Much like the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ in the famed Sherlock Holmes’ story, the conspicuous media silence surrounding Haiti’s political past points straight to the heart of the mystery of Haiti’s shocking poverty.
For there is little doubt that the purely man-made catastrophe that lends Haiti the dubious distinction of holding title as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has contributed mightily to the tragic loss of life in its recent natural catastrophe.
Unlocking, then, the rich, if tragic, chest of Haiti’s past is a necessary prerequisite if we have any pretensions to helping Haiti in the future.
Haiti In Context
Ever since its discovery by Columbus in 1492 the country has been steeped in blood and misery. Indeed, it was Columbus and his immediate successors who entirely wiped out the indigenous inhabitants (the Arawaks) through disease, overwork and sheer murder. In 1697 the western part of the island was ceded to France, whence Haiti emerged as the crown jewel of the European colonies, contributing fully one third of France’s foreign trade. Paradoxically, Haiti was, in those days, a virtual mint, a land of milk and honey. The African slaves, however, that had been brought in to work the plantations had a rather different view of the matter and mounted a rebellion in 1791. After defeating several waves of both British and French armies, Haiti finally declared independence in 1804. This was to be a victory that, by altering the bounds of the possible, would resonate through the Caribbean and the American south for decades to come.
But for Haiti it would be merely the beginning of another long nightmare. In 1825, for instance, a French fleet arrived demanding, with true imperial gall, that Haiti pay France $21 million dollars (the equivalent, today, of over $20 billion dollars) for the loss of the colony. Backed-up by the United States, France further required that Haiti borrow the monies to pay for their own extortion from French banks at usurious interest rates. Haiti was thus compelled to abandon any projects that improved the welfare of its own citizens in favour of servicing a monstrous debt forced upon them by their former slave masters. The debt was only finally paid off in 1947! France, as we’ll soon see, didn’t stop there.
In the meantime, however, the baton of Haiti’s colonial oppression had passed irrevocably into the hands of the United States. Thus, following the assassination by Haitian guerrilla forces of a US-backed dictator in 1915, US forces occupied the island and a four year resistance movement began, ending only in 1919 when its leader, Charlemagne Peralte, was captured, crucified, and his body left to rot in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
The US Marines finally left in 1934, but not before having killed 15,000 Haitians and having sown the seeds of the future Tontons Macoutes, Haiti’s infamous para-militaries and secret police. These deep traditions found themselves amplified in the modern era when in 1957 Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvallier came to power. He and his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby-Doc’ Duvallier presided in continuity for almost 30 years over a regime of terror and oppression in which tens of thousands of Haitian citizens were murdered by the Tontons Macoutes. Further light was shed on this period when, in the late 1990’s, documentary evidence surfaced unequivocally showing that most of Haiti’s top leaders were gainfully employed throughout this entire epoch by the American CIA.
Jean-Claude was finally ousted in a 1985 coup followed close-on by a series of brief and incompetent military regimes. Then in 1990 Haiti’s rulers decided to stage the country’s first ever democratic elections; elections in which the liberation theologist, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, garnered 67.5% of the popular vote.
Aristide, however, barely had time to re-arrange the pencils on the presidential desk before he too was sent packing in Sept. 1991 by a coup headed by General Raoul Cedras and largely engineered by the CIA-created paramilitary group, FRAPH. The resulting wave of oppression and murder (an estimated 4,000 - 5,000 civilians were killed) sent waves of Haitian immigrants crashing upon the shores of Florida.
To stem this tide of refugees Washington decided, after having coerced Aristide into first agreeing to a set of neo-liberal economic ‘reforms’, to restore him to power in 1995. Aristide also agreed to give up the three years he lost to the coup and stepped down from office that same year. Still, in 2000 his party, Lavalas, swept to power in national elections and he himself ran for president winning over 90% of the vote.
Now, while Aristide continued to tow the neo-liberal line he, nonetheless, continued to give speeches denouncing imperialism. He also disbanded the hated Haitian military and even demanded that France pay back the monies it had forced Haiti to pay for its own independence in 1804.
Fed up with this sort of rhetoric the US, in cahoots with France and Canada, orchestrated a classic destabilization campaign. Using the pretext of ‘irregularities’ in the 2000 election (which all international observers had judged free and fair) these three launched an aid embargo against Haiti hoping to force Aristide into some sort of deal with the US-backed Haitian opposition.
When this failed, however, the stage was quickly set for a coup. A force of former Haitian military types were supplied and trained by the CIA in neighboring Dominican Republic. Armed with American M-16s they finally swept through Haiti in early February, 2004, and on Feb. 29 the US sent marines into Port-au-Prince where they presented Aristide with an ultimatum: Leave with them immediately or they would, ‘not be able to guarantee his safety’.
Canada did its bit too. Our elite commando force, Joint Task Force 2, helped secure the airstrip from which US Marines bundled Aristide out the country.
Whisked away to the Central African Republic and thence to exile in South Africa, Aristide would later claim he was unequivocally kidnapped at gunpoint.
The follow-up was predictable. With a new, puppet government installed the prior economic embargo was lifted and the aid money allowed to flow again. All of the ‘neo-liberal’ strings were attached to the latter of course. These included a mass wave of privatizations and deregulations of the public sector including the firing of thousands of public employees. In addition, agricultural tariffs were struck down and subsidized American rice allowed in, the ineluctable consequence of which was to drive hundreds of thousands of rural Haitians off their farms and into the slums of Port-au-Prince. The complete absence of government housing and public infrastructure programs forced these new slum dwellers to erect their homes on precariously situated hillsides; domiciles which were later to prove so vulnerable during the recent earthquake.
Most of the leaders of Fanmi Lavalas, the political party supporting Aristide, were banned from participation in subsequent ‘elections’. In addition, the UN ‘stabilizing mission’ in Haiti, MINUSTAH, actively sought to back the new / old Haitian oligarchy against the 85% of the Haitian poor who supported Lavalas. From Feb. 2004 on, thousands of Lavalas supporters were murdered by the new government, and this with more or less open support by MINUSTAH (effectively, a mere proxy of US strategic interests). These lawless, partisan actions were confirmed in two independent studies. Neither minced words. One from Harvard Law School baldly stated that, “MINUSTAH has effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in the Port-au-Prince slums.” The other, a report by the University of Miami Law School concluded that, “The police, backed by UN forces, routinely carry out indiscriminate…killing operations. The undisciplined army is back protecting the rich and attacking the poor.”
So much for our ‘restoring democracy’ in Haiti.
Aid or Invasion?
Watching the mass media shed its crocodile tears over the recent natural catastrophe in Haiti, one is reminded of similar instances of fake tears shed for the likes of the poor peoples of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, or for the Asian populations devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. For in both those latter cases the ultimate result of all the ‘aid’ was the same, i.e. the disasters were used largely as cynical opportunities for (as Naomi Klein describes so trenchantly in ‘The Shock Doctrine’), “land and law” grabs by the ruling elites of the respective countries affected.
Moreover, just as collective political disasters had been and were being deliberately engineered by the ‘disaster capitalist’ complex to impose extremist ‘free market reforms’ on targeted nations, so too were the Katrina and Tsunami natural disasters then manipulated for precisely the same ends, i.e. as opportunities to engage in massive transfers of wealth from poor to rich.
And just as in those cases where the media deliberately turned their eyes from these subsequent, if ideologically inconvenient, events, so too are we seeing similar manipulations beginning to play out in Haiti during the present crisis. Already the Pentagon has used the opportunity of the earthquake to turn Haiti into yet another armed outpost of the Empire. Thus, more than 14,000 troops have now been deployed along with masses of heavy weaponry. Many aid flights have been turned back by the American military so as to accommodate the influx of thousands of soldiers, this whilst hundreds of thousands of Haitians go without food, water, medical supplies or shelter.
Reflecting this prioritization of military over humanitarian efforts, Canada’s ‘Heavy Urban and Search Rescue Teams’ were asked by the Pentagon to stand down in favour of sending Canadian troops. But as former Haitian Defense Minister, Patrice Elie (under the deposed Aristide government), remarked, “We don’t need soldiers…There’s no war here…The priorities of the flights should be determined by the Haitians, otherwise it’s a takeover.”
The ‘takeover’ is, of course, driven by Washington’s increased efforts to re-assert its dominance in the hemisphere. The recent US-backed coup in Honduras, the redeployment of the US Fourth Fleet to the Caribbean, and the agreement reached with the government of Colombia to set up over half a dozen new US military bases in that country are in keeping with America’s aim to bring an unruly Latin America back into the imperial fold.
In addition to the militarization of Haiti, the other ‘usual suspects’ are flocking into the crisis arena, ready and willing to advantage of yet another ‘disaster’ opportunity. US security firms that have made a killing (literally) in Iraq and Afghanistan have already set up recruitment websites targeting Haiti. The US Department of Homeland Security is similarly on the prowl.
It is also worthy of note that, so far, the US rescue efforts have been concentrated almost entirely on the elite hotels and UN compounds. Meanwhile, most of the real aid work is being done by Cuban doctors (hundreds of whom were, in any case, already on the ground before the quake delivering free medical service to the Haitian poor), and Venezuelan, Icelandic and Chinese aid workers who managed to enter Port-au-Prince before the America seizure of the airport. Naturally, few if any of these foreign aid missions have been given their due in the North American press.
And not only has the gratuitous militarization of the rescue mission squeezed out the more immediate emergency needs of the Haitian population, but Washington has further prioritized its own ‘security’ needs by erecting a naval blockade around Haiti to prevent any escape from the island. In fact, to justify the militarization of the rescue operations, the US press has circulated lurid reports of ‘looting’ and ‘chaos’ amongst the Haitian population. But these are completely contradicted by all the independent accounts (and even by statements from such as former US President Bill Clinton) which are at pains to assert that, in fact, there has been remarkably little in the way of collective anarchy or chaos. In truth, the Haitian people, hardened by decades, nay centuries, of externally imposed immiseration, have demonstrated, to the contrary, an astonishing bravery and communitarian response to the crisis. All they are asking for is a little real help, not the faux media dichotomy that paints them as either helpless victims on the one hand or as anarchic looters on the other.
Indeed, what Haiti really needs now is, first, not just immediate ‘aid’, but long term reparations. It needs massive material remediation – without strings attached – both for centuries of Western colonial enslavement and exploitation, and for the very recent decimation of its economy by a ‘Washington Consensus’ economic recipe that has left – as it has done for much of the rest of the ‘underdeveloped’ world - such a brutal legacy of unmitigated theft and impoverishment.
None of this, of course, is to gainsay the sentiments and efforts of ordinary people around the world who have given of their hearts and wallets to support their Haitian brothers and sisters. But the cold truth of the matter is that without a proper appreciation of the historical and political context of Haiti, our best efforts will do no more than provide a temporary, if largely self-serving, band aid to what is an open historical wound; a wound that is very much of our – or, at least, our rulers’ – making. The chronic political plight of Haiti, then, demands more than material aid. It demands freedom.