Monday, January 18, 2010

A Pact With Which Devil?

"Good fortune will elevate even petty minds, and give them the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high place they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune."
- Plutarch
Well, it took just over 206 years, but Haiti has finally climbed to the top of the world's most cursed nation charts. Ever since rising up and defeating the forces of Napoleon to become the first nation to grow out of a slave revolt, gaining independence on January 1st 1804, it has become a place where the apocalypse wears the trappings of the norm. It's one of those places that seems to be dealt one disaster after the other. The big question is how can the death-toll resulting from a 7.0 earthquake that stuck near Port-au-Prince, the same magnitude that hit Northern California in 1989 killing 63 people, be well on it's way to surpassing 100,000?  Is it as Pat Robertson said because the Haitian people "got together and swore a pact to the devil"? Why is it that Rush Limbaugh is forced to vacation on the eastern half of Hispaniola to find luxury resorts and not worry about getting AIDS from young boys? The truth of why we owe the poorest nation in the western hemisphere all the help we can is written in the pages of history and unfortunately is indeed a witches' brew of politics, economics and natural disaster.

While Rush claims the latest disaster in Haiti is simply a made to order excuse for Obama to improve his image with the "light-skinned and dark-skinned black community", comments such as his are intended to obfuscate the problem of racism that has been the cause of much of Haiti's ills. There is good reason why much of the world owes Haiti more than just their taxes . It's hard to imagine, but at the end of the 18th century Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was known then, was considered by many to be the most valuable colonial possession in the Americas, referred to as the Pearl of the Antilles. Unfortunately for the French, their revolution in 1789 also resonated throughout the Caribbean. The Jacobins' cry of "liberty, equality and fraternity" was taken up by rebels on the island and the "Black Jacobins" were born as the slaves rose up in 1791.
"My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block for ever the march of the blacks in the world."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
The Haitian Revolution didn't follow a standard script. Out of the uprising came a self-educated slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture who emerged as the revolution's leader through skill on both the battlefield and in the complexities of politics. Realizing the greed of the competing imperial powers and that the ongoing European war would drain their strength, L'Ouverture consistently outflanked his adversaries. In a complex web of emancipation, guerrilla warfare, alliances and broken promises involving the three major colonial powers, France, Spain and England, the end result was Tousaint dead in a French jail in the Jura, having been tricked by Napoleon and 100,000 of the 500,000 blacks and 24,000 of the 40,000 whites inhabitants dead. The new leader of the rebels, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed the nation's independence January 1, 1804 after defeating Napoleon's brother in law General Charles Leclerc and 43,000 French troops at the Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803 and reverted the name to its former native monkier - Haiti; it became the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.
"Dear me, think of it? Niggers speaking French"
- US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan
And what was America's role in all this? Well, nothing short of the Louisiana Purchase. America's 3rd president was in office, Thomas Jefferson, a man afraid of his own shadow due to its dark appearance (though he had no problem with the darker female outline). Regarding the prospect of a free black nation he said: "If something is not done, and soon done we shall be the murderers of our own children." Alarmed that a slave uprising may spread north he threw his support behind the upstart French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, in his quest to reassert French rule of his prized Caribbean possession. So when Napoleon asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army traveling by sea to St. Domingue, Jefferson replied that "nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint [L’Ouverture] to starvation." Of course his word proved to be as worthless as his morals when he learned that Napoleon planned on moving his forces to the North American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River. The rest is, as they say, history, without resupply and dealing with a determined enemy as well as an hitherto unknown threat, a pesky female mosquito carrying yellow fever (taking Leclerc's life along with 20,000 of his men), Napoleon's forces were routed and he was eventually forced to sell the Louisiana territories for a song in order to raise a new army to deal with the British.

So, it seems America, France, Spain and Britain owe the impoverished nation a little help, but why does Venezuela seem so prepared to lend a hand? It must be an evil plot to establish a foothold for Chavez' anti-American screed outside of Cuba in the area, right? Nope, it's called historical debt, debt for their freedom from slavery in which Haiti played a crucial role. After initial success in New Grenada (Colombia today) and Venezuela, Simon Bolivar was eventually pushed out by royalist forces in his quest to liberate South America from the Spanish oppressors. After first being denied help in Jamaica, El Liberator found support from Haiti and its president Alexandre Petion who granted him asylum and helped in outfitting him for his triumphant return to Caracas on his way to becoming the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and founder of Bolivia. In return for six schooners and a sloop - 250 men, mostly officers, and arms for 6,000 troops, Petion's only request of Bolivar was the freedom of all slaves in the countries that Bolivar was going to set free.

Sadly, independence hasn't been a smooth ride for Haiti. One wonders how different things may have turned out if Tousaint L'Ouverture had been allowed to lead the nation into its new era, perhaps they may have even achieved some sort of stability. Instead, Haiti has lurched from one leader to the next, suffering 32 coups, along with one disaster followed by another - in the span of 30 days in the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes and tropical storms. The newborn nation quickly learned that being the first free black state wasn't exactly a passport to diplomatic acceptance. Isolated internationally during its national infancy, Haiti wasn't recognized by the Vatican until 1860 or the US until 1861; even Simon Bolivar turned his back on them, refusing to invite Haiti to the Congress of Panama, saying "The government regards with repugnance the idea of treating Haiti with the same etiquette generally maintained between civilized nations". In order to gain conditional French recognition and to gain relief from the embargo enforced along with Britain, Spain and the US, Haiti was forced to pay reparations of 150 million francs in gold (about $20 billion today) and a 50% reduction in import duties in 1825 to compensate for French slave losses. By the turn of the 20th century, 80% of the national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest - the country was locked into the role of perpetual debtor nation.
"I wrote Haiti's Constitution myself, and if I do say it, it was a pretty good little Constitution."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Meddling in internal Haitian affairs has continued unabated to the present day. Beginning in 1860, the waters around Haiti were the home for over 50 years of gunboat diplomacy as Germany, France, England and the U.S. competed for influence. Between 1849 and 1913, US Navy ships entered Haitian waters 24 times to "protect American lives and property". This led to the first US invasion and ensuing occupation of the island in the early days of WWI in 1915 on the pretext of subduing bandits threatening American property and fears that Germany might occupy the island. The result turned out to be 19 years of often brutal occupation. While there, the assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, a certain Franklin D. Roosevelt, took the opportunity to write a constitution for the people of Haiti. It only got worse post WWII as the US threw its support behind Haiti’s (and one of the world's) most notorious president, Francois Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, in the 1950's through to his son, Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc, in the 70's. The evil perpetrated by their regime with their Tonton Macoutes is almost beyond compare. "During his first four – and bloodiest — years in power, Papa Doc received $40 million from Washington, much of it in the form of outright gifts. The U.S. even went so far as to send Marines to protect this regime from any popular movement that might threaten its rule." Oh, and then we come to Aristide.

Who knows if the US directly orchestrated the coups (yes, plural) to remove the twice-elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, winner of the first free and fair election, what is important is to view the events in context. The nation had survived 30 years of brutality under the Duvalier family, a time that witnessed around 30,000 political opponents eliminated. Enter Aristides, a slum priest in a land of right-wing death squads, trumpeting a message of liberation theology, a message the Reagan brain trust declared less Christian than Communist. "US policy," they said, "must begin to counter (not react against) . . . the 'liberation theology' clergy."

The moment Aristides won over 2/3 of the vote on December 16th,1990 in a field of 12 represented the second great shift away from imperial power in Haiti and therefore the wheels of regime change turned their focus once again to the western third of Hispaniola. The administration of Bush I turned to funding the opposition and the military. Declassified records now make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH, which rose to prominence after the first military coup that ousted Aristide in September 1991, six months into his five year term. A more brutal version of the Macoutes rose, known as the zinglando, terrorizing in an era when thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled overseas or across the border into the Dominican Republic.

For the next three years Haiti was run by military-civilian juntas as ruthless as the Duvaliers. With the nation immersed in anarchy and violence, and a flood of refugees trying to float stateside, the Clinton administration had Aristides reinstalled with the help of 20,000 marines in 1994. Moving quickly this time, Aristides abolished the army who had overthrown him. Yet, before much else could be accomplished, fate once again stepped in. Events outside of Haiti's power once again moved against the country as Republicans gained control of Congress that same year, sealing her doom as the senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman was now Jesse Helms and House Speaker Newt Gingrich ensuring that the flow of US help would slow to a drip. Even though previously promised aid dried up, the country managed to limp to a successful transition of power when Aristide's 5-year term expired as Rene Preval was elected in December 1995. Future catastrophe was foreshadowed as Aristides was accused of rigging parliamentary elections, something frowned upon by the US if your name isn't Karzai, and encouraging armed groups of his supporters in the absence of an army.

In 2000 he became president once again in elections boycotted by the opposition. Amid all the accusations of abuse the country was once again hit by a triple whammy from the outside world: the UN cut back its mission, the EU suspended its aid program and of course Dubya came to power in the US. The new administration blocked all forms of assistance, including World Bank loans, a policy of economic strangulation that reflected the longstanding anti-Aristide views of the Republican Congress. The result was disastrous. From 2000-04, Haitians sank deeper into poverty, and their government became dysfunctional setting the scene for yet another coup. The example of the four promised loans from the Inter-American Development Bank (the IDB) for health, education, drinking water and road improvement paints a picture of the politicization of aid. The US asked to block the loans until the electoral disputes had been resolved. Yet even after all eight of the senators in question were out of office, the freeze on aid remained in place throughout Aristide's tenure. The State Department later claimed that the freeze was decided on by a consensus of the members of the Organisation of American States in something called the Declaration of Quebec City. Yet somehow the declaration is dated April 22nd 2001, and the letter from the US representative asking that the loans not be disbursed was dated April 8th. To quote the conclusion of one of the few journalists to find this scandal worthy of inquiry, ‘it would seem that the effort became concerted after it was made.’

The officially disbanded army along with murderous paramilitary groups seized control of much of the country forcing Aristides to request international aid. France agreed to help on the condition he step aside while the US declined to help in the absence of a "political solution". By failing to send troops earlier, the United States effectively gave a green light to the second coup d'etat against Aristides, despite having intervened a decade earlier to reverse the first one. Finally, on the night of February 29th, 2004, a team of US Navy Seals kidnapped him and his wife and they woke up 20 hours later in Africa, where they remain in exile, trapped without passports, to this day.

Of course this latest natural disaster would have occurred no matter what happened in the past. Yet, it is the economic policies of the rich towards the impoverished half island which have exacerbated the situation in Haiti - as always, it comes down to the dollar. Remember as you watch the relief efforts controlled at gunpoint by a foreign aggressor army that Haiti had been reduced to dependence on aid organizations for almost every function usually paid for and controlled by the government. 10,000 private organizations perform supposedly humanitarian missions in Haiti, however many projects seem to serve the people administering the projects as much of the money flows back stateside and American pockets. A nation is made to be dependent in may ways.

Rice, that most basic of foodstuffs provides the clearest example. Haitian import of US grown rice increased from 0 to 200,000 tons between 1980 and 2000 making the nation of 7 million the 4th largest importer of US rice. Coincidentally, per capita income has dropped from around $600 in 1980 to $369 today over the same time. Why? Under IMF tutelage, the nation learned it is better to have farmers move into the slums of Port-au-Prince to fight with laid-off government employees for 30 cent-an-hour jobs in sweatshops owned by U.S. clothing manufacturers. Additionally, through a series of structural adjustment programs, beginning in the 1980s, the IMF encouraged Haiti to adopt some of the lowest tariffs in the Caribbean. The predictable outcome was an explosion of urban slums such as Cité Soleil, Bel Air and Martissant, scenes of food riots in April 2008 (resulting in another ousted prime minister), where building conditions helped amplify the death toll of the past week to tsunami-like numbers. In November 2008, after a school collapsed in the wealthy district of Pétionville, the Mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated that 60 per cent of the city's buildings were shoddily built and unsafe. If the presidential palace couldn't hold up, it was clear what would happen to shacks built on the hillsides. Free market theories of comparative advantage were applied to justify the structural changes in the economy causing massive human suffering while American rice growers receive subsidies through a wide variety of mechanisms. Well, at least American Rice Inc. got rich.

In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty in St-Domingue - it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.
- Toussaint L’Ouverture
For the same reason American soldiers disappeared from Haiti after 9/11, the world's attention has been drawn to the prosecution of the 'global war on terror'. Therefore no one even notice the story in 2006 when it was claimed that the US had caused the 2004 coup. (Read the 11-pages that we all missed in the NY Times!). While trying to impose democracy as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq, Dubya did another finish-what-daddy-started, this time in Haiti, mostly with the help of groups like the International Republican Institute playing the Haitian role of Blackwater. While the head of Blackwater just had his men rape and kill, the Institute's leader in Haiti, Stanley Lucas, an avowed Aristide opponent from the Haitian elite, was a little more subtle, counseling the opposition not to work with Aristides, fermenting the inevitable coup. Active in 60 countries they saw their federal financing nearly triple in three years, from $26 million in 2003 to $75 million in 2005. Meanwhile, there is never any slack in the financial noose tightened tag team style as the $125 million that Haiti gets each year from the States (as of 2000) is contingent on a passing grade from the IMF. Again, context: Haiti's government, which serves 8 million people, has an annual budget of about $300 million, comparable with a US city of just over 100,000.

Yet, at a time when the focus after a natural disaster should be on relieving suffering and curing the political and economic ills that have plagued Haiti since its inception, it'll be voodoo and the devil that has gotten Haiti in the minds of many. Of course if by voodoo you mean racism and the devil the western powers you couldn't be more on target. It's not just wacky billionaire American televangelists blaming these demons, it's also Spanish clergymen (sorry, Spanish only), Archbishops of York, and NY Times journalists. Limbaugh will spew hate to turn the tables of blame on those that look to help a persecuted people and all the while Naomi Klein's prophesized Shock Doctrine will be used as a tool to further entrench failed neoliberal economic therapy. The Heritage Foundation wasted no time in issuing a statement calling for economic 'reform' in Haiti to be tied to the aid now flowing into the country (the original has since been taken down and replaced with this lighter version). Well, I've seen a memo for the financial elite who are to blame for making this disaster a thousand times worse than it needed to be: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have set aside $47 billion for bonuses; Haiti's annual gross domestic product in nominal terms - $7 billion.

Well, that's it, a bonus for those of you who made it this far, Stewart ripping on some real devils. Don't forget to check the Amazon stripe on the side, I've updated it with some works by Haitians and a Chomsky about Haiti. Plus a little music to carry you to the next post.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
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Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for the background info. I'll link my post at Notes from underground: Haiti: earthquakes, democracy and imperialism to yours.

Shane said...

No problem Steve. Your post on Haiti is excellent, although I'm glad I didn't read it before reading mine as then I'd have spent another few hundred words looking at Canada's role in the mess. I've linked your blog on my blog roll so I'll see you around.

just a traveler said...

You've managed to wrap up the whole issue in one concise post. Wish I had seen your article before writing mine - and I could have just posted a link - which I will still do. Great article!

Ab¢ent Minded said...

I appreciate your writing, succinct and and to the point unlike the media's portrayal of the situation. As all the other posters I have written something on this as well but found your link through a brett favre comment on an article in the NYtimes.

Shane said...

Kind comments traveler and Abcent. I dunno about wrapping the whole issue up, just wanted to show how complicated the issue is; like yourself traveler I was incensed by some of the media comments and had to get something off my chest.
Couldn't get to your profile Abcent so I hope you drop by again and leave a link. Colts for the Super Bowl? Will Favre retire?

LC David said...

Its historical article i really enjoyed thank you for sharing..