A few days after the earthquake, Pat Robertson, a sexist, racist, homophobic American preacher, declared Haitians themselves were to blame for the disaster as they had sworn ‘a pact to [sic] the Devil’. Sometimes it is hard not to believe that the ‘Devil’ has played a role in Haiti’s plight. However, no pact was ever sworn. If hell was unleashed on Haiti on 12 January, colonialism and neo-colonialism had a great deal to do with it. Hell has been Haitians’ path to freedom ever since its desire for emancipation was first quashed over two centuries ago.
Any country would have suffered from such a terrible earthquake. Even in Australia people would have died; however, it is unlikely that the death toll would have been anywhere near that of 12 January. Many journalists have implied that Haiti had failed to rise up to the challenge of modernity as, for example, their Dominican neighbours had. This argument tends to make us feel better as it reinforces a common underlying racism as to the impossibility of ‘blacks’ ever being able to free themselves from poverty and civil war.
But as many cases around the world have shown, it is not lack of skills, lack of democratic spirit or any absence of a wish for a just society that has led to many third world countries remaining for decades on the brink of extreme poverty. It is not, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in ‘historico-political consideration’ of the ‘African man’, that the Haitians have not ‘entered history enough’, that their ‘mindset does not leave space for human adventure or for the idea of progress’.
Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other third world countries have strived for real emancipatory freedom, starting with freedom from their colonial past and present. If many have failed, their human skills cannot be blamed. Amazing emancipatory movements and leaders have risen throughout the history of such countries. People such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Mkwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and, more recently, Jean-Bertrand Aristide have all fought and suffered alongside the poor to bring an end to centuries of exploitation. These democratic movements were not marginal, and despite the bloody repression exercised by dictatorial puppets serving powerful Western interests, a vast majority of people supported them. At times, their struggle seemed almost successful, and none more than the Haitian case.
By the end of the 18th century, Haiti was the world’s most profitable colony, generating revenues higher than the thirteen North American colonies put together. After the French Revolution, Haitian slaves organised a revolt and for over a decade fought the French, the British and Spanish, with tens of thousands of European soldiers losing their lives in battle. In 1804, Haiti became the second independent country in the Americas and the site of the first successful slave revolt of all time. Most importantly, Haiti represented the only complete emancipatory revolution. For the first time, human rights were applied to all, without distinction. This victory was a symbolic blow to white supremacy and it was soon clear that Haiti would pay dearly for such a universal claim of equality. So as not to let Haiti become an example, colonial powers made sure the small war-ravaged country would never be seen for what it truly was: a beacon of freedom for all the oppressed peoples of the earth.
Anticipating further assaults from colonial powers, Haiti devoted most of its resources to the building of fortresses, preventing in turn the reconstruction of the country. The nation was further crippled by economic retaliation; it was not until 1825 that France agreed to acknowledge Haiti’s independence and renew commercial ties, but only once Haiti had agreed to reimburse the French for stolen property. The Haitians had stolen slaves; that is, they had stolen themselves—their freedom had become a mere commodity. The bill came to 150 million francs, roughly the annual budget of France at the time. While France agreed to reduce it to 90 million, the interest on the debt and on the loans contracted in Europe used up most of the Haitian budget until the last repayment in 1947. It has been estimated that today the French owe Haiti up to $US21 billion dollars. In the meantime, Haiti was invaded. In 1915, and for over twenty years, the United States installed a deregulated economy and strengthened the power of the military; publicly, they ‘democratised’ the country. Officially, 99.2 per cent of the Haitian population welcomed the occupation; when the United States left, up to 30,000 Haitians had lost their lives.
After the 1937 exit, Haitian army generals staged a series of coups until François Duvalier (‘Papa Doc’) took power and installed an extremely violent, anti-communist regime with the tacit support of the United States. His son took over in 1971, receiving increasingly fervent support from the United States for his deregulation of the economy. ‘Baby Doc’ became yet another caricature of a puppet dictator, accumulating for his country a massive debt whilst amassing an immense personal fortune. The violence of the new regime eventually provoked its fall as the people rose once more to fight for their freedom. Duvalier was forced into exile in 1986, retiring comfortably to the French Riviera.
As the generals were not able to quash the popular movement, elections were organised in 1990. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest who had dedicated his life to empowering the poor majority, was elected in the first round by 67 per cent of the vote. In a powerful and symbolic action, his government demobilised the army and conducted a series of progressive reforms. However, only seven months into his presidency, Aristide was ousted by former military generals, supported by the elite and partly financed by the CIA. Protests against the coup were quashed and hundreds, if not thousands, of Aristide’s supporters were hunted down and killed. Yet, the people stood with Aristide and even encouraged the US embargo. George Bush Senior showed his support in favour of the coup when he lifted the embargo (allowing important income to flow into the hands of the rebels) and forcibly sent Haitian refugees back to their country. The Clinton administration eventually reinstated Aristide, only at the price of painful and unjust concessions: amongst others, the coup perpetrators were given amnesties and offered key positions in government. Aristide’s reluctance was described by the United States as intractable and rigid: the elected President began to be portrayed as a proto-dictator.
However, it was clear that Aristide’s popularity could not be diminished; in the 2000 elections, judged legitimate by the United Nations, the priest was re-elected by over 90 per cent of the vote. ‘Proper democracy’ was therefore imposed by international bodies. Notably, the IMF imposed drastic deregulatory measures on Haiti. Aristide had no choice but to accept most, as 70 per cent of his country’s operating budget came from international aid. As the result of decades of deregulation, Haiti was no longer self-sufficient in rice and sugar and imported most of these ‘commodities’ from subsidised US farmers. According to Oxfam, Haiti had become ‘one of the most liberal trade regimes in the world’. Aristide did make some headway despite his powerful adversaries and the health and education systems were improved. In 2003, the United States decided to cut their aid to Haiti after the elite declared Aristide to have become too dictatorial. As the President was forced to make further concessions, the ultra-minority opposition demanded more. Their military wings organised violent attacks which eventually led to a UN ‘intervention’ headed by France and the United States. Aristide was ousted for the second time and exiled against his will. The UN declared that Aristide’s withdrawal would help create ‘a peaceful, democratic and locally owned future’.
Just before the 2008 hurricanes and the earthquake, the situation in Haiti was critical. The IMF reported that 55 per cent of the population lived on 44 US cents a day. One in twenty Haitians was HIV positive. Child mortality was four times higher than in Latin America or the rest of the Caribbean and more than a third of the population did not have access to safe drinking water. The media compounded this gloomy vision of Haiti as a failed country. It exploited our deepest neo-colonialist feelings and our darkest sense of white superiority, which makes us the patronising saviours of a doomed third world. Yet, as history has shown, Haitians fought many times over two centuries for a brighter future, not only for themselves, but for all those who were oppressed. They succeeded many times in overcoming the most inhumane conditions imposed upon them by the most powerful in this world. If help is necessary at this stage, what Haiti truly needs is to be free. As important players in this exploitative system, Haiti’s lack of this basic human right is partly our responsibility. To think that our money will bring anything more than temporary (albeit much needed) relief entirely misses the point.
Author bio: Aurélien Mondon is completing a PhD in Political Science at La Trobe University. His research focuses on populism, racism, nationalism and the idea of equality. He is also part of the Melbourne Free University project, which starts in May 2010. For more information visit <www.melbournefreeuniversity.org>.