By Dave Bush, Staff Contributor
Is Haiti cursed? The question seems to be asked by westerners every time Haiti goes through some crisis, whether it is a flood, coup or earthquake.
“From this catastrophe, which follows so many others, we should make sure that it is a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy days after the recent 7.1 earthquake devastated Haiti.
There it is again, the curse that supposedly lurks behind all of Haiti’s problems.
Poverty, political instability, debt and economic backwardness are apparently not the products of historical, economic and political processes but are the result of 200 years of a voodoo deal with the devil.
That obvious fantasy aside, maybe Haiti is suffering from a curse: foreign meddling. Sarkozy, Bush, Obama, Clinton and Harper are merely the latest incarnation. This earthquake destroyed Haiti, but didn’t do it alone.
While any earthquake of that magnitude would have caused profound damage in any city, it struck Haiti’s economic and political situation, and profoundly exacerbated the earthquake’s impact. Now those countries and institutions that have done the most to repress, invade and crush Haiti are now swooping in to “clean up”, “rebuild” and occupy.
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
If you want to help the people of Haiti, the first step is to understand the situation. We know that Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere. Seventy-five per cent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, and 56 per cent live on less than $1 per day. Have you ever asked why?
Haiti, in the 18th century, was the jewel of the French colonial empire. Its slave-harvested sugar plantations were prized above any other French colony. When the French revolution got underway at the end of the 18th century, the slaves of Haiti took the revolutionary slogans more literally than the French radicals. Their demands for radical racial equality culminated in the first successful slave revolution and the founding of the second republic in the hemisphere in 1804.
The British, French and Spanish immediately attacked the new Haitian republic, because these traditional colonial powers feared the spread of slave revolts. The Haitians beat off these attacks but it was at a heavy price. In 1825, France, with warships at the ready, demanded Haiti “compensate” France for its loss of a slave colony. Haiti paid “reparations” to France until 1947.
For over a century, the Haitian government suffered from multiple coups and political instability often at the behest of foreign powers. From 1934 until the mid-80s Haiti was ruled by military dictatorship, the Duvalier family and the dreaded paramilitaries, the Tonton Macoutes, all with foreign backing.
In 1990, after popular uprisings in the mid-80s, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic Priest, as their first democratically elected president ever.
Aristide was quickly deposed in an American backed coup in 1991. The coup regime committed some of the worst human-rights abuses in modern Haitian history murdering over 4,000 political opponents of the regime.
The Haitian military dictators, forced by international pressure and growing unrest in Haiti, signed a compromise with Aristide. The Americans reinstalled Aristide on the condition he support the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank proposals implemented during his exile. Aristide left office at the end of his term in 1996.
Aristide won his second election in 2000 despite overt American support for his opponents. The response by the Americans and others was swift and harsh. The Bush administration withdrew $512 million in Inter-American Development Bank loans to Haiti.
The Bush Administration also pressured the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Union to follow with reductions of other planned assistance. Aristide was a thorn in the side of the American, Canadian and French governments. France was particular disturbed when Aristide asked that the 21 billion that France stole form Haiti be returned.
In January 2003, as reported by Michel Vastel in l’Actualité, Canada hosted The Ottawa Initiative on Haiti. This was a conference to determine the future of Haiti’s government. Canada, America, France and Latin American governments attended the conference. No Haitian officials were present.
In little over a year a rebellion by former Haitian death squad leaders was marching on the capital, Port-au-Prince. Aristide, who had been begging for some kind of assistance in dealing with the rebellion, was taken at gunpoint by American soldiers, forced to sign a “resignation” letter and dumped into the Central African Republic. A cabal of elites backed by U.S., Canadian and French Troops then ruled Haiti. After the coup, assassinations, imprisonment and intimidation of members of Aristide’s Lavalas movement were commonplace.
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, a 10,000-member police, military and administrative regime has been accused of directly and indirectly facilitating this political repression in Haiti. In 2005, a report undertaken by Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights claimed that the UN stabilization force “effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Prince’s slums.” The UN mission spends $600 million per year – almost double the national budget of the Haitian government.
Haiti, in the years since the coup, has been subject to complete political repression backed by the international community. In the 2006 presidential election lauded by Canada as a free and fair election, Fanmi Lavalas, the biggest political party, was banned along with 13 other political parties.
Throughout all the coups and political turmoil Haiti’s debt ballooned. Between 1980 and 2004, Haiti’s debt to international organizations and foreign governments more than tripled.
Neoliberal policies pushed by the IMF and World Bank destroyed small farmers in Haiti. In 1995, for example, the IMF forced Haiti to cut its rice tariff from 35 percent to three per cent, leading to a massive increase in rice-dumping, the vast majority of which came from the U.S.
Unable to compete with subsidized agricultural products from the North American and European markets poor and desperate peasants flooded the cities throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. They cut down trees for firewood, settled in hastily-built slums and on treeless hills. They built their homes where they could, with whatever they could.
The food crisis of 2008 and the massive floods caused by hurricanes led to the cancellation of $1.2 billion in debt. However, Haiti still owes about $891 million.
Just a few days after the Earthquake, the IMF issued a $100 million loan that came with neoliberal conditions, such as wage freezes (the conditions were repealed due to public outcry).
George Bush and Bill Clinton, two Presidents largely responsible for the economic and political destruction of Haiti, are now playing prominent roles as saviours. This is the type of “help” Haiti has been cursed with. Haiti is now flooded with foreign troops – over 32,000 – obsessing with militarizing a humanitarian operation and “securing” Haiti.
Haiti’s path to security, however, lies on the road of justice.
As Richard Kim recently wrote: “(It’s) time to stop having a conversation about charity and start having a conversation about justice – about recovery, responsibility and fairness. What the world should be pondering instead is: What is Haiti owed?”