Why did Canada help overthrow Haiti’s elected government in 2004? That’s a question I heard over and over when speaking about Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, a book Anthony Fenton and I co-wrote. Most people had difficulty understanding why their country – and the US to some extent – would intervene in a country so poor, so seemingly marginal to world affairs. Why would they bother?
I would answer that Canada participated in the coup as a way to make good with Washington, especially after (officially) declining the Bush administration’s invitation (order) to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.
It is also worth noting that at the start of 2003 the Haitian minimum wage was 36 Gourdes ($1) a day, which was nearly doubled to 70 Gourdes by the Aristide government. Of course, this was opposed by domestic and international capital, but especially Canadian capital. The largest blank T-shirt maker in the world, Montreal-based Gildan Activewear employs up to 5,000 people in Port-au-Prince’s assembly sector. Most of Gildan’s work is subcontracted to Andy Apaid, who was the leader of the Group 184 domestic “civil society” that opposed Aristide’s government.
It is also clear that some Canadian mining companies saw better opportunities in a post-Aristide government (A recent Toronto Star article explained, “Another Canadian-backed company recently resumed prospecting in Haiti after abandoning its claims a decade ago. Steve Lachapelle – a Quebec lawyer who is now chair of the board of the company, called St. Genevieve Haiti – says employees were threatened at gunpoint by partisans of ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.”).
Another reason for the intervention came out of the contempt, heightened during the country’s 200-year anniversary of independence, directed at Haiti ever since the country’s revolution dealt a crushing blow to slavery and white supremacy. The threat of a good example – particularly worrisome for the powers that be, since Haiti is so poor – contributed to the motivation for the coup. Aristide was perceived as a barrier to a thorough implementation of the neo-liberal agenda. The attitude seems to have been, “If we can’t force our way in Haiti, where can we?”
But, I was never entirely satisfied with my answers. That was one motivation for spending hundreds of hours over the past year in the McGill University library researching the history of Canadian foreign policy. So, why did Canada help overthrow the elected Haitian government? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Historically, countries’ foreign affairs were mostly about “projecting force” in a hostile world. This meant the use of power (military or economic) for protection or to gain advantage. In the modern era, the “advantage” to be gained and then protected was capitalist entitlement, the ability to make a profit. In other words, foreign affairs have mostly been about asserting and protecting the “rights” of a country’s wealth owners.
The Canadian government, from its beginning, was part of the command and control apparatus of the world economic system. At first, Canada served as an arm of the British Empire, but, given the country’s location, quickly became intertwined with the USA. Canada’s role over the past five decades, as assigned by the dominant power, has typically been some sort of “policing” operation, usually called peacekeeping. Since Canada has primarily been a “policing” rather than “military” power one must look to the language of policing to discover the motivations for our Haitian policy.
Over the past decade there has been much discussion of something called “pulling our weight” in external affairs. In laymen’s terms this means spending more of the country’s resources on defending and expanding the ability to make a profit around the world, for Canadian capitalists in particular, but also for the system in general. While the less sophisticated neoconservatives have simply called for more military spending and a pro-US foreign policy, the more liberal Canadian supporters of capitalism have been busy creating an ideological mask, called the “responsibility to protect” that will accomplish the same end.
The “responsibility to protect” is essentially a justification for imperialism using the dialect of policing instead of the old language of empire and militarism. It says there are “failed states” that must be overthrown because they do not provide adequately for their own citizens and because they threaten world order. This is the international equivalent of the “zero tolerance” (also called the “broken window”) strategy of the New York City police department. The policy is to aggressively go after petty crimes in order to create an environment that discourages more serious law breaking. In the same fashion, the international community should go after “failed states” that do not directly threaten other countries by invasion but only create an environment where “crime” may thrive.
(Noam Chomsky has used the Mafia analogy to explain the less sophisticated, older imperialist version of this policy. Any and all challenges, even minor ones, must be met with violence until “order” is established. The “responsibility to protect” differs in form but not in substance.)
The coup in Haiti was a Canadian-managed experiment in the use of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Aristide was overthrown precisely because Haiti is so unimportant to the world economic system and because cracking down on it is the international economic equivalent of the New York City police cracking down on graffiti writers. Once again Haiti was an example to the rest of the world, a message from the world’s rich and powerful.
The question to answer now is what next? And one can only hope that history will not be our guide. The first Haitian revolution was the earliest and most successful challenge to the entitlement of capitalist wealth owners in the era of slavery. In the late 1700s Haiti was home to some of the most brutal large-scale labour exploitation the world has ever seen. Stolen and shipped from Africa, nearly half a million slaves worked under horrific conditions as the “property” of approximately ten thousand white landowners and a few thousand property owners of mixed race. Up to 40 percent of France’s GDP came from Haiti in the mid 1700s. The profitability of Haiti’s sugar plantations was that era’s equivalent of Middle East oil.
The slave revolution from which Haiti was born was a rejection of the capitalist system as it then existed. But the country never found its way to an alternative economic system. Instead, within three years of independence the lighter-skinned plantation owners overthrew and murdered the country’s liberation hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines (the French having killed the famous revolutionary, Tousaint Louverture, prior to independence). Excluded from international commerce by the world’s capitalists, and facing threats of invasion, Haiti promised to repay its former exploiters. In 1825 Haiti agreed to pay $21 billion (in 2004 dollars) to compensate French slaveholders for their loss of property (land and now free Haitians). The price for its reintegration into the world economic system was extremely high.
Foreign powers, especially Germany, France and the US, repeatedly sent gunboats into Haitian waters. The most common reason was to press Haiti to pay debts (often to businesses from these countries) it was unable to afford. In one instance, US marines secretly entered Port-au-Prince and took the national treasury. The 1915 US invasion/occupation of Haiti was partly about forcing the country to repay its debt. And during that occupation, the US took over Haiti’s independence debt to France, which was not finally repaid until 1947. The Haitian state became dependent on foreign governments, autocratic and extremely repressive, because its primary role was ensuring the repayment of debt.
Once again the Haitian people and government are being forced along an economic path dictated by the world’s economic elite and I fear the result will be the same as before. Of the $1.2 billion in “aid” for Haiti announced at a Washington donors’ conference in July 2004, more than half was loans, which Haitians must repay. Haitians will have to repay this money even though they did not choose the Gerard Latortue regime that got most of the money, the US, France and Canada did. Much like compensating French slaveholders Haitians will (literally) be paying for the coup in the years to come. Already, under the thumb of Haiti’s debt holders and a foreign occupation, the elected government of Rene Preval is privatizing the last of Haiti’s state-owned companies.
Supporters of capitalism sometimes argue, incredibly, that Haiti’s impoverishment is a result of the country’s lack of capitalism. But, as even a short visit to Haiti quickly demonstrates, the country has no shortage of entrepreneurs or a willingness to work. Rather, a study of history reveals that the economic system commonly called capitalism has only ever been interested in profiting from the super exploitation of the vast majority of Haitians and ignoring their humanity.
Yves Engler is the author of two books: Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (with Anthony Fenton) and Playing Left Wing: From Rink Rat to Student Radical. Both books are published by RED/Fernwood and available at www.turning.ca