Sprague. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.

Wealthy and powerful countries have a variety of mechanisms available to them to control the fates of peoples in poor countries. These are not mutually exclusive, and most of poor countries have experienced more than one of these types of interventions. The use of propaganda, targeting populations both in the periphery and the metropole, was studied by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky1 in 1988, and since. The power of financial institutions in controlling the economies of dependent countries has been documented by many scholars, among them, for Haiti, Paul Farmer.2 US interventions specifically designed for electoral processes through State Department–sponsored organizations and others (called “democracy promotion”) have been analyzed by William Robinson3 and other scholars, including Nicholas Guilhot.4

But when all of these mechanisms fail, there still exists the option of violence—overt or covert, through proxy or direct. One devastating catalogue of violent interventions by the US around the world since World War II is provided by William Blum.5

Haiti, a Caribbean country of about nine million people, has been subject to particularly intense and malevolent attention from the US and its allies since the slave revolt in the eighteenth century that eventually won the country its independence. When it comes to “soft” intervention, Haiti has seen it all: carefully designed propaganda campaigns targeting the leaders of the popular movement; financial and economic intervention so extensive that the country's budget is now controlled by international donors and its services provided by NGOs; political parties and associations trained, supervised and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).

The target of all of these interventions was Haiti's democracy, and the popular movement, called Lavalas, that had struggled for it against decades of dictatorship, ultimately successfully. Lavalas had such deep roots, and its leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was so popular in Haiti that none of the soft power deployed by the US could have stopped the movement from advancing its program: abolishing the army, establishing popular sovereignty and moving the population from absolute misery to poverty with dignity.

Instead of conceding defeat to the popular movement, the US, working with Haitian elites, subjected Lavalas and Haiti’s popular government to a violent subversion as multifaceted as the soft interventions, and much more devastating. In the years preceding the ouster of the elected government in 2004, the Haitian police were thoroughly infiltrated by enemies of the government. A proxy force was organized on Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic to conduct an armed overthrow of the government. And after the overthrow, the country was occupied, first by US Marines and other Western troops from Canada and France, and next by a Brazilian-led United Nations force. This externally organized violence cost Haiti thousands of lives, and imposed a neocolonial arrangement on the country.

Without the violence, and specifically, without the invasions of paramilitary forces from the Dominican Republic, Haiti would today be approaching its twentieth year of unbroken democratic governance. It would have, by the time of the 2010 earthquake, had much better capacity to deal with natural disaster. Jeb Sprague’s book, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, documents the organization of the violent overthrow of Aristide, who did it, and how. Through extensive interviews conducted in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, US State Department cables from Wikileaks, and from his own Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Sprague provides new evidence about how the paramilitaries were funded, how they were organized, and how extensively the US was involved. Sprague, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, was an advocate for Haiti throughout most of the period covered by the book, and is able to contextualize the information he obtained because he was following events as they unfolded.

An example of the kind of new information found in Sprague’s book and his ability to contextualize it is the story of US intelligence agent Janice Elmore. In a 2002 cable titled “Recommended Denial in...