Haiti’s hardships have been all but forgotten in the U.S., despite the massive initial media attention devoted to the country following the devastating earthquake that hit the island six months ago. Currently about 1.3 million people still live in more than a thousand tent camps in and around the capital. Recent estimates suggest that just five percent of the debris left by the earthquake have been removed, with future estimates predicting it could take up to fifteen years to clear the rest at the current pace.
Over 200,000 Haitians were killed in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, making it one of the worst natural disasters in human history. Nearly all the country’s ministries were damaged or destroyed as well, preventing a quick and effective response on the part of the country’s political officials. An astounding one quarter of all the civil servants in the country were killed. The UN is currently providing basic equipment in order for the government to function on even a rudimentary level.
U.S. and international aid to Haiti, so regularly celebrated in American media coverage at the time of the quake, has only trickled into the country. Jean Renald Clerisme, the Haitian presidential adviser, warns that the country has not received the vast majority of the money promised the country by international actors. Current estimates suggest that only two percent of the $10 billion in international aid pledged has actually been delivered. Just 10 percent of the amount promised for 2010 has been received. Aid has been opportunistically tied by countries such as the U.S., Canada, and France to the handing over of reconstruction control from Haitian to Western hands. Such demands represent a blatant violation of national sovereignty, as one could imagine what the U.S. response would be if foreign countries contributing to Gulf cleanup or post-Katrina reconstruction demanded control over operations within U.S. borders. Needy Haitians, sadly, haven’t been left with much choice in the handover in light of their dire situation.
The continued deterioration of Haiti has appeared in the occasional front page story in papers like the New York Times in the last few months, but the issue appears to have little public visibility in comparison to other issues such as the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan, the Gulf oil crisis, and most perversely, domestic stories covering celebrity gossip and sports (think the Lebron James Cleveland fallout story). While massive sustained coverage of the situation in Haiti may have served American interests in the past in terms of constructing a myth of U.S. humanitarianism, the U.S. and allied refusal to follow through with aid pledges makes for a less flattering story, hence it is cast into the dustbin of history by journalists who take pride in uncritically serving officialdom.
One of the largest travesties related to Haiti has been the complete inability (unwillingness may be a better word) of the U.S. press to discuss the events there in light of the larger historical context. The historical context is ignored because it revolves around one simple fact: Haiti is in the pitiful shape it is today not because of natural disaster, but because of Western imperialism and (neo)colonialism. This reality is neglected in the ignorant and propagandistic commentary of pundits like Rush Limbaugh – who complains that the U.S. shouldn’t provide any more aid to Haiti because it’s already been too generous – and the claims of Pat Robertson, who maintains that Haiti’s hardships arise from the fact that it threw off colonial oppression by rebelling against French imperialism in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Haiti’s economic and political systems have long been destabilized as a result of the meddling, rather than the “generosity,” of imperial powers. As far back as 1825 (following the Haitian Revolution), the former slave colony was forced to pay massive reparations to French former slaveholders to the tune of 150 million francs. That number was later cut to 60 million, although this reduced amount was still enough to bankrupt the Haitian treasury, leading to a defacto takeover of the country’s finances by French banks who were willing to front the funds for the initial installments for the debt payments.
France not only bankrupted the country in revenge for the slave rebellion, it also left Haiti with a terrible feudal legacy. French colonists succeeded in monopolizing Haitian agricultural land, while forcing the people of the country to work as serfs in a political and economic caste system that was dominated by French descended domestic elites. As with much of Latin America in ensuing years, this radical inequality in land ownership continued to permeate all aspects of life for the poor, landless masses who still struggle to gain access to basic necessities such as food, education, clean water, and health care.
Haiti never really recovered from the French. The longstanding U.S. siege against the country – which has been going on for the last 100 years - has clearly made things much worse. The historical record pins much of the responsibility for Haiti’s deterioration on power hungry U.S. leaders, who were happy to destroy the country in the name of imperial expansion, hemispheric dominance, and good intentions.
The U.S. originally sent troops to intervene in Haitian internal politics as early as 1914 under the cover of protecting American “national interests” at a time when U.S. leaders warned that chaos throughout the country as a threat to hemispheric ”order.” The U.S. used the “promoting stability” excuse (think Iraq, post 2003) to exercise defacto control over Haiti’s economy – to the benefit of U.S. corporations - while installing its own preferred political leaders as it occupied the country over the next two decades. That occupation proved highly unpopular among the Haitian people, as did subsequent U.S. efforts to prop up corrupt, repressive dictatorships headed by thugs such as Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1957-1971) and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1971-1986). These dictators weren’t “promoting capitalism” in the battle against communism. As was the case with most Latin American dictators in the Cold War, these autocrats were instead protecting a feudal system in which the land was controlled by a small landed elite (allied with U.S. business) that forced the rest of the country into involuntary servitude and modern day serfdom.
The father and son Duvalier dictatorships mastered the art of kleptocracy, siphoning U.S. aid for personal enrichment, while engaging in hideous repression of the Haitian people. They were responsible for the murder of as many as 30,000 suspected leftists and government critics, to the delight of U.S. leaders who enthusiastically supported their actions in the name of “fighting communism” and creating a suitable climate for foreign investment. The Duvaliers’ contempt for Haitian labor was comprehensive, as they ensured low wages for U.S. companies and decimated labor unions in order to keep Haitian workers weak.
Jean Claude Duvalier was overthrown in a national uprising in 1986, but U.S. leaders made sure they got the last laugh, paying back the Haitian people in full for their treachery (and for having the nerve to think they were entitled live under democracy, rather than feudal, foreign domination). The democratic election of Jean Bertrand Aristide (the first of its kind in the country’s history) resulted in a push for serious progressive reform, as seen in Aristide’s support for adult literacy programs, a stronger minimum wage, land reform, food subsidies for the poor, low cost housing, and anti-corruption efforts. These reforms were too much for the U.S. officials and investors (in addition to a corrupt Haitian elite) to handle. After all, poor Haitians had never been entitled to homes, health care, or food in the past – why start now?
Aristides’s limited successes in favor of the poor came to an end in light of a 1991 military coup that removed him from office and ushered in a short period of military rule (controlled by remnants from the Duvalier dictatorship). This renewed dictatorship was accompanied by the murder of thousands of progressives and dissidents who had supported Aristide and opposed Duvalier’s rule. This coup was supported covertly and enthusiastically by U.S. leaders, who clearly preferred Haiti’s reactionary military elite over the campaign for progressive reform.
While President Clinton did eventually force Aristide’s return in 1994, the president was only allowed to finish out his term if he agreed to a number of “free market,” structural adjustment reforms that essentially gutted Haiti’s domestic rice industry by removing national tariffs and allowing heavily government subsidized U.S. rice to flood the country. The reforms also mandated a freeze on the national minimum wage, forced cuts in the country’s civil service, and required the privatization of formerly public utilities. These changes debilitated the country, driving it further into the sphere of U.S. dominance and foreign dependence.
Despite Aristide’s eventual return, Haiti continued to be the site of cheap sweatshop labor for Western garment production, ensuring permanent insecurity among Haitian industrial workers. The rollback of Haitian rice tariffs had toxic consequences following the 2010 earthquake, as inexpensive U.S. rice imports destroyed domestic agriculture, resulting in further impoverishment and a growing inability of the Haitian people to feed themselves. The disintegration of domestic agriculture is all the more tragic in light of the refusal of Western countries to grant aid short of a complete handover of “reconstruction” to the United States and its allies. Haitians are now finding that they can no longer count on either the (false) charity of others or on self-reliance. Little of this is understood by Americans, who have been propagandized by hysterical and right wingers and dogmatic liberals who claim that Haiti’s only problem is that the U.S. cares too much.
The last remnants of Haitian independence from U.S. imperialism were wiped away when the Bush administration forcibly removed Aristide from power in 2004. Aristide’s overthrow and kidnapping was undertaken covertly by U.S. marines, so as to hide the Bush administration’s neocolonial hand and its blatant contempt for Haitian sovereignty. Aristide had long been seen as too independent of U.S. political, economic, and military interests, and the Bush administration had no problem using force to overthrow foreign leaders who were insufficiently subservient to U.S. interests.
Fast forward six years: today Obama appears set on continuing U.S. domination of Haiti, as seen in his stubborn refusal to grant Haiti even a modicum of control over the reconstruction process. Obama declared as recently as a few days ago that reconstruction work must continue in Haiti. Such a promise, however, is quite deceptive, considering Obama’s refusal to allocate aid short of Haiti handing control over reconstruction to U.S. officials. Tellingly, Obama has refused to answer basic questions regarding the speed of the relief campaign, and he’s refused to lay out a timeline for when reconstruction efforts will achieve specific benchmarks in light of Haiti’s intransigence. This is to be expected from an administration that is merely continuing longstanding U.S. neocolonial practices, at the expense of democracy, national sovereignty, and genuine humanitarianism.
Anthony DiMaggio is the editor of the online journal, www.media-ocracy.com, which is devoted to studying issues of public opinion, mass media and current events. He is the author of “Mass Media, Mass Propaganda” (2008) and the forthcoming “When Media Goes to War” (2010). He can be reached at: [email protected]