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The Development of Haiti’s Suffering

January 15, 2010

An alternative look at the terrible situation in Haiti: “Our role in Haiti’s plight” by Peter Hallward.

The article touches upon some of the main historical points I would like to make, while making the important—but admittedly really difficult to enact—point that, besides offering disaster aid, we must continually think about how to empower the Haitian people against the exploitation they continue to suffer at the hands of powerful international actors.

This history of suffering due to exploitation by those who claim to be the vanguards of democracy, freedom and civilization, goes back to Haiti’s time as a slave colony, first for Spain, which eradicated the indigenous peoples of the island, and then for France, which brutally reigned over the island until, amidst the upheaval of the French Revolution, the slaves of Haiti staged their own revolution. Even after the slave population succeeded in militarily overthrowing French rule, no country would recognize their country’s independence. The U.S., the only non-colony then in the hemisphere, also refused to recognize Haiti’s independence and saw it as a threat to its own racist and slave-holding policies.

However, then in return for recognition of their country, the Haitian elite came to a fateful agreement with France. As Paul Farmer writes,

Haiti’s leaders were desperate for recognition, since the island’s only source of revenue was the sugar, coffee, cotton and other tropical produce it had to sell. In 1825, under threat of another French invasion and the restoration of slavery, Haitian officials signed the document which was to prove the beginning of the end for any hope of autonomy. The French king agreed to recognise Haiti’s independence only if the new republic paid France an indemnity of 150 million francs and reduced its import and export taxes by half [what in the 20th century would be referred to as “neoliberal reform”]. The ‘debt’ that Haiti recognised was incurred by the slaves when they deprived the French owners not only of land and equipment but of their human ‘property’.

The impact of the debt repayments – which continued until after World War Two – was devastating.

This brings us into the 20th century, at the beginning of which Haiti was still devoting 80% of its budget to those payments to its former colonial master.

As it appears to be on the verge of doing again, the U.S. has militarily occupied Haiti a number of times in the last century, most notably from 1915-1934, in 1994, and 2004. In the 1970s, the U.S. began what might be called its doctrinally “neo-liberal phase” of intervention in the country, in other words, setting it up as a site of cheap labor for American manufacturers and making it into a client for such U.S. firms as Halliburton and Texaco.

In the 1980s, the U.S. provided military aid to the dictatorial Duvalier regime, which operated death squads that killed tens of thousands of people.  Speaking of the dominant and brutal role that it has played in Haitian politics, it is worth noting that the Haitian military was created by an act of the U.S. Congress.

After Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, was ousted by a military coup, which included involvement by C.I.A. backed military factions, the U.N. set up embargos against Haiti. These had the predictable effect of primarily worsening the lot of the poor. In turn, after Aristide was reinstated by the U.S. and U.N., though having been forced to adopt their policies, he nevertheless popularly disbanded the ever repressive Haitian military and replaced it with a civilian police force. Aristide served a second term, but was again ousted by a U.S. facilitated military coup.

Now I imagine that once triage-type response to the current disaster is less immediate, we will begin to see more clearly a resurgence in the battle over who controls Haiti, the U.S. once again using its massive military foot to make its claims of ownership of Haiti felt.

But the answer to Haiti’s problems is certainly not more control of it from abroad. If you care about the people’s suffering there now, you must also care about seeing an end to the suffering that has long been inflicted upon them by those major international actors who claim to be only concerned with “intervening on Haiti’s behalf”.

What can we do now? I don’t exactly know. But there may be a time in the not too distant future when people here in the U.S. have to take to their own streets to demand that the U.S. finally cease its abuses of Haiti.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 23, 2010 12:03 AM

    A more comprhensive and, correspondingly, even more damning history of outside interventions in Haiti, from Columbus’s day right up to the very present: http://www.ainfos.ca/en/ainfos23537.html.

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