February 2012        


Haïti: the unforgiven land

Of all the colonies in America, the most profitable to the coloniser was Saint-Domingue, where the slaves produced more wealth for France than the North American colonies did for England.
     The French Republic decreed an end to slavery, but Napoléon Bonaparte sought to reimpose it. The armies he sent to the island were defeated, and the victorious people renamed their country Haïti (the French spelling of the indigenous name, Ayiti). Haïti thus became the first free country of America, in 1804, sixty years before chattel slavery was ended in the United States.
     For the crime of freeing themselves the people of Haïti have never been forgiven. The slave-owners and colonisers feared the example they set. Haïti was later forced to pay 90 million gold francs to France to compensate the slave-owners for the loss of their property, which took 150 years to pay off, thereby inhibiting any economic development.
     In 1915 US marines invaded Haïti, occupying it until 1932. They subsequently gave support to the notorious dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, whose private army of “Tonton Macoutes” terrorised the population, and then his son Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc.” A popular movement for democracy was led by the Catholic priest and liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which led to the overthrow of Duvalier in 1986. When elections were held in 1990 Aristide won, with 67 per cent of the vote. Less than a year later he was overthrown in a military coup.
     In 1994 the US marines were back. This time they facilitated the return of Aristide, but under conditions imposed by Bill Clinton, which limited his freedom of action and favoured American business interests.
     Aristide continued in office until 1996 and was elected again in 2000. Though he acted cautiously, to avoid conflict with the United States, the Bush government plotted with Haïtian business interests and former Duvalierists to overthrow him. The planning of the coup followed the pattern of the coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, and the Chilean coup in 1971.
     Nevertheless it was failing, so, with the participation of France and Canada, the United States interfered directly, kidnapped the president, and flew him to the Central African Republic.
     The regime installed by the invaders represented a very tiny elite, as there is little industry in Haïti, and agriculture has been severely weakened by imports: for example, subsidised rice from the United States destroyed Haïtian rice-growers after import duties were reduced. Clinton has apologised for this, but the United States continues to impose policies that favour American interests. Such development as there is consists of export-oriented sweatshops, taking advantage of the miserable wages paid.
     The United Nations shamefully endorsed the invasion and took over the occupation through the force called the UN Stabilization Mission in Haïti (MINUSTAH), headed by Brazilian forces and including soldiers from many other countries. This force did nothing to protect the people from the attacks of the coup plotters—on the contrary, it committed its own atrocities against them. On the pretext of fighting “bandits” it raided the slums of Cité Soleil in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and killed dozens of innocent people. The soldiers are responsible for a great number of rapes and other crimes. Because of its extreme negligence, the force introduced a virulent strain of cholera from far-away Nepal, causing an epidemic that has killed more than seven thousand people.
     The party founded by Aristide, Fanmi Lavalas, continues to have massive support, but it is banned from participating in elections. So a tiny unrepresentative clique is maintained in office by the United Nations, in a total perversion of its stated purpose and function. When elections are held few bother to vote.
     In January 2010 another tragedy hit the afflicted people of Haïti, an earthquake in which tens of thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.
     The disaster shocked people all over the world. Two countries in particular reacted quickly: Cuba sent doctors, and the United States sent soldiers. The American soldiers actually occupied the airport and stopped aid coming in until their military operation was complete. The Cubans, on the other hand, joined their compatriots who were already providing a health service to the people, along with Haïtian doctors trained in Cuba. Half the doctors attending to the victims of the earthquake were Cuban.
     Much international aid was promised to Haïti. Yet half a million people are still living in tents and makeshift houses, and there is really not much to show for the money spent, which is nothing near the amounts promised. Bill Quigley of the American organisation Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haïti reports that international NGOs are everywhere with their projects, but Haïtians are not consulted. 0.4 per cent of the total of international aid goes to Haïtian NGOs and only 1 per cent to the Haïtian government.
     Until last October aid was co-ordinated by the Interim Haïti Recovery Commission, chaired by Bill Clinton along with the Haïtian prime minister. It seems that the United States has stepped in to take control even of this. NGOs have been co-opted, willingly or otherwise, into the imperialist project. How do the Irish NGOs Haven, Goal and Concern fit in to this?
     Aristide has returned to Haïti from his exile in South Africa, to a tumultuous welcome from enormous crowds. (Before he left, Obama asked President Zuma of South Africa to stop him, which he could not legally have done.) The following day there was an election of a sort, with Lavalas banned and two neo-Duvalierists standing for president. The winner, Michel Martelly, got the votes of 17 per cent of the electorate—that is, one out of six of those eligible to vote.
     Martelly was exhibited in Dublin last month by the Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien and met the taoiseach here and in Davos. He has admitted that he was a Macoute in his time, and has been openly supportive of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, after a judge dropped charges against him.
     Also shaking Duvalier’s hand was William Jefferson Clinton, the de facto controller of Haïti.
     Truly, bad times are in store for the people of Haïti.
■ The anniversary of the 2004 coup will be marked in Dublin by a number of events organised by Haïti Solidarity Ireland (affiliated to the Latin America Solidarity Centre). On Saturday 25 February, from 12:00 (noon) to 5 p.m., films about Haïti will be shown in the New Theatre (East Essex Street), in association with the Progressive Film Club. On Wednesday 29 February (the anniversary of the coup) a picket protest will be held at the Brazilian embassy (Charlotte Way, off Camden Street) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., as Brazilian soldiers lead the occupying force, MINUSTAH. During the previous week a public meeting will also be held to explain the issues.

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