Haiti: A Tragedy Founded Upon a Catastrophe Built Upon a Crime

By Glenn Ashton · 21 Jan 2010

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Picture: Global Vision
Picture: Global Vision

The latest catastrophe to hit Haiti has motivated massive responses from a shocked global population. It is hard to believe that an entire nation can be rendered so utterly helpless that they are functionally unable to assist themselves in any meaningful way. But the earthquake of January 13, 2010 is just the latest in a series of body blows to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

By all accounts Haiti should be a shining beacon of hope, of democracy and an example of the virtues of 'liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la morte’, which shaped the concepts of the French Revolution. Those concepts in turn inspired the revolution that cast out the slave owners and seized their ill-gotten gains, establishing the first black governed nation in the western hemisphere more than two centuries ago.

The irony was that this revolutionary inspiration was somewhat lost on 19th Century France, who demanded recompense to the extent of 90% of the GDP for their lost colony, with immediate effect. The racist mindset of those days was unable to countenance the very concept of people of colour governing themselves. Even a revolutionary regime such as France, much less its indirect progeny the United States, could not readily accept this truth.

Purchasing their freedom was just the first of many crippling hardships to befall a young Haiti. Were Haiti located on the other side of the world, it would not have been such a stone in the shoe of its adjacent colonial and neo-colonial masters. But being on their doorstep rendered it painfully visible.

While Haitians had won their freedom, they were rendered virtual slaves by both circumstance and race, a yoke that binds them yet.

The USA, was no better than the French as a colonial overlord. President Monroe established a doctrine of refusing to permit any further European colonial or other interference in its sphere of influence. Although the US did not immediately become involved in the affairs of Haiti, the precepts of the Monroe doctrine set the stage for its future engagement with this black-ruled state.

We should also bear in mind the inherent racism of the ruling classes, formalised until at least the 1960s, and enduring even today. Under these racist constructs, a state governed by black people could never be readily accommodated into the political hegemony of the day, despite the victory of the Union over the Confederacy in the US Civil War and the consequent abolition of slavery in the US.

By the turn of the twentieth century the US became seriously embroiled in the political machinations of Haiti. The country was invaded and occupied by US forces for the first half of the century and it effectively became a colonial outpost of the US. It is notable that it never received the same status as other Caribbean outposts like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but was effectively consigned to the lowest tier of developmental status, a vassal state, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

From this background arose the horror years of oppression by the US supported Duvalier dynasty of Papa Doc and Baby Doc, his son. Under the Duvaliers, Haiti continued to benefit from US capital. An active trade in wood, sugar, coffee, rice and other agricultural commodities gradually evolved into the broking of unskilled sweatshop labour by a complicit regime. 

The Duvaliers amassed massive wealth through both legitimate and illegitimate means, building a vast empire of business interests in conjunction with US firms, and also becoming involved in the burgeoning drug trade. 

The Duvaliers were supported as a bulwark against the spread of communism in the region, an increasingly important reality for the US when Fidel Castro displaced the US puppet Batista regime in neighbouring Cuba. Papa Doc's brand of rabid anti-communist cant, assisted by the violence of his paramilitary Tonton Macoutes and a pseudo voodoo nationalism led to the establishment of a cosy (yet deniable) relationship with the US secret services. 

Despite overt protests by US leaders like J.F. Kennedy and then liberal voices like the New York Times, political pragmatism trumped the niceties of human rights. Baby Doc Duvalier was only chucked out by the CIA because of he turned Haiti into a virtual narco-state, trafficking drugs between South America and the USA.

The mainstream media repetitively insinuates that Haitians are responsible for their own predicament; how they have run down their infrastructure, denuded the tropical rainforests and destroyed their nation.

This tired perspective echoes the racism of yesteryear while simultaneously failing to examine how decades of corrupt leadership, supported primarily by US interests, have been instrumental in destroying not only the economy but also the natural and built environment through systematic impoverishment of the people.

Haiti used to grow sufficient rice to feed itself but subsidised US rice was dumped onto the market destroying the local agricultural industry. So, too, with sugar. Forests were cleared to provide hardwood doors and desks for US interests through corrupt middlemen.

The mess that democratically elected president Betrand Aristide was allowed to inherit at the close of the twentieth century - when the bogeyman of communism had been vanquished - was the end result of decades of exploitation by developed nations and corrupt elite. Now that the capital city of Port-au-Prince has nearly been destroyed, effectively decapitating a nation in terminal decline, the world asks without a hint of irony how this could have happened.

We must not forget how Aristide built more schools between 1994 and 2003 than were built in Haiti's entire history. Because he refused to toe the neo-liberal US line, he was deposed by US interests and remains exiled in South Africa. We cannot forget the US complicity in deposing him, not once but twice. His followers were persecuted and many remained jailed until the earthquake destroyed the main jail in Port Au Prince.

Our media sound-bite memories have equally forgotten the devastation wrought by three tropical storms that flooded an ecologically destabilised landscape in 2008. The consequences were especially devastating for rural people, who swelled the slums surrounding the capital that in turn bore the brunt of the earthquake. We overlook the reality that through the continued exploitation of this nation the average wage of the employed minority is 38 US cents per hour (ZAR 3-00). Disney moved to China when Haitians demanded a rise from 28 cents an hour to 50.

Through the IMF and the Washington consensus, structural adjustments undid Aristides attempts to roll out a minimum wage of 3 US Dollars an hour, together with health and education facilities for all. The main hospitals in Haiti were run by the health NGO Medicines Sans Frontiers. The rule of law was maintained through Brazilian occupation in the name of the UN. Even urgently required aid to repair roads was refused because of structural adjustments, something that is rued in the face of this disaster. It is directly due to this historical exploitation that the effects of this latest tragedy are far worse than they would be in almost any other place on earth.

The earthquake is simply one more disaster among many endured by this failed state. However Haiti is not a failed state because of the madness or megalomania of a Mugabe or Mobutu; it is a failed state because of two hundred years of racist exploitation. 

There has been notable criticism of the US role in providing succour to Haitians. The arrival of the US has been likened more to a military invasion than an aid mission. The US military immediately moved to control the main airport, allegedly favouring the arrival of US military aircraft over those providing aid and assistance. France lodged a diplomatic appeal that Paris based Medicines Sans Frontiers, with its long record in Haiti, have had an aircraft carrying a portable field hospital turned away three times.

Last week Naomi Klein, author of the book 'The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism' drew attention to statements by the conservative US Heritage Foundation reading;

“Amidst the Suffering, (the) Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the US In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the US response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the image of the United States in the region.” 

It is remarkable that president Obama's two primary assistants and advisers in dealing with the Haitian earthquake, Bill Clinton and President Bush the younger have each been instrumental in keeping Haiti in its state of subjugation. Clinton touted sweatshops as a neo-liberal solution to poverty while Bush was on watch for President Aristide's final ousting and the subsequent further oppression of the Haitian peoples.

Whatever happens over the next few years, the outlook for Haiti remains bleak. There are limited and depressing options available to Haitians, the majority younger than 21. Most are poorly educated and have limited prospects besides the occasional stipend from relatives outside the country.

Haiti remains a reminder of the inherent racism and ugly hegemony of geopolitics, which continues in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth, the nineteenth and even the eighteenth. The results of this earthquake are as symbolic as they are predictable, as tragic as they are real, both for those trapped in the hell that Haiti has become, as well as for the rest of us out here looking in.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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21 Jan

Thank God that SACSIS is Telling the Truth about Haiti

For far too long the local media have bought the US line on Aristide hook, line and sinker. George Bush lied about Aristide and Haiti just as he lied about the weapons of mass destruction supposedly threatening the world from Iraq.

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