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?
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