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Haiti deserves respect, not another invasion

For decades, Canada has hidden the brute force of its actions in Haiti behind the language of benevolent interventionism

Canadian PoliticsLatin America and the Caribbean

US Marines patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, March 9, 2004. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

There is something astonishingly shameless about the way the global community treats Haiti.

Its former colonizer, France, made sure to stunt Haiti’s development on the way out in the form of a crushing indemnity it refuses to repay, while modern powers like the US and Canada have helped coordinate an invasion force every time the Haitian people don’t quietly accept the external imposition of poverty and underdevelopment.

In each case, the foreign powers arrive, shoot, imprison, privatize, and after they leave (if they ever do leave) congratulate themselves on their generosity and respect for human rights.

Joe Biden famously said that “If Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean, or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interests.” While this statement exposes the absolute callousness that North American elites constantly evince for Haiti, it is also misleading. Haiti does matter to the US government as an outpost of regional power.

There are material, geopolitical reasons why the US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, provided military and intelligence support to the Duvalier dynasty that ruled from 1959 to 1986, invaded in 1994, backed a military coup in 2004, and helped implement the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that occupied the nation from 2004 to 2017.

In every example, the US has supported an element of the Haitian elite in order to keep the country as a whole underdeveloped, anti-left, and aligned with regional US policy.

Canada began to take a more active interest in Haiti in the late twentieth century. During this period, Canadian peacekeeping missions became increasingly militarized, but the rhetoric of Pearsonian liberal internationalism never changed. In most of these interventions, the decisionmakers at the UN were “marginalized or quietly complicit.” As Ian McKay and Jamie Swift write in Warrior Nation: “Over the 1990s, peacekeeping was transformed into something more closely resembling imperial policing. The enterprise entailed not respect for sovereignty but often—in the name of the ‘responsibility to protect’—its systemic abrogation.”

For decades, Canada has hidden the brute force of its actions in Haiti behind the language of benevolent Pearsonianism, a supposed commitment to helping all sides cooperate for the greater good. But Lester B. Pearson was not a disinterested actor—he was a raging anti-communist and ardent colonialist⁠—and Canadian interest in Haiti has never been a disinterested enterprise either.

During the 2004 coup against Haiti’s elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a social democrat whose overthrow was (as the New York Times recently admitted) inspired by his desire to have France repay its 1825 indemnity, Canada threw its weight behind anti-Aristide forces in the country. In one particularly shameful instance, Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 team participated in the kidnapping of Aristide when they secured the Toussaint Louverture International Airport from which the elected president was flown out of the country against his will.

Aristide’s left-leaning policies were not radical by any means, but they were violently opposed by the Haitian elite and their backers in the US and Canada. Additionally, Canadian companies had a vested interest in Aristide’s removal.

At the time of the 2004 coup, the largest Canadian investor in Haiti was the sweatshop clothing manufacturer Gildan Activewear. Gildan had contacts with the Haitian elite through its connections to André Apaid, a prominent businessman and fierce opponent of Aristide. As Tyler Shipley explains, “In addition to its own exploitative factories, Gildan also subcontracted in Haiti to a company owned by Andy Apaid… Apaid led a business council that opposed Aristide, had financially supported the first coup against him and forced his workers to attend anti-Aristide protests.”

Canadian mining companies waited in the wings for Aristide’s ouster. Companies including KWG Resources, Ste-Genevieve Resources, and Eurasian Minerals gained profitable concessions after Ottawa supported the overthrow of the elected leader.

Following the coup against Aristide, Canada sent more than 500 soldiers to Haiti to support the country’s newly appointed President Gérard Latortue, a right-wing economist who had been living in Florida for the previous twenty years. Neoliberal policies amplified. As Shipley explains:

The measures taken to intensify neoliberal capitalism in Haiti included: privatization of electricity, water, telecommunications and port facilities; reductions to minimum wage and to subsidies for poor farmers; a three-year tax holiday for big business; and the dismantling of many existing social programs, including the very successful literacy programs Aristide had fostered.

In addition to the dispatching of Canadian troops, over 100 RCMP officers travelled to Haiti after the coup to train the Haitian National Police (HNP) in “operational planning and implementation,” including “crowd control and intelligence gathering.” The HNP killed thousands of pro-democracy protestors in the months following the coup. The police force also received tens of millions of dollars in direct funding from Ottawa over the next few years.

Canada played a leading role in MINUSTAH, the scandal-ridden UN force whose military component was led by Lula da Silva’s Brazil. The UN forces committed numerous massacres of civilians, including an incident in the Cité Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince where as many as 60 people were murdered in or near their homes. At the same time, the forces built a military base in Haiti that one Canadian sergeant major described as “a really nice hotel.”

After the 2010 earthquake that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, Canada and the US took the lead in distributing reconstruction aid, most of which was placed directly in the pockets of North American corporations, NGOs, and Haitian elites. These groups siphoned off billions in aid money in the name of operational costs.

Simultaneously, Canadian officials expressed concern at the success of Venezuelan and Cuban development initiatives in Haiti. For instance, when Venezuela and Cuba agreed to fund a US$20 million initiative to improve Haiti’s health and energy sectors, the Canadian embassy noted that it would have “highly visible results” and, in the words of Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “strengthen Venezuelan and Cuban credibility in the impoverished nation where Canadian aid has focused more heavily on the highly problematic security sector.”

Following the earthquake, Canada organized the first “Friends of Haiti” conference in Montréal. Neither Cuba nor Venezuela were invited, despite the success of their initiatives and their popularity within Haiti. As Gordon outlines:

Cuban doctors were the first on the scene and the last to leave (and received little mainstream media attention in Canada), while Venezuela wrote off the considerable debt Haiti owed it. Unlike Cuba and Venezuela, however, the reconstruction vision promoted by Haiti’s ‘Friends,” including Canada, the U.S., World Bank and IMF, is a strict neoliberal one.

In the midst of their own domestic problems, Cuba and Venezuela have not taken as prominent a role in Haiti over the past several years, while crises within Haiti have continued to compound. In response to the most recent social upsurge against unelected president Ariel Henry, Canada has sent additional military aid to the state, while Canadian media has condemned all participating in the uprising as “armed gangs,” thus regurgitating Ottawa’s framing of the issue (as always).

Haiti doesn’t need any more intervention from Canada, the US, or other members of the neocolonial “Core Group.” In every instance, these powers have done nothing but strip away the most basic social services in the country while empowering the repressive state forces that target social resistance to poverty and underdevelopment. What Haiti needs is respect for its sovereignty and the demands of its people—something it has never received from Ottawa and its allies.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at


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