In January, in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, The Age published a piece by Chris Berg, from the Right-wing think-tank Institute of Public Affairs. Berg argued that the only thing Haitians need now is to ‘get away from Haiti’. For Berg, Haiti is a lost cause, and intrinsically unable to develop.
To prove his point, Berg cited the amount of aid wasted on Haiti and quoted the World Bank on the impossibility of making any progress due to the endemic political instability. The only solution is for Haitians to come and work (read: be exploited) in Western countries, learn our civilised ways and send money back home.
Of course, Berg is somewhat of a caricature. Most journalists did not express such narrow views. There were also notable exceptions, those who gave an informed picture of Haiti and its tragic history. Yet under the veneer of progressivism, many journalists and commentators reiterated the arguments Berg had put forth. Haiti was a failure, a doomed country that had been unable to lift itself out of poverty and perpetual political crisis.
A neo-colonial veil has settled on our Western media and brought back the pessimistic view regarding the ability of the ‘barbarian’ to ever civilise. Since Haiti became independent in 1804, the country has never been at peace and has never managed to survive without our assistance. Luckily, Haiti could rely on us. Not only are we giving money to the Haitians, but UN and US troops will implement peace in a country apparently prone to the most horrific looting. The earthquake was our chance to start anew and this time we ‘would get Haiti right’! We would implement democracy, restore order, bring stability, peace and prosperity.
It was not the first time someone would try to ‘get Haiti right’. The US claimed such a target after the 2004 coup against democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Moreover, this episode was only the latest Western interference in Haiti’s destiny, all of which have left Haiti ever poorer and dependent on our ‘generosity’.
Yet Haiti had not always been poor. Before the small country became independent in 1804, it was the most profitable colony in the world. After a decade fighting the French, the British and the Spanish, Haiti was left in shambles and forced to divert most of its resources towards its military protection.
For freeing themselves, the Haitians were also found guilty of theft and were condemned to repay the French for the loss of their slaves. The debt crippled the economy of the war-ravaged country until its last repayment in 1947. It has been argued that France now owes Haiti up to US$21 billion.
By the time Haiti was free from its debt to France, the US had invaded in order to restore order. After 22 years of occupation, the deregulation of the economy, the strengthening of the army and the death of up to 30,000 Haitians, the US withdrew and left the country up for grabs by corrupted elitist generals.
Coups followed, the elite thrived and the population suffered. In 1957 François Duvalier took power and installed an extremely violent dictatorship which cost the lives of up to 50,000 Haitians. His strong anti-communism and Haiti’s proximity to Cuba guaranteed him the tacit support of the US.
When his son took over in 1971, his policies of deregulation granted him the unconditional support of the Americans who found in Haiti extremely cheap labour. For the second time, the Haitian population rose in the face of incommensurable adversity and overthrew the dictator. Reagan’s Air Force escorted Duvalier to his villa on the French Riviera; ‘Baby Doc’ left behind a colossal debt.
In 1990, popular uprisings forced the junta to organise legitimate elections and Aristide was elected in a landslide by the poor majority. He was ousted after only seven months by the Haitian elite ultra-minority. Many of his supporters were killed in the repression that ensued.
Eventually, Clinton agreed to ‘help’ Aristide — both to ease the recent Somali fiasco and to stop the flow of Haitian refugees into the US. In exchange, Aristide was requested to amnesty the coup-leaders, share power with them and bow to the IMF’s drastic recommendations. Aristide had no choice but to accept, as 70 per cent of the country’s operating budget came from foreign aid and loans.
The ‘benefits’ of globalisation and Haiti’s dependence on the IMF brought ‘real’ democracy to Haiti. According to Oxfam, as a result of international pressures, Haiti became ‘one of the most liberal trade regimes in the world’. With tariff cuts, Haiti, which had once been self-sufficient in rice, was flooded with subsidised American rice.
The poultry sector underwent the same changes at the cost of 10,000 jobs. The agrarian sector was dismantled to be replaced by an arguably stronger industrial one. Many American corporations were able to enjoy the lowest wages in the hemisphere and incredibly lenient business regulations. But by the turn of the century, unemployment had exploded as many corporations had left, finding better opportunities in Asia.
Yet the Aristide government managed to pursue some progressive reforms and in a few years build more schools than in the whole history of the country. Health programs were also improved, and the government planned to double the minimum wage.
Aristide’s reforms were brought to a stop in 2003, following complaints formulated by the minority elite opposition and the suspension of American aid until Aristide agreed to become more amenable, less ‘dictatorial’. Again, Aristide was forced to make unjust concessions. It proved insufficient, and bloody attacks were organised by militias hired by Aristide’s democratically defeated opponents.
The wave of violence soon ‘forced’ the United States and France, under Security Council approval, to invade Haiti on 29 February 2004. According to the United Nations report of the Secretary-General on Haiti, Aristide was exiled in order to provide Haitians with ‘a peaceful, democratic and locally-owned future’.
An earthquake the strength of that of 12 January would have caused severe damage in the richest countries on this planet; Haiti’s economic and political situation make it much worse. 300,000 people might have died in the event, and yet what remains most haunting is our oblivion as to our responsibility in such a death toll.
Far be it from me to deter individuals from offering their help after such a disaster. However, the media coverage and lack of objective reporting on Haiti’s past have led many to react unconsciously in a neo-colonialist, borderline racist, manner.
Yes, the Haitians need help, but they are not a failed people, nor are they worse people than their Dominican neighbours. Nor are they a lawless primitive people who have turned to looting corpses and destroyed houses. At the present time, many trustworthy reports have highlighted the low level of insecurity in Port-Au-Prince following the dramatic events of 12 January.
Two hundred years ago, Haiti became a beacon of light and freedom for all oppressed people. For the first time, human rights had a universal value. For the first time, colonialism was defeated and complete equality made possible. As Peter Hallward pointed out, this declaration ‘dealt the myth of white supremacy a mortal and thus unforgivable blow’. For this, the little country would pay, even up to the present day.
Only a deep introspection in our system and its inegalitarian, intrinsically racist basis could allow Haiti to be recognised as the symbol of equality and emancipation that it is. Haiti might need our help after the earthquake, but most importantly Haiti needs to be free.
First published in Eureka Street under the title Haiti needs to be free