Interview: Noam Chomsky on Haiti

By Keane Bhatt · 16 Mar 2010

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Picture: Andre Garcia & CIA maps
Picture: Andre Garcia & CIA maps

Aid Should Go to Haitian Popular Organizations, Not to Contractors or NGOs

For decades, Noam Chomsky has been an analyst and activist working in support of the Haitian people. In addition to his revolutionary linguistics career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he has written, lectured and protested against injustice for 40 years. He is co-author, along with Paul Farmer and Amy Goodman of Getting Haiti Right This Time: The U.S. and the Coup. His analysis "The Tragedy of Haiti" from his 1993 book Year 501: The Conquest Continues is available for free online. This interview was conducted in late February 2010 by phone and email. The interviewer thanks Peter Hallward for his kind assistance.


KEANE BHATT: Recently you signed a letter to the Guardian protesting the militarization of emergency relief. It criticized a prioritization of security and military control to the detriment of rescue and relief.

NOAM CHOMSKY: I think there was an overemphasis in the early stage on militarization rather than directly providing relief. I don't think it has any long-term significance...the United States has comparative advantage in military force. It tends to react to anything at first with military force, that's what it's good at. And I think they overdid it. There was more military force than was necessary; some of the doctors that were in Haiti, including those from Partners in Health who have been there for a long time, felt that there was an element of racism in believing that Haitians were going to riot and they had to be controlled and so on, but there was very little indication of that; it was very calm and quiet. The emphasis on militarization did probably delay somewhat the provision of relief. I went along with the general thrust of the petition that there was too much militarization.

KEANE BHATT: If this militarization of relief was not intentionally extreme but rather just a default response of the US, is it just serendipity that there is a massive troop presence available to manage the rapidly mounting popular protests post-earthquake? A surprisingly large, politicized group comprised of survivors has already mobilized around demanding Aristide's return, French reparations instead of charity, and so on.

NOAM CHOMSKY: So far, at least, I don't know of any employment of the troops to subdue protests. It might come, but I suspect a more urgent concern is the impending disaster of the rainy season, terrible to contemplate.

KEANE BHATT: Regarding relief work, aside from Partners in Health, Al Jazeera noted that the Cuban medical team was the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and constitutes the largest contingent of medical workers in Haiti, something that preceded the earthquake. If their performance in Pakistan [earthquake of 2005] is any indicator, they will probably be the last to leave. Cuba seems to have an exemplary, decades-long conduct in foreign assistance.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the Cubans were already there before the earthquake. They had a couple hundred doctors there. And yes, they sent doctors very quickly; they had medical facilities there very quickly. Venezuela also sent aid quite quickly; Venezuela was also the first country and the only country at any scale to cancel totally the debt. There was considerable debt to Venezuela because of PetroCaribe, and it's rather striking that Venezuela and Cuba were not invited to the donors' meeting in Montreal.

Actually the prime minister of Haiti, Bellerive, went out of his way to thank three countries: the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela for their rapid provision of aid. What Al Jazeera said about Pakistan is quite correct. In that terrible earthquake a couple of years ago, the Cubans were really the only ones who went into the very difficult areas high up in the mountains where it's very hard to live. They're the ones who stayed after everyone else left. And none of that gets reported in the United States. But the fact of the matter is, whatever you think about Cuba, its internationalism is pretty dramatic. And the people who've been working in Haiti for years have been awestruck by Cuban medical aid as they were in Pakistan, in fact. That's an old story. I mean, the Cuban contribution to the liberation of Africa is just overwhelming. And you can find that in scholarship, but the public doesn't know anything about it.

KEANE BHATT: On that point, you've talked about how "states are not moral agents. They act in their own interests. And that means the interests of powerful forces within them." How does the history of exemplary humanitarian work as Cuban state policy relate to that thought?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I think it's just been a core part of the Cuban revolution to have a very high level of internationalism. I mean, these cases you've mentioned are cases in point, but the most extreme case was the liberation of Africa. Take the case of Angola for example, and there are real connections between Cuba and Angola-much of the Cuban population comes from Angola. But South Africa, with US support, after the fall of the Portuguese empire, invaded Angola and Mozambique to establish their own puppet regime there. They were trying to protect Namibia, to protect apartheid, and nobody did much about it; but the Cubans sent forces, and furthermore they sent black soldiers and they defeated a white mercenary army, which not only rescued Angola but it sent a shock throughout the continent-it was a psychic shock-white mercenaries were purported to be invincible, and a black army defeated them and sent them back fleeing into South Africa. Well that gave a real shot in the arm to the liberation movements, and it also was a lesson to the white South Africans that the end is coming. They can't just hope to subdue the continent on racist grounds. Now, it didn't end the wars. The South African attacks in Angola and Mozambique continued until the late 1980s, with strong US support. And it was no joke. According to the UN estimates they killed a million and a half people in Angola and Mozambique, nothing slight. Nevertheless, the Cuban intervention had a huge effect, also on other countries of Africa. And one the most striking aspects of it is that they took no credit for it. They wanted credit to be taken by the nationalist movements in Africa. So in fact none of this was even known until an American researcher, Piero Gleijeses unearthed the evidence from the Cuban archives and African sources and published it in scholarly journals and a scholarly book, and it's just an astonishing story but barely known-one out of a million people has ever heard of it.

KEANE BHATT: You mentioned the Venezuelan debt cancellation. At the same time, the G7 is in the process of eliminating bilateral debt. Why is that?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well they're talking about it, yeah. The Venezuelans were first. And they just completely canceled the debt. G7 refused. In the Montreal meeting, they refused to even discuss it. Later, they indicated that they might do something. Maybe they're embarrassed by the Venezuelan action. But I'm not sure how it's playing out. As far as the IMF is concerned-the IMF is basically an offshoot of the US Treasury Department-they've talked about it but so far they have not agreed, as far as I can discover, to cancel the debt.

KEANE BHATT: Bellerive, Prime Minister of Haiti, thanked the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela. The DR has been lauded for its relief efforts: providing food, materials and medical care, for example. But at the same time there are reports from the border of Dominican troops forcibly deporting family members of Haitian patients and sometimes even the patients themselves, in Jimaní, for example. What is your take on these contrary developments taking place and is there any historical context that you would like to add?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, what the Dominican Republic does is up to Dominicans to decide, but the much more striking thing from my perspective, is that the United States has not brought in any-barely any refugees-even for medical treatment. And that was harshly condemned by the dean of the University of Miami Medical School who thought it was just criminal not to bring Haitians to Miami where there's marvelous medical facilities while they have to do surgery with, you know, hacksaws in Haiti. And in fact one of the first US reactions to the earthquake was to send in the Coast Guard to ensure that there wouldn't be any attempt to flee from Haiti. I mean, that's atrocious. The United States is the richest country in the world, it's right next door to Haiti. It should be offering every possible means of assistance to Haitians.

Furthermore there's a little bit of background here. I mean, the earthquake in Haiti was a class-based catastrophe. It didn't much harm the wealthy elite up in the hills, they were shaken but not destroyed. On the other hand the people who were living in the miserable urban slums, huge numbers of them, they were devastated. Maybe a couple hundred thousand were killed. How come they were living there? They were living there because of-it goes back to the French colonial system-but in the past century, they were living there because of US policies, consistent policies.

KEANE BHATT: You're talking about the forcible decimation of peasant agriculture in the 1990s?

NOAM CHOMSKY: It started with Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson invaded all of Hispaniola, Haiti and the DR, the Wilson invasion was pretty brutal in both parts of Hispaniola. But it was much worse in Haiti. And the reasons were very clearly stated.


NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah. The State Department said, well, the Dominicans have some European blood so they're not quite so bad. But the Haitians are pure nigger. So Wilson sent the marines to disband the Haitian parliament because they wouldn't permit US corporations to buy up Haitian lands. And he forced them to do it. Well, that's one of the many atrocities and crimes. Just keeping to this, that accelerated the destruction of Haitian agriculture and the flight of people from the countryside to the cities. Now that continued under Reagan. Under Reagan, USAID and the World Bank set up very explicit programs, explicitly designed to destroy Haitian agriculture. They didn't cover it up. They gave an argument that Haiti shouldn't have an agricultural system, it should have assembly plants; women working to stitch baseballs in miserable conditions. Well that was another blow to Haitian agriculture, but nevertheless even under Reagan, Haiti was producing most of its own rice when Clinton came along.

When Clinton restored Aristide-Clinton of course supported the military junta, another little hidden story...he strongly supported it in fact. He even allowed the Texaco Oil Company to send oil to the junta in violation of presidential directives; Bush Sr. did so as well-well, he finally allowed the president to return, but on condition that he accept the programs of Marc Bazin, the US candidate that he had defeated in the 1990 election. And that meant a harsh neoliberal program, no import barriers. That means that Haiti has to import rice and other agricultural commodities from the US from US agribusiness, which is getting a huge part of its profits from state subsidies. So you get highly subsidized US agribusiness pouring commodities into Haiti; I mean, Haitian rice farmers are efficient but nobody can compete with that, so that accelerated the flight into the cities. And it wasn't that they didn't know it was going to happen. USAID was publishing reports in 1995 saying, yes this is going to destroy Haitian agriculture and that's a good thing. And you get the flight into the cities and you get food riots in 2008, because they can't produce their own food. And now you get this class-based catastrophe. After this history-it's only a tiny piece of it-the United States should be paying massive reparations, not just aid. And France as well. The French role is grotesque.

KEANE BHATT: May I ask, regarding Aristide's languishing in exile, was he right to go back to Haiti in 1994 in the way that he did, with US troops? Also, was he right to agree, under enormous pressure of course, to the neoliberal reforms laid out in the Paris Accords?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I happened to be in Haiti almost at that time-1993. I was there for a while; this was the peak of the terror. And I've been in a lot of awful places in the world. Some of the worst, in fact. But I don't think I've ever seen anything like the misery and the terror that was going on in Haiti under the junta, with Clinton's backing at that time. And there was a lot of discussion, I talked for example to the late Father Gerard Jean-Juste, one of the most popular figures in Haiti, who the government recently forced out, he was then underground in a church but Haitian friends took me to him. He was very close to large parts of the population. I talked to labor leaders who'd been beaten and tortured but were willing to talk, and to activists and others. And what most of them said is, Father Jean-Juste for example, what he said is, "Look, I don't want a marine invasion, I think it's a bad idea. But on the other hand," he said, "my people, the people in the slums-La Saline, Cite Soleil and so on, they just can't take it anymore." He said, "the torture is too awful, the terror is too awful. They'll accept anything that'll put an end to it." And that was the dilemma. I don't have an answer to that.

KEANE BHATT: Was Aristide wrong to argue against calls (made by some of his more militant supporters) for armed struggle inside Haiti to restore democracy after the 1991 coup?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Not in my opinion. Armed struggle would have led to a horrendous slaughter.

KEANE BHATT: On February 17th, Sarkozy was greeted to street protests by thousands of Haitians holding up images of Aristide, demanding his return, and demanding reparations for what the French extorted in exchange for recognizing Haiti's independence. At that same address, Preval was shouted down and he withdrew into his jeep. With this kind of sentiment brewing in Haiti right now, do you see Aristide's return as an important priority, or is it something that might be desirable but not that pressing?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the answer to that question is going to be given in Washington. The United States and France, the two traditional torturers of Haiti, essentially kidnapped Aristide in 2004 after having blocked any international aid to the country under very dubious pretexts, not credible grounds, which of course extremely harmed this fragile economy. There was chaos and the US and France and Canada flew in, kidnapped Aristide-they said they rescued him, they actually kidnapped him-they flew him off to Central Africa, his party Fanmi Lavalas is banned, which probably accounts for the very low turnout in the recent elections, and the United States has been trying to keep Aristide not only from Haiti, but from the entire hemisphere.

KEANE BHATT: By which way is Aristide compelled to remain exiled? How exactly is his persona non grata status in the hemisphere maintained and by whom? What is preventing him from flying into a sympathetic country near Haiti, like Venezuela, for example?

NOAM CHOMSKY: He might be able to go to Venezuela, but if he tried to go to the Dominican Republic, for example, they wouldn't let him in. And there's good reason for that. International affairs is very much like the mafia, and the small storekeeper doesn't offend the Godfather. It's too dangerous. We can pretend it's otherwise, but that's the way it is. There was one country, I think it was Jamaica if I remember correctly, that did allow Aristide in, over serious US pressure and protest. And not a lot of cou

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