Sunday, 17 January 2010


A man surveys hundreds of bodies of earthquake victims at the
make-shift morgue in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 14.
The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming.
Grogory Bull/AP

The United States owes Haiti a big debt

Peoples World

Yesterday the Obama administration announced $100 million
in financial aid for earthquake stricken Haiti. At the same
time, the U.S. government announced a temporary suspension
in the deportation of Haitian immigrants. Both of these
things are positive steps. But much more is needed, and in
fact, owed to Haiti and its people, by the United States,
by France and by the wealthy industrialized countries in

Since Haiti got its independence, through hard and bloody
struggle, at the end of the 18th century (the second
country in the Western hemisphere to do so), it has been
subjected to 200 years of abuse amounting to national
martyrdom. But the average person in the United States has
not been made aware of this. In fact, during such epic
struggles as the civil rights movement in the United States
and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, racist
reactionaries were always bringing up the subject of Haiti
to prove that black people are inherently unfit for self

But when one actually examines Haiti's history, one is
amazed that the country has survived at all, and highly
impressed by the resilience and courage of the Haitian

In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of The French, sent a
huge army commanded by his brother in law to recapture what
had been France's richest colony and return its people to
slavery. Two year's later, Napoleon's troops ended up
fleeing with their tails between their legs, but in 1825, a
French fleet showed up demanding that Haiti pay France the
equivalent of $22 billion for the loss of the colony. Of
course, there was no mention of compensation to the Haitian
people for all those years of slavery.

The ruling class in the United States, via pre-Civil War
governments, was terrified that if Haiti prospered, their
own Black slaves would also take it into their heads to
rebel. So the United States backed France in this
outrageous demand. Feeling it had no choice, the Haitian
government of President Boyer knuckled under to the French
demand, which included a requirement to borrow the money to
pay France from French banks, at extortionate interest

All plans for improving the lot of ordinary Haitians were
abandoned, and the French debt was finally paid of on the
backs of the Haitian peasantry - in 1947!

Even after Abraham Lincoln recognized Haitian independence
in 1862, the U.S. showed a growing propensity for
interfering in Haitian internal affairs. To give just a few
examples: In December 1902, the U.S. Navy intervened to
support an attempt by Haitian army general Pierre Nord
Alexis to take over the government in a coup. Alexis
proceeded to rule as a corrupt dictator until he was
overthrown in 1908.

In 1915, the brutal U.S. supported dictator, Vilbrun
Guillaume Sam, was overthrown and killed after ordering the
execution of 163 prominent political prisoners. U.S.
President Woodrow Wilson, who feared German commercial
influence in Haiti, but also that the Haitians might choose
a president less friendly to their Uncle Sam, sent in the
U.S. Marines, who basically ran Haiti until Franklin
Roosevelt withdrew them in 1934, after 19 years of racist
misrule and peasant rebellions.

But the nightmare was not over. In 1941, the U.S. and the
dictator of the neighboring Dominican Republic, Rafael
Trujillo, threw their support to President Elie Lescot, who
established his own corrupt dictatorship until driven out
in 1946. (In 1937, Trujillo, another gruesome U.S. ally,
carried out a massacre of from 20,000 to 30,000 Haitian

Haiti had not hit bottom. This came with the dictatorship
of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who took power in 1957 and
quickly became the most brutal dictator of them all.
However bizarre and outrageous Papa Doc's methods of rule,
the United States saw him as a valiant foe of communism,
and lavished money on his regime - most of which was stolen
by Duvalier and his relatives. The Duvalier dictatorship,
which was continued by Duvalier's son "Baby Doc" until
1986, murdered tens of thousands of leftists and other
opponents, and picked Haiti clean. It also ran up huge
international debts for purposes alien to the interests of
the Haitian people.

After much struggle, Haiti held elections in 1991 and chose
as president the radical Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand
Aristide. Aristide was soon overthrown by the leftovers of
Duvalier's military and death squads. The Clinton
administration intervened to return Aristide to power in
1994 but with a catch: Aristide had to accept the whole
"Washington Consensus" package of neo-liberal economic
policies, and leave office in 1996 at the end of his term
which began in 1991, not taking into consideration the
years in which the military had displaced him.

Nevertheless, Aristide's government initiated some
progressive policies, including disbanding the army and
promoting improvements of education. But the neo-liberal
program had the result of driving vast numbers of Haitian
farmers off the land and into the slums of Port au Prince
and other cities, because they could not compete with
taxpayer subsidized U.S. food imports. This created a cheap
labor force for offshore "maquiladora" industry, but did
nothing to cure Haiti's historic poverty. (Last year, some,
but not all, of Haiti's debts were cancelled).

Aristide was elected again in 2002 and, among other things,
initiated a campaign to force France to pay back all the
billions of dollars that it had extorted from Haiti since
1825. But he was overthrown in 2004, with the connivance of
the French and U.S. governments and sent into exile in
South Africa, where he now resides.

Given this history, it is clear why Haiti remains the
poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But our
understanding of the historical, economic and political
reasons for Haitian poverty is covered up by a nonstop
ideological campaign which seeks to blame the Haitians for
their own poverty. We are treated to lurid tales of Papa
Doc Duvalier ruling through Voodoo without being told that
he was being heavily financed by the Eisenhower
administration and its successors, and that today Haiti's
poverty is more the result of voodoo economics than of
actual Voodoo (Voudon).

Many readers will recall the anti-Haiti campaign in the
1980s when the Haitian people were portrayed as poisonous
carriers of AIDS to be kept out of the United States, come
what might.

This history should be all that is needed to explain why
Haiti was in such bad shape even before the earthquake. In
fact, the destruction and suffering caused by the
earthquake was made much worse by the poverty of the
country-the substandard housing, the lack of emergency
services, the denuded hillsides (denuded by people cutting
down trees for firewood because they can't even afford
kerosene) which gave way, tumbling slum dwellers to their

There are thousands of Haitian immigrants and Haitian
Americans in the United States, and the remittances they
send back to their families and communities in Haiti are
the country's major source of foreign exchange money. But
the United States gives out very few permanent legal
resident visas to poor Haitians, and rounds up and deports
thousands of Haitian immigrants every year, either for
being undocumented, or for minor brushes with the law.

So what should the United States do for Haiti? First, it
should stop deporting Haitians immediately, and give them
the same Temporary Protected Status (TPS) enjoyed by
several other nationalities. The difference between the
Obama administration's announcement of a suspension of
deportation and actual TPS is that the latter has a fixed
time period and permits the person to work in this country.
The latter is vitally important right now to allow Haitians
living in the United States to send as much money as they
can back to their homeland, to help the reconstruction
effort. This step, which has been demanded by SEIU,
America's Voice and many other labor, community, political
and religious figures and organizations, would be a fitting
first step in the campaign to pass a comprehensive
immigration reform package in Congress.

Secondly, the lesson of Haiti should teach us that the
"Washington Consensus" of neo-liberal policies such as
"free" trade, privatization of public functions, budget
austerity and repression do not bring prosperity but only
misery to people in developing countries. If Haiti
eventually "moves left" and decides to throw in its lot
with the ALBA group of countries in Latin America, led by
Cuba and Venezuela, the United States should not oppose
this or try to disrupt it. After all, Venezuela and much of
the rest of South America owe their freedom in part to
revolutionary Haiti, which supported Simon Bolivar's
struggle with the sole condition that he abolish slavery in
the lands he liberated. (He did.)

And it should be clear that however much money the U.S.
sends to Haiti in earthquake aid, Haiti owes the U.S.
exactly nothing.

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