Hot Spots in the Caribbean
Guyana Chronicle
December 21, 2002

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Within recent times increasingly the Caribbean landscape is reflecting growing degrees of political instability. First there was Suriname, then Jamaica and Guyana, and now Haiti and Venezuela. While the underlying concerns are ethnic or class oriented there are some very interesting but comparative features between the last two mentioned cases.

In Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide came to power on the wings of the Lavalas Family Party in December 1990 when, against all the odds, he secured 67 per cent of the votes cast in the Presidential election in which Marc Brazin, a former World Bank official was highly favoured. Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, articulating a brand of liberation theology, had constructed a strong political constituency among the poor whom he promised Peace of Mind and Bread in the Belly.

In pursuit of his election campaign agenda, Aristide attempted to raise the minimum wage, dismantle the repressive rural-section chief system, institute an island-wide literacy campaign, eliminate street corner drug sales, eradicate official graft and dummy payrolls, reduce the public payroll by 20 percent, curb police crimes and in general revamp Haitiís human rights profile. For his reformist programmes he became even more popular among the poor but, not surprisingly, he concurrently incurred the vengeful anger of the powerful elitist and military classes. After a seven-month tenure, on 30 September 1991, he was ousted by a military junta and was forced to seek political asylum in the United States. Spontaneous pro democracy protests at home and influential support abroad saw a mainly US military task force restore Aristide to power in October 1994.

The constitution debarred Aristide from a second term of office and so at the end of his truncated first term he was succeeded by Rene Praval. Pravalís tenure was perceived by many as a caretaker arrangement to facilitate the return of Aristide but even so it was not without its travails. Prime Minister, Rosny Smarth, was required to impose a packet of austerity measures but when he encountered the vehemence of the political opposition, he demitted office in June 1997. Almost immediately thereafter, Praval created a constitutional deadlock and very little else was accomplished in the remaining years.

Aristideís Lavalas Family Party nevertheless secured another impressive victory and resumed the Presidency in November 2000 in an election that was boycotted by the opposition groups. Political relations had been soured by the conduct of parliamentary and local elections in May and June 2000. No one doubted the fact that the Lavalas Party would win or indeed that it had won the elections but generally the conduct of the count gave cause for disaffection and subsequent political protests and the eventual boycott of the Presidential elections. Since then everything seems to have gone downhill.

Within recent times the opposition to Aristide has acquired influential adherents, including students and his administration seems incapable of dealing with the current wave of disaffection. International allies and regional friends have called for a moratorium on civil strife and have encouraged Aristide to deal with the electoral issue as a precondition for the restoration of peace and good governance. The situation in Haiti remains on the boil.

Across the way, in Venezuela, an almost similar drama is being enacted against a totally different personality. Army General, Hugo Chavez, assumed office as a constitutionally elected President and like Arisitde, he is a social reformer who enjoys overwhelming support among the poor. His political platform includes the redistribution of oil revenues to fund progressive social programmes with health, education and housing at the top of his list of priorities. True to his convictions, since 1998, public spending on these three sectors has tripled.

The problem with Venezuela is a fear among the managerial elites who see Chavez as a socialist crusader bent on ending their special privileges. They stage-managed a coup in April which saw Chavez confined to barracks while plans were hatched to exile him to Cuba. Contrary to international expectations, he was spectacularly returned to power when the rural poor and urban dispossessed joined forces with loyal sections of the military to rout his political opponents. Since Chavezí return progressive reforms have continued and in 1999 a new Venezuelan Constitution was approved. But this has been countered by an unflinching refusal to privatise the oil industry, the hope of the managerial elites and the expectation of the United States.

The opponents of Chavez are not to be deterred. Protests and violence have characterized the post return period and there is now fear of a sinking spiral of violence. On 7 December three persons were killed and several wounded when gunmen opened fire on an anti-Chavez protest rally. Rumors of another coup abound and the political crisis deepens. Thousands daily march the streets of Caracas demanding either the resignation of Chavez, or a referendum to test his popularity. A strike called recently has all but paralyzed the oil industry, sent the population into panic and threaten a run on the banking system. Throughout all of this Chavez has maintained his calm as well as his firm hold on power and his support among the poor is stronger than ever before. But his opponents are extremely influential and committed.

Two of the regions most charismatic leaders, enjoying very strong support among the underclass and bent on social reforms are faced with the implacable opposition of the privileged class and all the while region looks on helplessly. They were both temporarily deposed by their opponents, have returned and once again face the daunting spectre of renewed attempts to depose them. Yesterday Guyana, today Venezuela and Haiti, whose turn will it be tomorrow? The signs are that, with the passing of the bi-polar power structure and the emergence of new democracies, the world has become less stable and the mechanisms for ensuring peace, stability and human progress have become correspondingly less able.

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