Haiti: Living in the Shadow
As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance. — John Dewey
The fear of democracy exists, by definitional necessity, in elite groups who monopolize economic and political power. — Patrick Bellegarde-Smith
This week in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Rev. Pat Robertson remarked with his customary tact that this is only one of a long string of tragedies for the impoverished country because it had “made a pact with the devil” in exchange for its independence. It’s comments like this that make one almost wish one were Muslim.
Another newscaster sighed wistfully that Haiti went from being the “most prosperous” of France’s colonies in the 18th century to one of the world’s poorest nations. She omitted mentioning the fact that Haiti’s quondam prosperity was built on the backs of African slaves, who endured savage treatment but did not share in the colony’s riches.
Tuesday’s massive earthquake was only part of the tragedy. Extreme poverty, economic stagnation and a weak government and infrastructure have only exacerbated the calamity. While it is true that voodoo still exists in Haiti, and there is a story in which slaves prayed to their god for help in their victory over the French, one can draw a direct line from the country’s ravaged economy and failed democracy to U.S. and European intervention over two centuries.
At the dawn of the 19th century, as a result of a massive slave uprising, Haiti became the world’s first independent state founded by former slaves. With the loss of such a jewel in its colonial crown, France pressured the new government for compensation for the loss of “property” (i.e., slaves). Being a slave-holding state itself, the neighboring U.S. with its high ideals of liberty felt threatened and remained far from supportive of such independence, thus continuing its creed that “all [white] men are created equal.” And so little Haiti became indebted to France for its freedom. The full amount (60 million francs, in gold) was not paid off until 1947. If Haiti is accursed, as Robertson claims, it has certainly been cursed with debt. If it made any pacts, one of the devils in the bargain was most certainly France, and as we see later, the U.S.
Fast forward a century to 1915. Political instability in Haiti prompts President Woodrow Wilson to send U.S. Marines, supposedly, to “protect U.S. interests.” In reality, we were protecting U.S. corporations and luring the impoverished nation into a net of further debt and economic dependency. By 1918 a Haitian law was passed at the point of American rifles that allowed the U.S. to turn Haiti effectively into a U.S. plantation. Haiti was under our military occupation for 19 years.
Among poor nations political turmoil, natural disasters and economic crises are often used as a pretext for the developed world to foist massive loans on a struggling government and the sale of the country’s precious resources to the highest bidder. This is one of the ugly sides of capitalism (especially when governments like ours go to bed with corporations) and it is a game repeated for centuries throughout the developing world. Native populations are forced out of rural areas, where they have lived for generations, and into cramped cities to work in manufacturing, making trinkets for the white man. This is what happened to Haiti, as well as much of Africa.
In addition, capitalist nations force the weaker governments to lower tariffs on imports, especially on commodities that the poor countries grow themselves, thus further crippling their agriculture. This too is Haiti’s history, and we only have to go back to 1994, when President Aristide was returned to power under the “kindly’ auspices of the very country who helped topple him in a CIA-backed coup. Then President Bill Clinton (now ironically U.N. special envoy to Haiti) exacted a high price for Aristide’s return, including lowering tariffs so that the U.S. could dump its excess rice on a population that grew its own. Haitian rice growers could not compete with the heavily subsidized U.S. commodity and so never recovered.
Like so many darker-skinned nations, Haiti’s greatest sin in the eyes of the West has ever been her desire to be free. An unpardonable crime. It’s enormous debts have from its foundation rendered its government ineffectual, causing some leaders to focus on merely pillaging rather than rebuilding its economy.
The United States is not the sole cause of Haiti’s ills (France, Germany, the World Bank and IMF have also done more than their share of damage) , but it cannot be denied that had the island had the good fortune to be located in some other hemisphere, away from the shadow of this “bastion of democracy” we call America, the people of Haiti would have fared far better. With friends like us who needs enemies?
To read more about the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934).