Civilizing Aristide

My own judgment, for what it is worth, is that [Aristide] came into office committed to the kind of significant social and economic reform that was called for by his popular constituency in the hills and slums, desperately needed in Haiti.

His few months in power seemed to be a considerable success, and were praised as such by international agencies, despite immediate efforts by the US to undermine his regime, culminating in a brutal military coup a few months later. That set off a reign of shocking terror that was effectively backed by the Bush #1 and especially Clinton administration, while Aristide was brought to Washington to “civilize him” and “give in a crash course in capitalism” as the slogans went. In 1994 he was returned on the bayonets of the marines, and with a commitment to carry the harsh neoliberal polcicies of the US favorite he defeated, a former World Bank official who won 14% of the vote. In effect, then, violence and subversion paid off for Washington: it overturned the 1990 vote, installed the policies it had backed but were overwhelmingly voted down by the population, and had done all this while winning laurels for its selfless and generous efforts to “restore democracy” and protect human rights by restoring the elected president — bound and gagged by policy restrictions. From that point on it is a mixed story, and it is hard to judge just what course Aristide was following, not that he had a lot of choices in those circumstances. The Bush administration withholding of loans, and France’s contemptuous rejection of requests to consider compensating for the enormous fraud by which it strangled Haiti economically as punishment for its liberation, narrowed the options even further.

Why should the US meddle? It’s a deeply ingrained habit. The US was utterly appalled by Haiti’s liberation in 1804, sought in every way to prevent it, and then joined in harshly punishing Haiti for its crime of becoming the first free country of free men in the Western hemisphere — not a good model for a slave society. In later years there was jockeying with German and Britain about who would control this region, not insignificant for commercial, extractive, and strategic purposes. Wilson invaded on the pretext that he was defending us from the Huns, and the 19-year Marine rule he installed severely harmed the country, compelled the parliament to allow US corporations to by up the land, and finally left it in the hands of a brutal national guard. In the 1980s it was redesigned as an export zone — place to make baseballs cheaply under horrendous working conditions, and so on. The 1990 election of Aristide set the usual alarm bells ringing: a populist priest advocating
the hated liberation theology, concerned for the needs of the poor minority, possibly a “virus” that might “infect others” with such evil thoughts. And on until the present.

Haiti was once the richest colony in the world, the source of much of France’s wealth. Now it may be lucky to survive a few generations are so. The picture is not unique Today’s Bangladesh, the very symbol of misery and disaster, was crown of the British empire. Quite a few other cases, but considered improper to learn the lessons they teach, because they interfere with the preferred self-image of benevolent imperialism.

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