Edgar S. Penn
Edgar S. Penn
On January 12, 2010, the tiny and impoverished nation of Haiti was hit with another in a series of disasters. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake, centered several miles outside of the capital, Port-au-Prince, was strong enough to topple buildings, destroy homes, cripple communication lines, disrupt food aid, and kill upwards of 200,000 people. While the devastation is bad enough on its own account, it is particularly devastating as it has hit a nation which has had more than its fair share of hard knocks throughout the past several centuries. As Haiti attempts to rebuild, as aid is shipped in and humanitarian organizations step up their efforts, as the US and other nations pledge support, and as people all over the world cope with loss, it is high time that we come to understand the Haitian situation in light of its history.
In 1697, Haiti became a French colony and through a combination of heavy agro-development and one of the most profitable slave trades in the West the colony was a center of prosperity in the Caribbean. The colony soon became largely populated by African slaves who, under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, revolted and defeated their French overlords in 1804 after a long and bloody civil war. From the ashes rose the nation of Haiti, the first black republic to declare independence from a colonial power.
While a promising beginning, the nation of Haiti has been plagued with violence, corruption, and oppression ever since. Much of the problems have been a result of unfavorable international policy directed toward the island nation, as well as internal threats from environmental devastation, and a highly developed drug trade. At times, there have been glimmers of hope for Haiti, like in 1990 when Leftist Priest Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected as the nation's first freely elected president. Haiti subsequently enjoyed a 9 month period of land reforms, wealth distribution, labor reforms, social service implementation, and other popularist measures. However, in 1991, General Raoul Cedras stepped in and lead a successful military coup against Aristide. The general's coup was supported by the Haitian upper class, foreign investors, and even the Roman Catholic Church which ousted Aristide from the priesthood for apparently inciting violence, exalting class struggle, and for destabilizing the faithful. Following the coup, the military junta was implicated in several human rights violations, all assisted by Haiti's National Intelligence Service (SIN) which gained significant funding and training from the CIA – all while it organized the countries multi-billion dollar drug trade.
Finally, in 1994, the USA invaded Haiti under the pretext of reinstating Aristide to power. It was soon apparent, however, that the US military would be cooperating with the Haitian military dictatorship. Amnesty was granted, assets unfrozen, and exile was revoked for General Cedras and his supporters in the military. Once Aristide was finally reinstated as the president, it came at a major price, arguably the loss of Haitian sovereignty – again. According to Michael Parenti, in his book Against Empire, Aristide was allowed to serve the rest of his term in office if and only if he accepted a World Bank agreement which would make the conservative Haitian parliament more powerful, he agreed to re-privatize a massive section of the public sector and cut public employment by one-half, he implemented a reduction on Haitian oversight on US corporations operating in Haiti, he increased government subsidization for the private sector, and if he lowered the duties on imported goods. “World Bank representatives admitted that these measures would hurt the Haitian poor but benefit the 'enlightened business investors.'”
In 2004, Aristide was ousted in yet another coup during his second term in office, in which both French and American forces have been implicated. Though Aristide's legacy is fraught with controversy, it is clear that the 1990 election was a wake up call to the world: Haiti is tired of being under the Iron Heel of unfair international investments and policies, and was ready to take matters into its own hands. The world listened and crushed the movement. The recent tragedy in Haiti is a combination of extreme poverty and shattering environmental devastation. Before the earthquake Haiti was already in shambles: the median age was 20 years with 40% of the population under 15, 80% of the population lived below the poverty line and 54% lived in “abject poverty” or less than one dollar per day, 46% of families lived in one room houses, over two-thirds of the labor force did not have formal jobs, half of children under 5 were malnourished, and over 7% of children died at birth. In addition to these problems, foreign investment and the agricultural sector were both severely damaged in a series of disasters, including 4 hurricanes in 2008 alone which crippled Haiti's infrastructure. What with those problems and the disaster of January 12th, Haiti is perhaps the worlds most afflicted nation.
Haiti needs the world to help while it rebuilds, but the world must not blindly throw money at the problem. The Haitian tragedy must be understood in its historical context, and it must be remembered that only through democratic reforms can a strong Haiti emerge from the ashes. Contrary to what Pat Robertson said, the only deal with the devil that Haiti made was when it compromised its democratic ideals in the face of corporate pressure. While Haiti rebuilds, let us hope that it emerges stronger than before as a true Republic, otherwise, though it may set buildings upon foundations and again bring money into the pockets of rich business men and women, it will never be the triumph which Toussaint L'Ouverture dreamed of: a free Haiti.