Global Capitalism, Haiti, and Paramilitarism

The first of three parts

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Guy Philippe (left) with his paramilitary force, the FLRN, in early 2004. In recent years, paramilitaries are adapting to appear less brutal and more “legitimate” under the new political paradigm of the transnational capitalist class (TCC).

Earlier this month, former Haitian paramilitary leader and Senator-elect Guy Philippe, 50, popped back into the news with a bizarre lawsuit against U.S. government officials for violating his civil rights when they arrested and prosecuted him last year for drug trafficking and money laundering. After making a plea bargain, Philippe is now serving a nine year sentence in a U.S. Federal prison. The suit has been dismissed but can be refiled.
          Some might think Philippe’s incarceration marked the end of the paramilitary epoch in Haiti, from François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes to Philippe’s Front for National Liberation and Reconstruction (FLRN).  However, Jeb Sprague-Sildago argues that paramilitaries are merely becoming more disguised and “flexible,” adapting to the new transnational capitalist world order.

Kim Ives

Throughout capitalism’s history, ruling classes have used varied coercive apparatuses to maintain their dominance. The paramilitary apparatus is made up of armed groups operating outside of the official police or military apparatus, but sometimes acting in coordination with them. Informal armed groups and paramilitary organizations regularly hold relationships with powerful political and economic interests.

While some researchers interpret paramilitaries as the result of “state failure,” I argue that paramilitaries are a coercive mechanism being remolded in the global era, allowing for its reproduction under the changing conditions associated with global capitalism’s rise.

In looking at Haiti in particular, we see how this process has played out within a lower-income nation located so nearby the world superpower. Haiti’s local elite and Washington have long used many means to keep a lid on the country’s marginalized population.

How has paramilitarism in Haiti been reproduced from the Cold War and into globalization? Is it true, as I argue, that paramilitarism has not disappeared, but has been altered alongside the changing strategies of elites in the globalization era? A significant feature of paramilitarism’s evolution in Haiti has been the shift from what was once a very visible, pervasive, and state-rooted coercive mechanism under the Duvalier regime, toward a more malleable and adaptable one (sometimes connected to the state apparatus, but not always) used now only during certain “crisis” periods (and then reined in afterward).

In the era of global capitalism – the last decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century – we see new and changing class relations, with the transnational capitalist class (TCC) becoming the dominant class. TCC interests are often enshrined in U.S. policies. Operating through the world’s major superpower, U.S. policymakers over recent decades have worked to facilitate conditions beneficial to the TCC, rather than nationally oriented capital.

A contingent of Tonton Macoutes (Volunteers for National Security or VSN) in Abricot in 1977. The VSN was a crude, institutionalized paramilitary force, different from the temporary, disguised paramilitaries of recent years. Credit: Gladys Mayard

Ample evidence exists of U.S. power (particularly during the Cold War) sponsoring and training paramilitaries in order to maintain influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Does the transnationalization of capital accumulation impact this dynamic of U.S. support for paramilitaries?

The new global ruling class depends on a variety of novel, recycled, and restructured means for achieving hegemony. Yet, when faced with a structural crisis or what are perceived as major threats, it must resort to good-old coercive domination. We have seen the rise of new globally oriented private military contractors (such as Black Water) that are directly linked to transnational corporations (TNCs) and powerful state apparatuses.

We also often see a revamping of more locally rooted coercive apparatuses, including the paramilitary apparatus. These groups have served as an indispensable instrument used by certain powerful interests to crush rivals and movements from below that challenge class rule and political monopoly. The elite’s death workers fill a gap when formal state forces are lacking. Many studies have shown the role of right-wing paramilitaries in enforcing the interests of national power blocs and U.S. imperialism during the Cold War and over recent years. But how have these groups been impacted by globalization?

Restructuring the paramilitary as a coercive force in the global era

The central argument of this article is that paramilitarism has not disappeared but has been altered, and this has occurred as a part of the changing strategies of elites (most importantly, transnationally oriented elites) in world capitalism’s globalization phase. The emergence of smaller temporary paramilitary groups, that can easily switch back and forth between being dormant and reactivating, has to do with the new capitalist class configuration that has formed over recent decades and its strategies for consolidating political domination. As one individual from a family of the Haitian bourgeoisie elaborated to me: many from “the families” (the small group of extremely wealthy families in Haiti) “are under a microscope, where they can’t be so open as they used to be, and some are willing to make changes.”

In order to position for increased competition, the ruling families are now either working with, or seeking, foreign partners

Key to understanding the changes that paramilitary forces have undergone in Haiti over recent decades is recognizing the state apparatus’ role and class structure over this period. Here I want to frame paramilitarism in the context of the political tensions, social conflicts, and economic restructuring that Haiti has experienced as it integrates into the global economy. The Cold War’s end coincided with a democratic opening in Haiti due to the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship (1957–1986). Haiti’s grassroots popular movements came to the fore, posing a major challenge to the old order. In the emerging globalization era, paramilitaries and their backers were compelled to new ways to carry out right-wing repressive violence.

To understand Haiti’s paramilitary groups, we have to analyze Haiti’s ruling class composition. Since its founding, Haiti has had a bipolar ruling class: (1) what were formerly the “comprador bourgeoisie” (largely mulatto during the 19th century and “lightened” even further by European and Mideast migrants in the early 20th century) historically controlled business interests in the ports and today, with many seeking out globally competitive business relations, own a large amount of buildings and real-estate, and some are involved in the country’s export processing zones, and (2) the old landed oligarchy which now seeks to work with transnational agro-interests. Known as the grandon, they tend to be more heavily made up of descendants of Afro-Caribbeans (but far from exclusively).

During the closing decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century, capital began to transnationalize around the world, becoming more and more functionally integrated across borders. Capitalists sought to break free from various national restraints, such as with the ISI (import substitution industrialization) and “New Deal” regulations that had been placed on them during the earlier international phase of world capitalism. Many local subcontractors and business groups around the world have sought to integrate their operations with transnational capital. Local dominant groups based in less economically developed countries, such as in Haiti, have undergone important transformations through capitalist globalization, yet also face drastically different conditions than their counterparts operating in more highly built environments. Haiti of course has its own particularities, such as with regard to its national formation and the history of Hispaniola’s racialized social order. Clearly though, the global era’s changing firm and ownership patterns are impacting dynamics of Haiti’s classes. In 1996, Dow Jones reported on the emergent globalization process in Haiti:

As foreign lenders push Haiti to open its economy and consolidate democratic reforms, the country’s leading business families are in a process of rapid adaptation […] [T]he families are increasing their cooperation with foreign partners and financiers. In recent interviews, top executives with two of those industrial family empires – the Mevses and the Bigios – suggested that their expansion activity is designed to hold their place at the forefront of the economy in which they are expecting accelerated growth.

Well-known local names such as Mevs, Bigio, Brandt, Madsen and Acra have run the economy since the early days of this century. They control much of Haiti’s industry and trade; its supplies of petroleum, telephones, sugar, flour, plastics, soap, cooking oil, cement, steel, iron. They also own most of the country’s warehouses. But with the Haitian economy in shambles, and the government increasing its dependence on international aid hinged to economic liberalization, competitive pressures are loosening the exclusive grip that the local business elite has on the economy. In order to position for increased competition, the families are now either working with, or seeking, foreign partners in at least two port facilities, an oil tank farm, an electricity plant, a flour mill, a sugar mill and two cement plants … One of the key areas of joint-venture activity is construction-related work. An example of a joint-venture expansion effort is Ciment Varreux, Haiti’s only cement bagging plant, which is jointly owned by the Mevs family, Robert Stryhanym, a French engineer and Cementos Mexicanos (CEMEX) of Mexico.

Concomitant with these socio-economic changes, during the later decades of the 20th  and early 21st centuries, leading state policymakers (especially from the U.S.) sought to move away from the old authoritarian orders and to instead facilitate political conditions more conducive to capitalist globalization in regions worldwide. Robinson describes the rise of “polyarchy”, a tightly managed electoral system where citizens are confined to choosing between competing elites. Elite-oriented “demonstration elections” intended to usher in a more legitimating political environment could also create a more conducive climate for TCC hegemony. Circumstances under which sectors of the country’s local ruling class can smoothly integrate into the emerging global ruling class.

New neoliberal policies were enacted, seeking to bring the state under the logic of the global market. Neoliberalism, as David Harvey observes, is a mechanism for the reconsolidation of economic power in the hands of leading sectors of the bourgeoisie (through policies such as the privatization of state enterprises, the dropping of tariffs, the cutting of social programs, and new repressive security measures). With the rolling back of the state’s responsibilities and such a large part of the population existing as marginalized surplus, the donor/NGO complex in Haiti has been a key plank for stabilizing the country and providing a bare amount of aid for people living in desperate conditions. This gets at the structural limitations and contradictions of global capitalism in Haiti.

To solidify what has become an ultra-neoliberal project, especially in the post-September 11th period, many measures have been utilized. We can see this especially in how Haiti’s democratic interregnum (1994–2004), compromised in many ways (though carrying out important policies that extended rights to the poor, challenged impunity of local far-right forces, and engaged with popular grassroots movements), was ultimately crushed through economic and political destabilization, a paramilitary contra campaign, and the direct intervention of the U.S. Bush regime.

Leading local dominant groups and their allies have since sought to solidify their power through the polyarchic political model (sidelining and brutalizing popular grassroots forces). They believe that to develop they must insert their national states and institutions into global circuits of accumulation. State leaders need access to capital, and capital is in the hands of transnational business people and powerful supranational institutions tied into the global economy. These politicians though must still appeal to their home audiences, through constant declaration of patriotism and other theatrics. In this contradictory situation, transnationally-oriented state managers have pursued a host of strategies to maintain power.

For their own social reproduction, paramilitaries have had to become more flexible, more business minded and adaptable: involved, for example, in private security training and the narco-trade, yet maintaining their old right-wing networks, though often under a new guise. As can be seen in other countries, such as in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia, attempts have been made to revamp and sanitize paramilitary and brutal military actors in recent decades.

Importantly, under capitalist globalization, top elites have sought flexible and less embarrassing mechanisms to maintain the global order. These elites (especially those heavily invested in global accumulation) have sought to downplay and transition away from the rough and openly displayed “iron fist” of the past. Yet, at the same time, dominant groups still require coercive mechanisms. Coercive apparatuses thus are being restructured to appear more legitimate and limber, even in lower-income nation-states such as Haiti. Instead of a U.S. occupation there now exists a UN occupation; instead of an openly Duvalierist military, OAS and Haitian officials claim to be building a sanitized army; instead of tens of thousands of paramilitaries (with stations in every community), leaner covert paramilitaries and para-police launch urban night raids targeting dissidents.

U.S. policymakers and the transnationally oriented bourgeoisie use the most sophisticated forms of soft power

Major policymakers and investors view Haiti, in particular, as an emergency situation for which the solution is to deepen the country’s integration into the global economy. The particularities of Haiti’s extreme socio-economic divide and the pro-active mobilization of its popular movements has made it difficult for a smooth transition to a polyarchic system.

The “old order” in Haiti has a long history of undertaking violence to repress the country’s “surplus” population, whose social reproduction is not required by capital. Many locally based elites have faced difficulties in congealing in a secure manner around a project of the new globalist historic bloc, under which they must shift many of their previous strategies and priorities. It has thus been through the facilitation or intervention of the U.S. and other powers, the UN and international organisations that “order’ has been installed and patrolled.

In bringing about these political transitions, U.S. policymakers and the transnationally oriented bourgeoisie use the most sophisticated forms of soft power, as exemplified by the coups in Honduras, Paraguay and, more recently, Brazil. They can rely on “international peace-keepers” (such as MINUSTAH and MINUJUSTH), organizations such as NED (National Endowment for Democracy), the corporate media and covert, complex financial and political sabotage campaigns. In Haiti, they are well experienced at twisting the arms of reticent politicians, but they prefer to work with local transnationally-oriented elite representatives like Edmond Paultre, Leopold Berlanger, or Laurent Lamothe. Such an approach has included reining in, transforming, and rebranding the coercive apparatuses used by past authoritarian regimes.

To be continued

(Part 2) (Part 3)

(This article was adapted from Sprague-Silgado’s longer, foot-noted article earlier this year in the British scholarly journal, Third World Quarterly.)

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