A 15-year-old girl shot dead by Haitian police after the earthquake for stealing paintings ; Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
The earthquake in Haiti called the world’s attention to a country whose people have been suffering for centuries – but much of their current suffering started before the earthquake and is caused not by a lack of outside intervention but by too much of it, with the wrong motives. Of course Haitians need all the emergency aid they can get, but the causes of their suffering – including the lack of earthquake proof buildings like those found in California – have a lot to do with the French and US governments and firms profiting from reducing most of them to poverty and starvation – and not just in the past.
Haitians – dying as slaves of France and America then and now
In the 18th century they were slaves whose lives were treated as worthless by owners whose fear of rebellion led to incredible cruelty. Their rebellion was crushed first by the French. Haiti then had to pay an ‘indemnity’ for the costs to the French of crushing the rebels and reduce taxes on French imports and exports. By the early 20th century American forces arrived and occupied the country, taking control of its finances and getting a puppet leader to grant the US the ‘right’ to ‘develop’ Haiti’s ‘natural resources’.
The US has became the dominant foreign power in Haiti, though the French government still believes that Haiti is in it’s ‘sphere of influence’. ‘Papa Doc’ Francois Duvalier went from saving thousands of lives as a doctor to having thousands killed as a US-backed dictator. Under Carter’s Presidency in the US the ‘Baby Doc’ Jean Charles Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti briefly felt the need to restrain itself from murdering too many of its critics and opponents in case it lost some foreign aid, but on the night of Reagan’s election Duvalier’s ‘tonton macoutes’ (hired thugs with machetes and guns) poured into the streets of the Haitian capital Port Au Prince shouting ‘The Cowboys are in power – human rights are over’. Once Reagan took office in January 1980 the killing began again in earnest (1).
While there is a great deal of controversy over the past Presidency of Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest in Port Au Prince, there is no doubt about one thing – US policy under both Republican and Democratic Presidents and congresses has been to demand ‘free trade’ in Haiti – privatisation, cuts in public services and access to Haiti for US based firms. In 1980 Haiti produced enough food to feed it’s own population. Pressure from the US and European governments through the IMF got import tariffs on rice imports to Haiti slashed. While demanding Haiti end all subsidies and protection for Haitian farmers the US government increased subsidies to American farmers.
So while in the past Haiti produced 80% of the rice eaten there, now it imports 80%. Under IMF conditions on loans run up under US backed dictatorships in the past Haiti also began exporting cash crops to the US while having to import Us-subsidised American rice, putting its own farmers out of business. The wages paid in Haitian factories, mostly by American based multinationals, had fallen to 20% of their 1981 levels by 2000, partly due to the US trained military targeting trade unionists and governments banning trade unions (see the Oxfam website and Professor Peter Hallward’s book ‘Damming the Flood’ on this) (2), (3).
This has had everything to do with benefitting investors from the US, France and their allies and little or nothing to do with helping the majority of Haitians, who, reduced to an income of under 50 pence a day, couldn’t afford food and were buying ‘mud cakes’ made of mud mixed with salt to fill their own and their children’s stomachs as they starved by July 2008 (4). This was before the hugely exaggerated ‘credit crisis’ or the earthquake.
Aristide came to prominence as a critic of the Duvalier dictatorships – and continued to criticise the military government of General Namphy which replaced the younger Duvalier. On September 11th 1988 tontons macoute burst into his church at San Jean Bosco during a sermon in which he as usual denounced the dictatorship for its repression, its corruption and for doing nothing for the poor majority. The attackers shot and hacked the congregation and set fire to the church, killing dozens. This echoed the US-backed military and death squads in El Salvador and their assassination of Bishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 and the murder of many of his supporters before and after his death. Aristide, unlike Romero, survived the attempt on his life – and several attempts before and after it. Both Aristide and Romero were outspoken on behalf of the poor. The Haitian military, like the Salvadoran, was (and is) US-trained.
Aristide – Liberator or corrupted by power?
However Aristide refused to call for reconciliation with his enemies. Instead he told his supporters that they were weak alone, but strong together, that together they were Lavalas (the flood). He is accused by his critics of encouraging violence against his political enemies with public speeches that included lines like "do not forget to give them what they deserve" and "a machete is a useful tool in many situations". However Aristide feared his enemies were preparing to kill him and his supporters. Pre-empting this may have been morally wrong or unwise or paranoid, but he had every reason to feel paranoid. If Aristide is not a saint it’s hard to know how any of us would have reacted when people close to us had been killed and we feared for both our own lives and those of our families and allies. Haitian politics is very different to American or European politics in which the losers know losing doesn’t mean possible death for them, their families and those who supported them. His defenders also say he only approved of violence in self-defence against the tonton macoutes and the army – and that his movement is primarily non-violent as it could never hope to beat the automatic weapons of his enemies.
The US government was critical of the Namphy regime over the San Jean Bosco massacre and cut aid to it as a result. In 1990 Aristide was elected President and began to carry out major reforms to benefit the poorest, including increasing the minimum wage
The French government was greatly displeased by Aristide's government taking it to court, demanding that it repay the $21 billion he estimated France owed Haiti between the 'indemnity' (which was only paid off by Haiti in 1947) and its use of Haitians as slave labour.
He was soon overthrown in a military coup in 1991 in which the US-trained military massacred hundreds of people (and thousands over the next three years), but restored to office by an American invasion of Haiti in 1994 under President Clinton, towards the end of his first term. However there were plenty of conditions placed by the Clinton administration on his restoration apart from reconciliation with his enemies. They included adopting IMF imposed ‘economic reforms’ – the usual privatisations, cuts in public services and welfare payments and access to Haiti for foreign firms, along with a cut in the minimum wage - and Aristide not standing in the next Presidential election, meaning he would actually have been in office for less than two of the five years of his term.
On being restored to office (but barely to power) Aristide began policies to benefit the poor majority again and filled his government with community organisers and charity workers, angering both the traditional Haitian elite and US firms, who benefited from low wages ; as well as career politicians who had expected lucrative ministerial posts in his government.
Aristide also dismantled the US-trained Haitian military, given the long history of most of it in backing dictators and overthrowing elected governments (not least his own in 1991). The Clinton and Bush administrations now moved to backing right-wing paramilitary groups, the FRAPH and FADH, as a means of maintaining their influence by force in Haiti. Many politicians denied a place in Aristide's government were funded with US aid to set up 'civil society' groups to try to discredit Aristide
Aristide and his OPL (party of the Lavalas or ‘flood’) subsequently split, with Aristide forming the ‘Fanmi Lavals’ (family of the flood) while many politicians denied a place in Aristide's government formed a separate OPL (with the L now standing for ‘Lutte’ or ‘struggle’ rather than Lavalas).
Aristide was forced stand down in the next election by the Clinton administration and US congress making US aid conditional on this action. His ally Rene Preval took over for a term, before Aristide was re-elected with a big majority as President in the 2000 Haitian Presidential elections, which, despite much US and French government propaganda, were declared largely free and fair by international observers.
The version of events given from here on continues to vary according to the views of the writer , with some casting Aristide as the hero, resisting American backed villains; others (like Michael Diebert in his book ‘Notes on the Last Testament’) casting him as the villain – a paranoid, ruthless or power crazed man who had lost his way and become corrupt.
What is certain is that in 2004 the Bush administration and the French government backed another military coup against Aristide and he was flown into exile in the Central African Republic, whose French backed dictatorship banned him from criticising the US or French governments or their role in the coup in the media (5), (6).
I’ll leave it up to others to read for themselves and decide which version they believe and whether Aristide was corrupted by power or fear or simply had his character assassinated by the US and French governments when they realised he wasn’t meeting their demands (though my own view is that a great deal of character assassination and propaganda against Aristide is involved). The important point to make is that no US government has ever criticised a government much for being undemocratic or ruthless or dictatorial unless that government was either hostile to the US or else restricting profits for American investors and firms by running it’s country for the benefit of the majority of the population, rather than for foreign investors in alliance with a small indigenous elite collaborating with them. The Saudi monarchy has never yet held a free election or many fair trials. President Uribe of Colombia and his government have had plenty of dissidents and trade unionists murdered using right-wing paramilitaries that work hand in glove with the US funded military. President Mubarak of Egypt has banned the main opposition party, rigs elections and has opposition activists –whether Muslim, conservative or liberal – attacked by thugs. Yet they will never get the criticism that Chavez in Venezuela (repeatedly democratically elected) , Castro (an unelected dictator but with a broadly socialist economic policy until recently) or Aristide do. So if the US government is hostile to Aristide it’s more likely that that’s because he tried to run Haiti for the benefit of the majority of Haitians.
That may be why the US government had international aid coming from the Inter-American Development Bank and various other sources to Haiti blocked as long as Aristide was in power ( as pointed out by Professor Paul Farmer, who also runs a medical charity in Haiti and works for it there) (7).
The other point is that as a result Haitians have quietly starved to death in huge numbers so American and French investors can profit.
Invading Haiti to keep out the damn immigrants and control Haiti’s trade policy– 1994 and 2009
On the few occasions when the US government sends aid it also has mixed motives. In 1994 as today a key aim was to prevent refugees reaching Florida and upsetting the next election.
The Irish Independent newspaper reported in January that “As well as providing emergency supplies and medical aid, the USS Carl Vinson, along with a ring of other navy and coast guard vessels, will act as a deterrent to Haitians who might be driven to make the 681-mile sea crossing to Miami..."The goal is to interdict them at sea and repatriate them," said the US Coast Guard Commander Christopher O'Neil.’(8)
Haitian orphans are welcome. Haitian refugees and immigrants are sent home to suffer (other than CIA and US military intelligence ‘assets’ responsible for many political killings, many of whom retire to Florida).
Another aim has always been to use Haiti as a source of cheap labour for American multinationals – and more importantly to prevent Aristide’s example being followed by other countries.
Shooting the poor
So after the earthquake when Haitian police handed looters over to mobs to be burned alive there was little comment from the Obama administration or President Sarkozy; nor when Haitian policem shot a 15 year old girl dead for stealing paintings to try to get money to buy food - and that was no isolated incident (8) - (10).
How impoverishing Haitians caused earthquake deaths due to shoddy buildings
Another fact that’s given less prominence than it deserves is that according to seismologists the earthquake that hit Haiti wasn’t especially big in historical terms and only killed so many people because so many of Haiti’s buildings are not designed to resist earthquakes despite the capital of the country lying on a fault line. A larger earthquake – 7.0 on the Richter scale – in Los Angeles in 1994 killed less than 70 people because the buildings there were designed to withstand earthquakes. All the money taken in interest payments in debt, all the money never paid due to low minimum wages and reduced benefits, ensured that even among Haitians who realised the risk couldn’t afford to build earthquake resistant houses and buildings (11), (12).
They don’t owe us, We Owe them
Naomi Klein, the author of 'The Shock Doctrine' quotes Haitian economist Camille Chalmers.
'Debt cancellation is a good start, he told al-Jazeera English, but: "It's time to go much further. We have to talk about reparations and restitution for the devastating consequences of debt." In this telling, the whole idea that Haiti is a debtor needs to be abandoned. Haiti, he argues, is a creditor – and it is we, in the west, who are deeply in arrears.'
For decades one of the poorest countries in the world has been paying money to foreign debtors and much of it has been debt run up under dictatorships backed or tolerated by the US government, which in terms of international law is ‘odious debt’ which should be written off by the creditors – even more so when they had the power to end those dictatorships and chose not to.
The media coverage of Haiti since the earthquake has helped the campaign to cancel this debt and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK has come out in favour of cancelling it – but unless the campaign continues beyond the media coverage, those successes may be reversed.
Unless things change from now on – unless the US and French and every other government are pressured by the people of their own countries to stop imposing economic policies that cause huge numbers of deaths through poverty on Haitians – and to stop seeking to rule Haiti by arming and funding the Haitian military, whose only war has been on it’s own people (which is why Aristide disbanded it in his first term in office – and why the US later helped to re-establish it). Of course Haiti needs investment – but on it’s people’s terms, not the terms of foreign governments, firms or those collaborators among the tiny wealthy Haitian elite (though some wealthy Haitians have taken the side of the majority).
Otherwise Haitians will keep dying like flies and watching their children die, just as they did before the earthquake, during it and since it; dying quickly - in political killings, in police shootings of desperate teenagers turning to petty theft to try to get enough to eat, in future earthquakes under the rubble of cheap buildings ; or dying slowly and quietly– of illness or of hunger , while eating mud cakes mixed with salt to try to fill their aching, empty stomachs. This is not because developed world governments haven’t done enough – but because they have done far too much to repress and exploit benefits for the profit of firms based in their own countries – and to prevent the “threat” posed by liberation theology like Aristide’s spreading.
Johan Hari points to one success :
‘The IMF announced a $100m loan, stapled on to an earlier loan, which requires Haiti to raise electricity prices, and freeze wages for the public-sector workers who are needed to rebuild the country...For the first time, the IMF was stopped from shafting a poor country – by a rebellion here in the rich world. Hours after the quake, a Facebook group called "No Shock Doctrine For Haiti" had tens of thousands of members, and orchestrated a petition to the IMF of over 150,000 signatures demanding the loan become a no-strings grant. After Naomi Klein's mega-selling exposé, there was a vigilant public who wanted to see that the money they were donating to charity was not going to be cancelled out by the IMF. ... The IMF backed down. It publicly renounced its conditions – and even said it would work to cancel Haiti's entire debt.’ (13)
That’s a real victory, but the pressure needs to be maintained. So far according to the UN donor governments have only delivered 6% of the aid they promised to feed Haitians even through the current emergency created by the earthquake. (14)
(1) = Michael Deibert (2005) ‘Notes from the Last Testament’, Seven Stories Press, London & NY , 2005, Chapter 4, pages 80 – 81 of paperback edition (A Reuters correspondent in Haiti from 2001 till 2003, Deibert is highly critical of Aristide, seeing him as having been behind many political killings and having become a dictator)
(2) =Peter Hallward (2007) ‘Damming the Flood – Haiti, Aristide and the politics of containment’, Verso, London and New York, 2007 (Professor Hallward makes a convincing and well-sourced case that many of the claims about Aristide’s ‘dictatorship’ are a well orchestrated propaganda campaign aimed at legitimising US and French government backed military coups in alliance with some of the wealthiest businesspeople in Haiti and elements of the military and police trained in the US)
(3) = Oxfam – Hard Times in Haiti slide show - http://www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam_in_action/issues/food_crisis/haiti_slideshow.html
(4) = Guardian 29 Jul 2008 ‘Haiti: Mud cakes become staple diet as cost of food soars beyond a family's reach’,
(5) = Paul Farmer (2004) ‘Who removed Aristide?’ in London Review of Books Vol. 26, No. 8, 15 Apr 2004, pages 28-31,
(6) = Democracy Now 17 Mar 2004 ‘Exclusive: Aristide Talks With Democracy Now! About the Leaders of the Coup and U.S. Funding of the Opposition in Haiti’,
(7) = Paul Farmer (2004) ‘What happened in Haiti? Where Past is Present’ in Noam Chomsky, Paul Farmer, Amy Goodman et al (2004) ‘ Getting Haiti Right this Time : The US and the Coup’, Common Courage, Monroe, Maine, US, 2004, Chapter 2 , (Professor Farmer, who also works for a medical charity he works for in Haiti comes to similar conclusions to Hallward’s)
(8) = Independent (Ireland) 20 Jan 2010 ‘US ships set up blockade to prevent a mass exodus -
Fleeing Haitians warned they will be sent back’, http://www.independent.ie/world-news/americas/us-ships-set-up-blockade-to-prevent-a-mass-exodus-2022667.html
(9) = guardian.co.uk 20 Jan 2010 ‘Haiti looting horror: Girl shot dead by police for taking paintings’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/20/haiti-earthquake-teenager-shot-police and guardian.co.uk 17 Jan 2010 ‘Retribution swift and brutal for Haiti's looters’,
(10) = ABC News 18 Jan 2010 ‘Police shoot at looters in struggle for survival’, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/01/18/2794297.htm
(11) = ‘Haiti’s Killer Quake : Why It Happened’, 02 Feb 2010, 9pm GMT on Channel 4 (UK)
– watch at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/haitis-killer-quake-why-it-happened/4od#3030763 or at
(12) = Newsweek 21 Jan 2010 ‘Why the Palace Fell - Lessons learned from the destruction of Haiti's presidential home’,
(13) = Independent 05 Feb 2010 ‘Johann Hari: There's real hope from Haiti and it's not what you expect’, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-theres-real-hope-from-haiti-and-its-not-what-you-expect-1889958.html
(14) = UNoCHA IRIN News 09 Feb 2010 ‘HAITI: Funding gap for nutrition’, http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=88049