Context to catastrophe
A large part of the suffering of Haiti now is due to US efforts to keep the country down, writes Curtis Doebbler
Since last week, the world media has been broadcasting harrowing images of Haitians affected by the terrible earthquake that struck their country. While the pictures are sometimes accompanied by references to the ravishing poverty in the country, little is said about of how the Haitian people fell into the poverty trap and who has maintained their suffering.
Sadly, the human catastrophe that has beset Haiti is more man made than natural. It is based on decades of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and other assorted forms of Western violence against the people of Haiti.
More than 200 years ago Haiti became slave colony of the Spanish, the indigenous the Ta’no Indians having been killed or displaced. Haiti's natural resources of sugar, coffee and indigo were harvested by imported African slaves who made the French and Spanish wealthy during the 1600s and 1700s.
One of the most prominent leaders of the push for freedom by the slaves of Haiti, Toussaint L'Ouverture, was captured and killed by the French in 1803 after he trusted Napoleon Bonaparte's offer of free passage to negotiations. And while the Haitians battled the French for their independence, the then relatively recently established US government exploited the Haitians by selling them supplies while at the same time providing even more and better to their French enemies.
The struggle of the Haitian slaves led to short lived independence, but foreign powers continued to intervene in Haiti. Among other instances, Haiti's more powerful northern neighbour, the US, militarily intervened in 1888 and 1914.
From 1914 to 1937, the US effectively occupied Haiti, eventually creating a puppet government to rule as its proxy. During this period, several protests by former slaves and the descendents of the indigenous inhabitants of Haiti were put down with significant bloodshed. Perhaps even more damaging for the future development of Haiti, however, were the series of loans and export agreements that the US imposed on Haiti to de facto export much of the Haitians' wealth.
After a series of faulty governments, in 1957 the US reasserted its control over Haiti through the proxy government of François Duvalier, which the US propped up economically and militarily. As many as 30,000 Haitians are estimated to have been killed by this bloody regime. It was only in 1990 when Haitians were able to vote that they overwhelmingly elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide as their president. When President Aristide attempted to protect the national resources and wealth of his country by rejecting US pressure to privatise major services and energy industries he was quickly ousted in a coup d'etat that was rumoured to be sponsored by the US and by supporters of the Duvalier regime living in the US.
In 2000, Aristide was again elected president. Once again, however, the US acted in February 2004 to strengthen its geopolitical hold on the hemisphere by removing democratically elected President Aristide. To fill the gap left by President Aristide departure, Mr Gérard Latortue was brought back from the US -- by the US -- to serve as prime minister and Mr Boniface Alexandre was made president. The shuffle had all the hallmarks of US-style covert coup and installation of a puppet government.
The Haitian people's will to determine their own future could not be suppressed for long. In February 2006, they ousted the US favourite and replaced him with a close supporter of President Aristide, current President René Préval. Alleging election irregularities after an opposition boycott of the elections, the US intensified pressure by forbidding aid to the government of Haiti. At the same time, US aid continued to flow to non-governmental actors, particularly those who opposed the Aristide government.
US policymakers were evidently scrambling for other ways of containing Haiti. With little apparent concern for the social or economic wellbeing of the Haitian people, European governments and international financial institutions also allied with the US to suspend their aid to Haiti. As a result Haiti is the product of the insidious interference of the international community in the internal affairs of Haiti that has prevented its people from exercising their right of self-determination. This is most recently manifested in the regime of political pressure and economic sanctions by the international community that is led by the United States, Europe and the international financial institutions.
Today, Haiti has 75 per cent unemployment and most of its people live off well under two Euros a day. About half of its children lack access to basic health services and 50 per cent of all Haitians lack access to clean drinking water. The 2007 UN Development Programmes' Human Development Index lists the 10 million people of Haiti 149th out about 190 countries in terms of development and living standards. While Haitians suffer extreme poverty making Haiti the poorest state in the Americas, the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has looked on and spurred the suffering of the Haitian people.
As a consequence of the economic pressure applied to Haiti its foreign debt remains at more than $600 million. This is an amount that outweighs all the disaster assistance pledged to the country in the first days after the earthquake. It is a debt that Haiti continues to struggle to repay even as it tries to dig itself out from under the rubble of the recent earthquake. And it is a debt that the International Monetary Fund has taken the opportunity to increase by offering Haiti a $100 million loan to help rebuild after the disaster of the earthquake.
A recent French proposal to forgive Haiti's foreign debt already seems to have been disregarded by the international community as unrealistic. The reality appears to be that Haiti is again being relegated to a continued existence of poverty and lack of basic human needs. Even in the wake of the natural disaster of a devastating earthquake, US intentions toward Haiti remain unclear. US aid consists as much of up to 15,000 US troops that are being sent to "help" the Haitians as it does of the tons of humanitarian assistance that is being dropped on Haiti, often with such disregard that it appears intended to incite unrest.
Moreover, the insensitivity of using US troops to provide aid itself likely raises the suspicion of independent minded Haitians. Many Haitians have already seen in the past that US troops are often inept at providing humanitarian assistance. Indeed, when Haitians fled their failing economy in the 1990s for the chance of greater wealth in the US, the US military stopped them on the high seas and sent many back to Haiti or to Guantanamo Bay. Humanitarian relief -- being run from the Department of Defense in the US -- is likely only part of the US military's task in Haiti.
With President Préval's government decimated, the US, which within hours controlled the Port-au-Prince airport, has begun to broaden its reach throughout the country stating that intends to control ports as well. Once entrenched, US troops do not have a good record of quickly withdrawing.
Even as the humanitarian suffering has intensified after the earthquake, the intention of the US's alleged humanitarian assistance remains unclear. In the first few days of the disaster relief operations, US military planes tied up the airport taking precedence over planes landing with humanitarian assistance. Jarry Emmanuel of the World Food Organisation lamented that, "there are 200 flights going in and out every day but most of those flights are for the US military. Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed the people."
The naming of former US presidents George W Bush and William Clinton is also curious. Clinton is already a UN envoy for Haiti, a role he seems to have deserted in favour of supporting the US intervention in Haiti. Bush is most noted in disaster relief circles for his striking failures to provide for the people of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What message does sending someone with such a record of failure give to the Haitian people?
One message is likely that humanitarian assistance is a poor second place to US political and military ambitions. This certainly appears to be the view promoted by the short visit of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Port-au-Prince just days after the earthquake struck. Her visit nearly shut down the airport for a short time while the rescue and relief effort was in full swing.
Such interferences are likely to intensify if an air bridge has to be established to provide for up to 15,000 US troops that have already started arriving even faster than the humanitarian supplies meant for the people of Haiti. The additional troops, embedded civilians, supplies, and logistics equipment will only exacerbate the suffering of the Haitian people in the long run by ensuing that Haitians are not able to exercise their self-determination without external interference.
In the circumstances, the American media is doing its best to obscure any bad intentions on the part of the US. CNN, one of prominent voices of the US around the world, has regularly provided disjointed reports that appear to have been written in Washington rather than by their correspondents in Haiti. These reports emphasise the disorder and lack of control of the government, while praising US efforts to "help" the people and lamenting the lack of adequate action by the United Nations.
As if to rub salt into the wounds of the suffering Haitians, CNN even went so far as to draw special attention to how the US embassy there had withstood the earthquake with almost no damage at all, while drawing comparison to the collapsed presidential palace just a few hundred metres away.
By inciting concern over disorder, the media creates a void that needs to be filled. The US government has already suggested that the void could be filled by US soldiers. Conveniently, the Western media is not suggesting that allowing popular President Aristide to return to assist his own country, as he has requested, is among the viable options.
Portraying the US as the saviour of the Haitian people might fool uneducated observers, but it is quite a leap for the Haitian people to believe that the country that has shown hostility towards the democratic will of the Haitian people and a lack of concern for their humanitarian wellbeing, now is suddenly interested in saving them.
The sad truth is that the US likely has little concern for the Haitians, but rather for its own image as well as for what it can accomplish towards its end of controlling the Haitian people. The US action is a stark reminder to the Haitian people of their position as second-class citizens in the view of their wealthier northern neighbour.
Ironically, one of Haiti's best known native sons -- Jean Baptiste Point du Sable -- founded the city of Chicago, Illinois in the United States; the city from which US President Barack Obama hails. Perhaps this will serve as inspiration for the US government led by President Obama to break with the past and to help Haitian people to develop freely. This would mean the US embracing instead of rejecting Haitian self-determination. For this to happen Obama will have to recognise that perhaps the Haitians also have a dream, but that it might not include the controlling hand of the US.
The writer is an international human rights lawyer and professor of law at An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine.