Honouring the Haitian people in our words and actions
Commentary published in the Charlottetown Guardian on January 6th, 2011
Letter to the editor by Marie Burge, submitted on behalf of Cooper Institute.
In mid-December at a meeting of North American foreign ministers, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Haiti “to get their house in order” (Guardian, December, 14, 2010).
Do these two officials not realize that much of the disorder in the Haitian “house” is a direct result of Canada’s and United States’ foreign policy toward Haiti for many years? The U.S.A’s attitude about Haitian elections is consistent: the results must serve American interests, or else. So much so, that one is tempted to ask if the main problem in the recent Haitian elections may simply be that a U.S.-favorable president did not surface.
For decades the U.S., with Canada tagging along, has had a clear policy toward Haiti: to support a handful of business elite and to disregard and exploit the 80 per cent of the population who are the impoverished masses. Disrespectful and abusive international interventions over the centuries have kept Haiti in a state of economic and social poverty. For over 300 years, Haiti has been a thorn in the American side, beginning with the early abolition of slavery in Haiti, a threat to the slave trade in the U.S.
At every moment during the 20th and 21st century, the U.S. could not seem to keep its hands off Haiti. The history is well documented, from attacks in the 18th century to the cruel physical and military occupation of Haiti by the U.S. in 1915-1934, and the U.S. support of successive coups for over the next 20 years. In 1957, the United States found a Haitian to their liking: president-for-life, François Duvalier “Papa Doc”, the infamous dictator who brutalized his fellow Haitians. His son, “Baby Doc”, equally devoid of moral guidelines, followed his father to rule Haiti until 1986. He established the death squad, “Tonton Macoutes”.
These two dictators stayed in power in the service of North Americans, pocketed untold sums of international aid, and murdered countless Haitians. In 1990, four years after an uprising which overthrew “Baby Doc”, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, was elected president on a pro-poor platform. The U.S., bitterly opposing all that Aristide stood for, openly and economically opposed his election. He nevertheless won with 67.5 per cent of the vote in Haiti’s first democratic election. Following this election victory, a U.S.-backed military coup would remove him from power in 1991 and again in 2004.
The years 1990-2004 represented a single-minded American obsession: to overthrow the democratically elected governments of Jean Bertrand Aristide. Three years after the first coup, Aristide was returned to Haiti in 1994, as a result of international outcry. U.S. troops restored Aristide only after he agreed to implement a neo-liberal program: privatization of education, and health, protection of the corporate sector, and minimizing peasant food production. All these concessions were accompanied by promised and signed agreements of aid and loans to Haiti. President Clinton was a central figure in these agreements.
The agreed-upon aid and loans never arrived, a result of U.S. displeasure with his unwillingness to act as a U.S. puppet. In spite of the continued pressure on him, Aristide carried out courageous social and economic programs. Meanwhile the U.S. spent $70 million between 1994 and 2002 directly on strengthening Aristide's political opponents. Money from the United States, France, and Canada poured in to support a non-governmental coalition, the Group of 184 (G-184), which mainly represented and protected the interests of Haiti’s elite. This same money was used to re-instate death squads and to support a number of criminal sectors, whose re-activation was blamed on Aristide in the G-184-controlled international media. President Aristide was successfully presented to the world as “The Enemy” not just of the U.S., but of Haiti as well. Aristide, forced out of office on February 29, 2004, is still in exile in South Africa. His political party, the Famni Lavalas, which enjoyed the support of the majority of Haitian people, was denied participation in the 2010 elections.
Since the 2004 coup, Haiti has been plagued with recurring eruptions and corresponding U.S. and Canadian military intervention, most prominent role of which has continued to be mainly directed to the protection of Haitian elites. Unfortunately, North Americans have a problem understanding why the Haitian population has such contempt for the UN forces and internationals in general. North American citizens’ generosity after the earthquake was real and heartfelt. This glow is somewhat diminished, however, against the background of our historical relationship with Haiti. It is diminished further by the fact that not enough money got to Haitian people to provide basic human needs including, protective housing for them before the inevitable hurricane season. It is also a surprise to many in the world community that only 10 per cent of the earthquake rubble has been cleaned up one year later.
Perhaps more alarming is that in the post-earthquake months, there has been a further intensification of “the perverse relationship between the NGOs’ strength and the Haitian State’s weakness...Some of the NGOs exist only because of the Haitian misfortune.” (Ricardo Seitenfus, former representative in Haiti of the Organization of the American States Secretary General).
This new year challenges us as Canadian citizens and residents: dig deeper into the root causes of the post-cholera protests and post-election chaos in Haiti; honour in our words and actions the courage of the Haitian people; highlight the Haitian peoples’ capacities and defend their right to build their own future. Hold the Canadian government responsible.