Not the Usual Suspects:

Making and Breaking Illusions in Haiti

By Nik Barry-Shaw, researcher and activist with Haiti Action Montréal.
"Exposing the Big Lie of “Operation Baghdad", "A Fabrication by the Group of 184", "Two Human Rights Investigations" and "Alternatives, to the Truth // Alternatives, to Democracy.")


By late September 2004, Haiti’s interim government headed by Florida businessman Gerard Latortue was in dire straits.

The five-month-old administration was faced with a growing resistance movement in the quartiers populaires and accusations of corruption and ineptitude were coming from all quarters. Diplomatic problems began cropping up as well. In a radio interview on September 16, 2004, "Latortue complained that human rights criticism was making his relations with donor countries difficult."1

The announcement of "Operation Baghdad" by the interim government—an alleged campaign of crime and beheadings launched on September 30, 2004, by deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s partisans—should therefore have invited a substantial amount of skepticism. Latortue was desperate to recover some domestic legitimacy and his international backers needed a pretext to continue supporting the government’s pacification of the slums.

The allegations, moreover, seemed perfectly calibrated to the prevailing media environment. The decapitation of Nick Berg by his captors in May 2004 had caused a media shock wave, and on September 20-21, 2004, two more American contractors were beheaded in Iraq, with the fate of a British colleague still hanging in the balance as of September 30.2 What better way for the regime to discredit its opponents than to accuse them of the same tactics as Al Qaida in Iraq?

In the case of "Operation Baghdad," the Canadian media observed I.F.Stone’s advice in the breach, as is typical of journalistic coverage of Canada’s interventions abroad.

Skepticism was in short supply. The Canadian media observed I.F.Stone’s advice in the breach, as is typical of journalistic coverage of Canada’s interventions abroad. Those providing the purchased credulity for Canada’s Haitian puppets, however, were not the usual chorus of militarists extolling the virtues of the Karzai regime and the military’s mission in Afghanistan to the mainstream press.3

On October 22, 2004, as government attacks on the slums were reaching a fever pitch, the Concertation pour Haiti (CPH) issued a news release

"denouncing the climate of terror ravaging Haiti, particularly since September 30, when the chimères, the armed partisans of former President Aristide, launched Operation Baghdad."4

Just a few days earlier, the Quebec-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Alternatives had produced a nearly identical analysis of the situation in Haiti. As Tania Vachon wrote in the Journal d’Alternatives, a monthly insert in the newspaper Le Devoir,

"A vast operation of terror has been set in motion in Port-au-Prince principally in the popular neighbourhoods of Bel-Air and Cite Soleil. It is militants of [Aristide’s] Fanmi Lavalas who are behind this campaign dubbed ‘Operation Baghdad’ because of the extreme acts of violence that are perpetrated: public beheadings, sexual assaults, attacks on street vendors, etc."5

In both cases, Stone’s maxim that "Government’s lie," was forgotten. Neither article considered the possibility that the coup regime and its foreign backers were trying to manipulate public opinion. The accusation that Lavalas had launched "Operation Baghdad" was uncritically repeated, while no mention was made of Lavalas statements to the contrary.

Alternatives and the CPH both lamented the lack of action by UN forces and Haiti’s police in the face of this wave of supposed Lavalas violence. The CPH even went so far as to complain that police operations in the poor neighbourhoods "regularly fail to produce results." Neither group mentioned such well-documented "results" as the brutal killings and arbitrary arrests produced by ongoing UN/police incursions into pro-Lavalas slums.

CPH’s communiqué ended with a call for reinforcement and increased funding of the police and UN troops.

These views were not idiosyncratic. The CPH issued its statement on behalf of a coalition of development NGOs, unions and civil society groups, and Alternatives generally occupies the left wing of the NGO world.6 Despite having opposed the 1991 coup d’état against Aristide, the CPH, Alternatives and the vast majority of Canadian NGOs working in Haiti now regarded much of the violence after the 2004 coup as the result of a shadowy conspiracy by Aristide supporters—with the puppet master pulling the strings from exile in South Africa. The "Operation Baghdad" smear is common currency amongst NGOs and continues to be used against Lavalas activists. In a later report, Alternatives referred to it simply as "one of the most serious massacres since 2004."7

The tumultuous class dynamics of Haiti over the past two decade were deeply linked to the ideological volte-face of the NGOs. Born of a cross-class alliance against the Duvalier dictatorship, the Lavalas movement began to fracture along class lines with the advent of democracy—a process accelerated by foreign funding. In the struggle that emerged between Haiti’s elite and the popular classes, the shift in aid financing by Canadian, U.S. and the EU countries—from Haiti’s elected government to so-called "civil society" helped tip the scales in the elite’s favour.8

Parts of Haiti’s middle class were

"slowly co-opted by the steady trickle of project dollars flowing through the almost interminable list of NGOs infesting every corner of Haiti."9

Development funding offered a rare chance for upward mobility, and led to greater control of Haitian NGOs by their internationally-connected leaders. Increasingly, positions were

"not derived from a vote of a dwindling membership, but rather reflect[ed] the sentiments of a small handful of paid leaders."10

These educated, French-speaking leaders now regarded their former ally Aristide as "worse than Cedras or Duvalier" and "aligned with the elite political movement" pushing for his overthrow.11 They dismissed government supporters as nothing but small groups of "thugs" and "chimères." [See "Epithets without Borders" and "What does Chimère Really Mean?."] Aristide was pronounced a traitor and the popular movement dead.

Interestingly, the international architects of policy towards Haiti weren’t beholden to such illusions about Aristide’s unpopularity. Speaking with journalist Anthony Fenton, Fabiola Cordova, National Endowment for Democracy program officer responsible for Haiti, remarked that

"one of the main problems in Haiti has been a very weak opposition... Aristide really had 70% of the popular support and then the 120 other parties had the 30% split in one hundred and twenty different ways."12

Following the coup d’état of 2004, Haitian NGOs hailed the new "democratic opening" as many of their leaders obtained posts in the interim government. Rallying behind the interim authorities’ repression of Lavalas supporters, these groups took up the "Operation Baghdad" label as another ideological stick with which to beat their opponents.13 Canadian NGOs absorb-ed the prejudices of their middle-class "partners" in Haiti, including unquestioning acceptance of the coup regime’s "Operation Baghdad" fiction.

In reviewing Canada’s "difficult partnership" with Haiti, CIDA concluded that "supporting civil society initiatives and Canadian NGO partners produced relatively good qualitative results." "Substantial support to non-governmental actors strengthened their ability to mobilize constituents" while "eroding legitimacy, capacity and will of the state to deliver key services" by creating of "parallel systems of service delivery."14 Canadian NGOs, in other words, played an integral part in bolstering elite-led opposition while undermining Haiti’s elected government.

CIDA’s candid description of Canadian NGOs’ role in the imperial destabilization of Haiti, clashes dramatically with their self-image. These organizations firmly believe that their CIDA-funded project partners in Haiti actually "represent" civil society and are the "true" bearers of the popular movement, etc. The implicit assumption is that CIDA is in the business of funding progressive, empowering social change. Yet with the ascendancy of "all-of-government engagement" and counterinsurgency warfare concepts in Canadian foreign policy thinking, such faith in a benevolent, empowering CIDA becomes increasingly untenable.15 Indeed, the subordination of aid to larger foreign policy goals—goals absolutely hostile to popular empowerment—is an area where "Canada has made significant headway" in Haiti, as CIDA’s report noted.16

The observation that, whatever delusions to the contrary, the empowerment of the poor may not be the ultimate aim of foreign aid is not particularly original. As James Ferguson observed in his 1994 book The Anti-Politics Machine:

"In spite of the very common involvement of ‘development’ with counter-insurgency throughout the post-war period, a surprising number of Western progressives have been drawn to ‘development’ work by way of political commitments to and solidarity with Third World causes."

While Ferguson allowed that "under certain circumstances" development work may fulfil such commitments, "it is all too easy to enter into complicity with a state bureaucracy" working on behalf of "the very social forces...that must be challenged if the impoverished and oppressed majority are to improve their lot."17

The case of "Operation Baghdad" illustrates just how real this danger is.


1. Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, "Illegal Arrest of Political Leaders," October 8, 2004.

2. Steve Fainaru and Karl Vick, "British Hostage Beheaded in Iraq," Washington Post, A23, October 9, 2004.

3. Anthony Fenton, "PropAfghanda: The Battle for Canadian Hearts and Minds," Briarpatch Magazine, June/July 2007.

4. "Haïti: de l’insécurité à la terreur," Alterpresse, October 22, 2004.

5. Tania Vachon, "Les victimes politiques de Jeanne," Journal d’Alternatives, Oct. 19, 2004.

6. CPH members include Development and Peace, Entraide Missionaire, Centre international de Solidarite ouvriere, Centre Canadien de Coopération Inter-nationale, the FTQ and CSQ union federations and Amnesty International - Quebec. Co-signers of later CPH statements included Solidarité Union Coop-ération, Rights & Democracy (a government agency) and AQOCI (the association of Quebec aid agencies).

7. Pierre Bonin and Amelie Gauthier, "Haiti: Voices of the actors," Alternatives and FRIDE, p.13, fn63.

8. CIDA, "Canadian Cooperation With Haiti: Reflecting on a Decade of ‘Difficult Partnership’," December 2004, p.8.

9. Stan Goff, "A Brief Account of Haiti," Black Radical Congress News, October 22, 1999.

10. Anne Sosin in Tom Reeves, "Haiti’s Disappeared," ZNet, May 5, 2004.

11. Reeves, "Haiti’s Disappeared."

12. Anthony Fenton, "Declassified Documents: National Endowment for Democracy FY2005," Narcosphere, February 15, 2006.

Little has changed since the election of Rene Preval in 2006, according to David Malone, then-Assistant Deputy Minister (Global Issues) at Foreign Affairs Canada: "To the distress of the Group of Friends [i.e. Canada, the U.S. and France], Aristide remains the most potent political force within Haiti." Sebastian von Einsiedel and David M. Malone, "Peace & Democracy for Haiti: A UN Mission Impossible?" International Relations, Vol 20(2): pp.153-174.

13. E.g. "Depuis le 30 sept. 2004, le peuple haïtien en général, les populations de Port-au-Prince en particulier, vit sous la coupe réglée des bandes armées exécu-tant les ordres de J.B.Aristide. Ces bandits ont enclenché une opération bap-tisée ‘Opération Bagdad’ dont la finalité ouvertement déclarée est le retour physique de Aristide au pouvoir." "Pétition citoyenne pour réclamer la mise en accusation de Aristide et de ses partisans en Haïti," Alterpresse, July 22, 2005. Signed by PAPDA, GARR, EnfoFanm & SOFA (CIDA-funded Haitian NGOs with numerous ties to Canadian NGOs).

14. CIDA, Op. cit. p.12.

15. Ibid, p.18.

16. Ibid.

17. James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine, 1994, pp.283-284.

The above article is from Press for Conversion! magazine, Issue #63 (November 2008)
Lies without Borders:
How CIDA-funded 'NGOs' waged a propaganda war to justify Haiti’s 2004 coup"

Previous issues of this Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade publication include:
#62 "Putting the Aid in Aiding and Abetting:
CIDA's Agents of Regime Change in Haiti's 2004 Coup"

#61 "CIDA's Key Role in Haiti's 2004 Coup d’état:
Funding Regime Change, Dictatorship and Human Rights Atrocities, one Haitian 'NGO' at a Time"

#60 "A Very Canadian Coup d’état in Haiti:
The Top 10 Ways that Canada’s Government helped the 2004 Coup and its Reign of Terror"

Subscribe, order a hard copy or back issues