Haiti and the “Devil’s Curse”


Peter Hallward: The role that journalists tend to be comfortable with when it comes to talking about Haiti is the role of victim.  If you ask why the Haitians are so poor . . . it has to do with three factors, all of which are functions really of Haiti’s independence and the strength of its people.  The first is the fact that they became independent by overcoming slavery themselves, and the consequence of that was a war that killed a third of the population, left the country in ruins, and left it isolated by an international embargo that was designed to quarantine the country and destroy its economy. . . .

Danny Glover: The United States placed a blockade on Haiti immediately after its independence — a blockade that essentially lasted 60 years.  Only after the Emancipation Proclamation here would it become safe to recognize Haiti as a legitimate country.

Jesse Freeston: Under the embargo and the threat of invasion from France, Haiti was forced to pay 150 million gold francs to France for loss of property, namely slaves.  This was eventually reduced to 90 million, the equivalent of more than $21 billion today.

Peter Hallward: And they were paying that debt off right through 1947.

Jesse Freeston: Nineteen of those years were passed under a brutal US military occupation. . . .

Peter Hallward: So, the big reason why Haiti is the poorest has to do with the fact that they fought for freedom and won it rather than receive it.  The second reason is the price they — Haitian small farmers in particular, the majority of the population — were forced to pay for refusing to follow a dominant trend in world history, which is one that saw small farmers pushed off their land, in all parts of the world, starting in Europe and later in Europe’s colonies, into slums where they could be exploited by industry.  That didn’t happen in Haiti until much later than in other places because Haitian farmers were determined to resist it.  So, that provokes a reaction in the form of a very severe neoliberal plan backed up by extremely violent forms of paramilitary coercion — the army and Tonton Macoutes that the Duvalier dictators developed to push this process through — and the result then was a very severe level of exploitation and impoverishment, particularly in the countryside.

Danny Glover: Essentially what he [François “Papa Doc” Duvalier] did was he orchestrated, oversaw, the policy of creating jobs, low-paying jobs, you know, sweatshop jobs, which then facilitated the export component of the Haitian economy at the expense of developing the agricultural part of the economy — now, Haiti had been self-sufficient in rice up until the 1970s — forcing them into certain areas, trying to find some place to live, building facilities, building homes, living in places that had . . . very weak infrastructure.  So this exasperates the situation you have, either a hurricane or an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude.

Jesse Freeston: When Papa Doc died, his 19-year-old son, known as Baby Doc, replaced him.  Baby Doc followed the same principle as his father, as laid out in this 1972 interview with 60 Minutes: “The aim of my government is to increase the value of foreign investment and at the same time to promote the development of tourism.”  He ruled with an iron fist for 15 years before a popular uprising forced him out of office.  When the Duvalier dictatorship is mentioned in the earthquake coverage, the support they received from Western powers is habitually left out.

Peter Hallward: That was the second reason Haiti was poor.  The third has to do with the political steps they took to try and fight this neoliberalism precisely by electing a government that could represent a political alternative to neoliberalism.  So, a popular movement develops in the 1980s to fight this tendency, elects a government on an anti-neoliberal agenda in 1990, and the story of Haiti ever since has been really driven by measures taken by the international community and the small Haitian elite to force that government, to force this popular movement, into accepting the neoliberal plan that directly resulted in the impoverishment of a great majority of its people.

Jesse Freeston: This has included US-backed coups against the Aristide government both in 1991 and 2004.  In recent years, however, Canada has largely taken over the role of undermining Haitian democracy — this according to Canadian independent journalist and author of Canada in Haiti Anthony Fenton.

Anthony Fenton: From the moment Aristide was reelected in 2000 until he left, fled, was kidnapped from Haiti in 2004, Canada played a deliberate role undermining him, following in lockstep with the US policy.  They starved it of loans, starved it of being able to fulfill their democratic mandate.  They empowered Haiti’s elite and fueled a disinformation campaign.  Then, in an unprecedented way Canada played a leadership role as a regional imperial power propping up an illegitimate regime from 2004 to 2006, imposing a neoliberal agenda that they had tried for so long to impose on Haiti.  This is the new face of Canada — this is Canada for the 21st century.

Jesse Freeston: Canada has also supported the post-coup criminalization of the Fanmi Lavalas party, but it has been the UN, headed by a Brazilian military, that has been largely tasked for policing social movements.

Peter Hallward: The main purpose has been to coerce the population into accepting the consequences of the coup.  But remember: the coup in 2004 overthrew a government that had been elected with a massive majority — it had at least 75% of the vote and won 90% of the seats in the Parliament.  And, by all credible accounts, that government would remain and if it could be elected again tomorrow it would be.  So, what the UN’s main job has been is to provide a massive overwhelming military and police presence to basically force the population into accepting it, and, particularly in 2005 and 2006, that’s what the UN did.  It patrolled Port-au-Prince, treated the population like a hostile force, and on a couple of notorious occasions went in and attacked groups of people who were some of Aristide and Lavalas’ most ardent supporters and killed dozens of them.

Peter Hallward is Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University in England.  In 2007 he published the acclaimed historical account of post-1990 Haitian politics, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment.  He is the editor of the journal Radical Philosophy and a contributing editor to Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities.  Danny Glover is a long-time actor and activist.  While attending San Francisco State University, Glover was a member of the Black Students Union who along with the Third World Liberation Front led a five-month strike.  Not only did this help to create the first school of Ethnic Studies in the U.S., but it was also the longest student strike in the history of the United States.  He is presently chair of the TransAfrica Forum.  Glover is the director of the upcoming movie Toussaint, detailing the life of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution.  Anthony Fenton is an independent researcher and journalist.  He is the co-author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority.  His work has been published by Asia Times, The Dominion, Foreign Policy in Focus, IPS, Mother Jones, Upside Down World, THIS Magazine, and others.  This video was released by The Real News on 25 January 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the video.

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