Understanding America’s foreign policy by knowing more about Haiti

Posted on January 29th, 2010 in Culture,Economy,Politics by Robert Miller

As one writer said recently “Earthquakes are created by movement of tectonic plates, but the death toll they extract is determined by poverty.” I searched the BBC’s collection of videos from Haiti, taken from many places in the country immediately after the earthquake hit; it was hard to see a building that was still standing. In his testimony in Congress today, Paul Farmer indicated that 80% of the city of Port-au-Prince has been destroyed. The cinder block structure of many of those buildings would have withstood the earthquake with damage, rather than complete collapse, if the construction methods included steel rods interconnecting the blocks. But Haiti is too poor a country to support that kind of construction, or so we are told.  If new buildings now needed are not constructed with tougher quake standards, future tragedy awaits the region because the entire Caribbean area is a hotbed of seismic activity. The fault line that destroyed Port-au-Prince had not generated a major earthquake for 240 years, but 100 miles to the north is another similar fault that has not generated an earthquake for 800 years and should that one go, which certainly will happen sometime, it will likely be considerably larger than the recent one in Haiti, but this time centered in the Dominican Republic.  But whose fault is it that houses were not better built in Haiti and that poverty in the country  is so widespread? Short-term thinkers would have you believe that there is something intrinsically inferior with the Haitian people, who seem to preferentially travel along the road to abject poverty as if on automatic pilot.  Perhaps there is a gene for impoverishment and it has taken root within the Haitian people. But a little bit of study provides an alternative explanation, one in which American policies have been intertwined in ways that should be repulsive to American citizens.

A shortcut for understanding American foreign policy is to understand our long relationship and intertwined history with Haiti. If you do nothing more than understand that single relationship, you will understand the dominant theme of American foreign policy. To achieve objective knowledge of our history with Haiti, you must, not surprisingly,  expunge the information you generally get through the mainstream media because that’s the short-term view: history through the eyes of a Polaroid camera. For starters, you might begin by reading Mark Danner’s op-ed piece in the New York Times this past week “To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature.” As Mark explains, in the early part of the nineteenth century, there were two countries in the Western hemisphere that had been liberated from colonization. One was America of course and the other was Haiti. But before Haiti freed itself in a manner reminiscent of our own revolution, but far more gutsy, it was under grueling French rule as a slave colony growing sugar cane. At that time it was known as Santo Domingo and it was one of the richest colonies on the planet. Indeed, much of French wealth of that era was floated on the profits from sugar derived from the slave labor. Slaves  were worked so hard under the French, that many died without having children, so slaves were continuously brought in from Africa. Under legendary revolutionary  leadership, the African slaves launched a revolt in 1791 and defeated Napoleonic France, murdering their French masters or driving them from the land and repelling several attempted invasions. As Danner aptly put it, “when Dessalines [Haitian revolutionary slave hero] created the Haitian flag by tearing the white middle from the French tricolor, he achieved what even Spartacus could not: he had led to triumph the only successful slave revolt in history.”

So given the similarities of history, and the zeal for revolution inspired by the Haitian revolt, you might have expected that the new America would enthusiastically recognize the new state of Haiti, as a brother in the brave new world of unshackeling the  roots of colonialism. But, while that kind of alliance might seem natural to the ordinary citizens of America, at least today, we went in just the opposite direction in forming a bond with our fellow revolutionaries in Haiti. The new American government feared that knowledge of a slave revolt in Santo Domingo would embolden American slaves towards insurrection in America. Because of that, the United States refused to recognize Haiti for nearly 60 years, until Abraham Lincoln did so in 1862, after freeing the American slaves.  Not only did America refuse to recognize the new free state of Haiti, but we hit the new country with an onerous trade embargo and supported a claim made by the French that Haiti should pay reparations to France for their lost income from slave labor. These suffocating extortion-extracted payments from Haiti  started in 1825, in exchange for recognition from the French; they did not stop until after WW II. Democratically elected Haitian President Aristide, who demanded repayment from France when he was elected President, did the math: he calculated that with sensible interest rates, France owes Haiti about $ 21 billion in illegally obtained reparations. While France has scoffed at the idea of repayments, legal scholars consider that Haiti has a strong legal case to make in international courts, as the reparations paid by Haiti amounted to extortion. The French basically said to Haiti–pay us or we will invade your country and subjugate your people again.

Once the French were out of Haiti, the Americans took over. In 1915, the United States Marines invaded Haiti to enforce continued payment of debt to France. Americans occupied Haiti until 1934, after which we installed dictatorships, notably that of Francois Duvalier in 1957, who established a repressive, murderous regime which was handed to his son, Jean-Claude who was overthrown in 1986. The struggle to generate a democracy in Haiti has been continuously thwarted by American efforts at manipulating loans,  loan conditions and trade policies that have served to paralyze the country and stunt its development. What we want from Haiti is a continued impoverished state so that American businesses like Walt Disney, will have access to a nearby source of cheap labor. What we don’t want to see in Haiti is an example of former slaves becoming our equals, living in a thriving, independent, populist democracy. Indeed we don’t want that in any Western hemisphere country and we only tolerate it in Canada because we lost the war of 1812.   About 40% of Haiti’s current heavy debt (about $1.134 billion in 2004) is owed to international financial communities, largely overseen by the United States: it was acquired during the brutal  Duvalier dictatorships. Very little of that money actually went to the government, but served instead to enrich the coiffures of the ruling elite. More recently, through arrangements insisted upon by our government,  international loans don’t go directly to the elected government of Haiti, but are given first to non-government agencies (NGOs). Paul Farmer, a physician who has spent 25 years serving in Haiti,  has testified that less than 1% of the money given to NGOs in Haiti actually reaches the Haitian government and its people. This of course is explicable on the basis of Naomi Klein’s arguments about the “shock doctrine” and we have seen similar behavior in the recovery from Katrina in New Orleans, where NGOs absorbed much of the reconstruction money with very little accountability. Privatization of government functions is part of the mechanism of disaster capitalism. The costs go up, corporations get rich and the target of concern gets next to nothing. And, let’s be clear about one thing: when you begin a policy like that, you cannot reverse it. Like the bowling ball you released that heads down the lane, once launched, it cannot be recalled. Our entire government is like that–it’s on automatic pilot. This is nothing more than Folly Compounding which I have addressed at length in other articles.

A good book on the subject of Haiti is Getting Haiti Right This Time by Noam Chomsky, Paul Farmer and Amy Goodman. This short book is centered around the Bush II administration’s removal of Democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with initial background material by Noam Chomsky and Paul Farmer on the history of Haiti and the more recent manipulations of the country by our foreign policy apparatus, including our international loan policies that can truly suffocate a country. The rest of the book is primarily based on Amy Goodman’s interviews on Democracy Now, during the upheaval in Haiti that led to Aristide’s forced removal to the Central African Republic in 2004.  This is a short read, but gives a lot of insight into how American foreign policy has nothing to do with whether a country is democratic or not because, in the case of Haiti, as it is throughout South America, we have done everything we can to destroy populist democracy, including, in the case of Haiti, the kidnapping of Aristide and his removal as president by GW Bush. Our CIA has trained and had on its payroll many of the terrorists that have worked to destabilize democracy in Haiti. Declassified records have established that the CIA and other government agencies helped to create, fund and train a paramilitary group known as FRAPH, which rose to prominence in 1991, after a military coup ousted Aristide for the first time (Clinton helped to restore Aristide to his presidency in 1994, but seemed unaware that elements in his own government had generated his removal and would attempt to do so again). The FRAPH group killed thousands of Haitians during the revolt in 1991 and helped to unravel Aristide’s presidency again in 2004.

The tragedy of Haiti and its deep impoverishment is an American achievement, designed to cripple a democracy so that American business interests can continue to enjoy a cheap source of labor. Haiti was made in America!  The ruling elites in Haiti own the press, so that little objective news ever reaches the general population. Polls that reveal the popularity of Aristide are never published in the major local news media. Haiti has had a rich history that we should admire and support: there is genius in what they did and what they are trying to do now. They threw off a brutal form of slavery, lived through and threw out dictators and have tried to establish a populist, democratically elected government. The Obama administration could change the course of history by bringing Aristide back, supporting him financially and, under his leadership, help the country recover, while at the same time, building a strong democratic state. It should seem to all of us that we and the French owe that much to Haiti. Ironically, while we are unlikely to ever build a democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan, Haiti would welcome and thrive with a populist democratic government that provided the basics of education, healthcare and all the things we no longer provide for many Americans here at home. Come to think of it, by reconstructing Haiti, we could learn how to reconstruct America! Both countries need to press the “restart button.” Haiti’s problem is that the island nation is in the wrong hemisphere. Do we just have to tear up the Monroe Doctrine?

RFM

  • Leave a comment... Comments Off on Understanding America’s foreign policy by knowing more about Haiti

Howard Zinn has died

Posted on January 29th, 2010 in Biography,History by Robert Miller
Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn passed away yesterday at age 87. He was a progressive historian who wrote many books but is best known for “A People’s History of the United States,” which tells the story of how the indigenous people were treated by the early European explorers and the Americans, including the exploitations and wars right up to the modern era. If you read that book, you cannot help but think we are doing a great injustice to our own humanity by celebrating “Columbus Day.” Columbus was a murderous slave trader with no redeeming characteristics, whose drive for gold obscured any capacity to see the beauty of the people and the newly discovered land he found himself in (but he never saw North America). For most progressives, this book serves as a kind of rite of passage and, for those of you yearning for more progressive literature, there is no better starting place than Howard Zinn’s book. But he also wrote many other books.

Howard  directly experienced war as a bombardier in a WW II bomber in the European theater. His conscience was ignited when his group was asked to bomb a French city that was rumored to still have Germans in it after most had already retreated from France. This experience forced him to confront a moral dilemma of whether one could justify indiscriminate bombing of a civilian area, particularly when the enemy in that region was probably ready to surrender. What was the purpose of that bombing? Eventually, through the GI bill,  Zinn obtained his Ph.D. in history and began his life as a college professor. His teaching of this alternative view of history, namely the history of what happened to the indigenous people as a result of European expansionism into the new world, has you wondering what kind of people were these early explorers? And what were the moral principles used by the Americans who committed genocide against the American Indians? But, he also explores the moral ground of Vietnam and the panoply of militarism we find ourselves in today.  Zinn’s book was recently adapted for a History Channel TV presentation “The People Speak,” with readings taken from his book that testify to the power of individuals when they are confronted with an oppressive government. His message is strong: Americans need to take back their government, stop the wars and killing and address the world as a friend, without searching under the rocks for enemies. Hopefully more young Americans will be exposed to Howard Zinn’s work and begin to question the false, politically motivated version of history that all of us received in our public school education. Actor Matt Damon grew up next to Howard Zinn in Boston and read his book on “The Peoples History”  as he was writing it. Damon was one of the producers who adapted parts of Zinn’s book for the History television program.

Howard Zinn was an activists activist. In 1967 he published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. When Daniel Ellsberg was fleeing with the Pentagon Papers and needed a place to hide out, he went to Howard Zinn who took him in and shielded him until the papers could get published and put into the congressional record. Both men should have been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for that one.

Zinn’s entire life as a professor was dedicated to speaking out against war and supporting civil rights and doing so by applying a moral metric to the dilemma. He always framed the issues that way. When Bush decided to invade Iraq, Zinn was opposed and said,

  • “If Bush starts a war, he will be responsible for the lives lost, the children crippled, the terrorizing of millions of ordinary people, the American GIs not returning to their families. And all of us will be responsible for bringing that to a halt.
  • Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back.”

Howard Zinn wrote extensively for The Progressive. Several eulogies of Howard Zinn are posted  there by Elizabeth DiNovella and Matthew Rothschild. But, perhaps the best tribute is Amy Goodman’s interviews on Democracy Now with Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker and Anthony Arnove.

If you are frustrated by the lack of progress on liberal issues, Howard Zinn had a special message for you:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Howard Zinn is one of the great irreplaceable giants in our progressive movement. But thankfully, his words will live on and hopefully his book will become the alternative Bible for addressing the moral dilemma of how we as a nation treat people. With his help, Americans might finally begin to learn their own history.  Howard Zinn’s website is here, where additional information on his life and books can be obtained. There are two Netflix documentaries on/by Howard Zinn in 2006 and 2004.

RFM

Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year

Posted on January 26th, 2010 in Culture,Evolution,Science by Robert Miller

Ardipithecus ramidus_2Meet our long extinct cousin–Ardipithecus ramidus or “Ardi,” a female who happens to be the newest and oldest member of the human ancestor tree.  In the December 18 2009 issue of Science Magazine, the editors named the discovery of Ardi, whose fossilized remains date back 4.4 million years, as the scientific breakthrough of the year. This must have been a challenge for the editors of Science, as the papers first describing the investigative work on Ardi were all published in Science Magazine in 2009 in the form of 11 papers, with 47 researchers from nine different countries, collaborating to not only analyze the fossil bones of Ardi, but further characterize an additional 150,000 fossil specimens from the same dig site, located in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia. The results represent 15 years of labor-intensive investigations and extensive collaborations. While many of the insights and conclusions derived from this study have been challenged by other researchers,  no one has challenged the age, significance or authenticity of the finding. Until Ardi was discovered in 1994, our oldest hominin fossil was the famous Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), discovered in 1974. Lucy was 3.2 million years in age, so the discovery of Ardi was a major step backward in time. And, Ardi is more transitional and primitive than Lucy.

Hominin is meant to describe all humans and human ancestors exclusive of those related to modern apes. You can learn about the various distinctions among humans and other primates here. The single requirement legitimizing membership in the hominin club is that of walking erect, as we do. Many clues point to an erect posture for Ardi, including skull changes, hand differences and pelvis structure. Ardi’s pelvis was not well preserved, so some doubt about this not so subtle feature, makes the story incomplete, or at least less certain. You can watch a video discussion among the scientists who described the original findings here. One distinctive feature of Ardi is the structure of the foot, which had an opposable toe, suggesting that she was at home swinging from tree branches grasped with her feet or hands. Thus Ardi, only slightly larger than a chimpanzee, was in transition between a pure tree dweller and a non-tree dwelling, erect-walking hominid. Ardi had a brain only slightly larger than that of  a chimpanzee, a fact that researchers take to mean our ancestors learned to walk upright before our brains acquired their large, modern size. Extensive analysis of the fossil record from the dig site suggests that Ardi hung out in an ancient floodplain, covered in woodlands, as she climbed among hackberry, fig and palm trees and lived among monkeys, kudu antelopes and peafowl. Do you see any similarity between Ardi and the features of known, living hominids of today? I think I have a direct descendant as one of my neighbors.

Next Page »