The Devastation of Haiti

By Richard Pithouse · 20 Jan 2010

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Picture: Lucas The Experience
Picture: Lucas The Experience

The devastation of Haiti is not a simple matter of bad luck. Earthquakes, like storms and epidemics, hit the poor with vastly more force than the rich. Much of the press coverage of the catastrophe in Haiti has wilfully disregarded the history of how Haiti was made poor and kept poor by, above all, the same American elites that are now dispensing charity, soldiers and advice. Racism has often been close to the surface or even grinning hideously far above it.

In London Sky News reported that the most urgent need was for ‘security’ to prevent ‘looting’. It’s worth recalling that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans white people taking food from supermarkets were described as what they were -- people searching for food for their families. At the same time black people doing the same were presented as dangerous looters amidst hysterical calls to send in soldiers.

Sunday’s Washington Post, declared, with a lofty patrician distance from the intense discussions within Haitian politics, and without any recognition that the US government simply does not allow the Haitian people to determine their own future that “Policymakers in Washington and around the world are grappling with how a destitute, corrupt and now devastated country might be transformed into a self-sustaining nation.” Nothing was said about how almost a century of American dominance over Haiti has continuously supported corrupt and violent Haitian elites against their own people. Nothing was said about how American corporations like Disney wrench super-profits from the enforced destitution that has turned the country into a giant sweatshop.

In Johannesburg the coverage in the Sunday Independent was just as grotesque. More than 15 years after the defeat of apartheid, a newspaper that publishes articles on subjects as refined as the meditations of a poet on walking or the views of a hip British artist on the meaning of Warhol in the age of Photoshop, opened its pages to the most lurid racism and rabid support for American imperialism.

The newspaper syndicated an article from the Daily Mail in London titled The Island of the damned. It condemned the ‘successive dictators’ in Haiti as culturally perverse while saying nothing at all about their backing from Washington or the American strategy of supporting dictators like Botha in South Africa, Marcos in the Philippines and the Duvaliers in Haiti as a bulwark against communism. British rescue workers and US soldiers appear as a dutiful force for good while Haitians appear, in an orgy of racism, as looters, cannibals and participants in Voodoo rituals involving stolen corpses.

The Sunday Independent also ran a piece by Fiona Forde, who, not for the first time, recycled the spin of the Bush administration on Haiti without critique or counter-point. She quotes the opinions of Gerard Latortue on the liberation theologian and former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as if Latortue is in a position to provide neutral and credible comment on Aristide. In fact Latortue’s family were key financial backers of the violent US backed coup against Aristide, and he, a neo-liberal economist who has been described as having the “chief virtue” of “irreproachable loyalty to Haiti’s main imperial patron” (the USA), was made Prime Minister after the coup with the full approval of George Bush. He has admitted that after the coup pro-Aristide marches were fired on and he has been accused of ordering “massive and repeated” attacks on pro-Aristide neighbourhoods in the shack settlements of Port-au-Prince as well as the incorporation of former death squads into the police and the detention of large numbers of political prisoners.

The newspaper’s editorial is just as propagandistic as Forde’s piece. It declares that Aristide was ousted from office due to ‘fierce opposition’ but says nothing at all about the nature of that opposition. The fact is that Aristide was democratically elected and ousted by a violent US backed coup supported by local elites. Aristide has his critics along with many passionate supporters but that hardly means that George Bush, rather than the Haitian people, should have determined his fate.

The Sunday Independent did also run a much more decent piece by Patrick Cockburn that pointed to how, as in New Orleans after Katrina, the first ‘help’ to arrive in Haiti has been armed troops. Cockburn also noted the domination of Haiti by the US since 1915 and that Bill Clinton had kept Aristide on a tight leash, while George Bush systematically undermined him. But neither racism nor support for violent and entirely anti-democratic forms of neo-colonialism are ‘balanced’ by the inclusion of a lone moderately critical voice.

In 2006 Aristide was interviewed, in Pretoria. In that article, available online in the London Review of Books he observed that:

Everything comes back, in the end, to the simple principle that tout moun se moun – every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves. Those who don’t accept this, when they look at the nègres of Haiti – and consciously or unconsciously, that’s what they see – they see people who are too poor, too crude, too uneducated, to think for themselves. They see people who need others to make their decisions for them. It’s a colonial mentality, in fact, and still very widespread among our political class. It’s also a projection: they project onto the people a sense of their own inadequacy, their own inequality in the eyes of the master.

The London Review of Books gave Aristide a platform to make his case and has published a number of carefully researched articles that take apart the self-serving spin that the Bush administration put on the coup that they backed against Aristide. But its a sobering fact that here in South Africa our most literary newspaper prefers to recycle English racism and the views of a Haitian point man for American imperialism. 

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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20 Jan


Excellent take.

It's odd that Richard praises the LRB, the journal who's African writing is so hysterical, especially its South African writing by R W Johnson.

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21 Jan

Agreed on the LRB on Africa....

But this article specifically commends the LRB for its coverage on Haiti which has been good. Perhaps SACSIS will run a critique on their really atrocious coverage of South Africa in the future? It really is quite stupendous that, in this day and age, that they take R.W. Johnson of all people as their voice on South Africa.

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