The West’s role in Haiti's plight
By Peter Hallward
[An earlier version of this article first appeared in the British Guardian. This slightly updated version appears in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Peter Hallward's permission.]
January 14, 2010 -- If we are serious about assisting this devastated land we must stop trying to control and exploit it.
Any large city in the world would have suffered extensive damage from an earthquake on the scale of the one that ravaged Haiti's capital city on the afternoon of January 13, but it's no accident that so much of Port-au-Prince now looks like a war zone. Much of the devastation wreaked by this latest and most calamitous disaster to befall Haiti is best understood as another thoroughly manmade outcome of a long and ugly historical sequence.
The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake back in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of May 7, 1842, may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, most recently in 2004 and again in 2008; the storms of September 2008 flooded the town of Gonaïves and swept away much of its flimsy infrastructure, killing more than a thousand people and destroying many thousands of homes. The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable.
Colonial exploitationWhat is already all too clear, however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the "poorest country in the western hemisphere". This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.
The noble "international community" which is currently scrambling to send its "humanitarian aid" to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's phrase) "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.
Aristide's own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.
Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than [US]$2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day". Decades of neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.
It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today. Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti's agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums. Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately substandard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more "natural" or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.
As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: "Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses." A small minority of these migrants are lucky enough to land a job in sweatshops that pay the lowest wages in the hemisphere, around US$1.75 a day. Meanwhile the city's basic infrastructure – running water, electricity, roads, etc. – remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government's ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil.
The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission's mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this "investment" towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the distribution of international "aid".
The same storms that killed so many in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal "reform", and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster. If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then we should take this comparative point on board. Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti's people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop trying to control Haiti's government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we've already done.
[Peter Hallward is professor
of modern European philosophy at Middlesex University, member of the Radical
Philosophy editorial collective and author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. London: Verso, 2007.]
Democracy versus the people
Published 14 August 2008
A new account of Haiti's recent history shows how the genuinely
radical politics of Lavalas and its leader, Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, proved too threatening to the country's wealthy elite
and their foreign backers.
Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment
Peter Hallward, Verso, 480pp, £16.99
Noam Chomsky once noted that "it is only when the threat of
popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be
safely contemplated". He thereby pointed at the "passivising" core
of parliamentary democracy, which makes it incompatible with the
direct political self- organisation and self-empowerment of the
people. Direct colonial aggression or military assault are not the
only ways of pacifying a "hostile" population: so long as they are
backed up by sufficient levels of coercive force, international
"stabilisation" missions can overcome the threat of popular
participation through the apparently less abrasive tactics of
"democracy promotion", "humanitarian intervention" and the
"protection of human rights".
This is what makes the case of Haiti so exemplary. As Peter
Hallward writes in Damming the Flood, a detailed account of the
"democratic containment" of Haiti's radical politics in the past
two decades, "never have the well-worn tactics of 'democracy
promotion' been applied with more devastating effect than in Haiti
between 2000 and 2004". One cannot miss the irony of the fact that
the name of the emancipatory political movement which suffered
this international pressure is Lavalas, or "flood" in Creole: it
is the flood of the expropriated who overflow the gated
communities that protect those who exploit them. This is why the
title of Hallward's book is quite appropriate, inscribing the
events in Haiti into the global tendency of new dams and walls
that have been popping out everywhere since 11 September 2001,
confronting us with the inner truth of "globalisation", the
underlying lines of division which sustain it.
Haiti was an exception from the very beginning, from its
revolutionary fight against slavery, which ended in independence
in January 1804. "Only in Haiti," Hallward notes, "was the
declaration of human freedom universally consistent. Only in Haiti
was this declaration sustained at all costs, in direct opposition
to the social order and economic logic of the day." For this
reason, "there is no single event in the whole of modern history
whose implications were more threatening to the dominant global
order of things". The Haitian Revolution truly deserves the title
of repetition of the French Revolution: led by Toussaint
'Ouverture, it was clearly "ahead of his time", "premature" and
doomed to fail, yet, precisely as such, it was perhaps even more
of an event than the French Revolution itself. It was the first
time that an enslaved population rebelled not as a way of
returning to their pre-colonial "roots", but on behalf of
universal principles of freedom and equality. And a sign of the
Jacobins' authenticity is that they quickly recognised the slaves'
uprising - the black delegation from Haiti was enthusiastically
received in the National Assembly in Paris. (As you might expect,
things changed after Thermidor; in 1801 Napoleon sent a huge
expeditionary force to try to regain control of the colony).
Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all white
nations", the "mere existence of an independent Haiti" was itself
an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus
had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade
other countries from taking the same path. The price - the literal
price - for the "premature" independence was truly extortionate:
after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master,
established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after
forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as
"compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal
to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90
million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian
resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to
France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and
the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in
anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the
Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France
return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a
French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time
when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing black
Americans for slavery, Haiti's demand to be reimbursed for the
tremendous sum the former slaves had to pay to have their freedom
recognised has been largely ignored by liberal opinion, even if
the extortion here was double: the slaves were first exploited,
and then had to pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.
The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every free
presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim
of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a
political agent which won state power through free elections, but
which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local
popular democracy, of people's direct self-organisation. Although
the "free press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed,
although violent protests that threatened the stability of the
legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was
routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally
violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and
Canada was to impose on Haiti a "normal" democracy - a democracy
which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they
were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy
has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.
It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation took
place soon after the public discord about the 2003 attack on Iraq,
and was quite appropriately celebrated as the reaffirmation of
their basic alliance that underpins the occasional conflicts. Even
Brazil's Lula condoned the 2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy
alliance was thus put together to discredit the Lavalas government
as a form of mob rule that threatened human rights, and President
Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator - an alliance
ranging from ex-military death squads and US-sponsored "democratic
fronts" to humanitarian NGOs and even some "radical left"
organisations which, financed by the US, enthusiastically
denounced Aristide's "capitulation" to the IMF. Aristide himself
provided a perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping
between radical left and liberal right: "Somewhere, somehow,
there's a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious
satisfaction, in saying things that powerful white people want you
The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism that
confronts the limitations of what can be done today. Lavalas
activists didn't withdraw into the interstices of state power and
"resist" from a safe distance, they heroically assumed state
power, well aware that they were taking power in the most
unfavourable circumstances, when all the trends of capitalist
"modernisation" and "structural readjustment", but also of the
postmodern left, were against them. Constrained by the measures
imposed by the US and International Monetary Fund, which were
destined to enact "necessary structural readjustments", Aristide
pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures
(building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure, raising
minimum wages) while encouraging the active political mobilisation
of the people in direct confrontation with their most immediate
foes - the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries.
The single most controversial thing about Aristide, the thing that
earned him comparisons with Sendero Luminoso and Pol Pot, was his
pointed refusal to condemn measures taken by the people to defend
themselves against military or paramilitary assault, an assault
that had decimated the popular movement for decades. On a couple
of occasions back in 1991, Aristide appeared to condone recourse
to the most notorious of these measures, known locally as "Père
Lebrun", a variant of the practice of "necklacing" adopted by
anti-apartheid partisans in South Africa - killing a police
assassin or an informer with a burning tyre. In a speech on 4
August 1991, he advised an enthusiastic crowd to remember "when to
use [Père Lebrun], and where to use it", while reminding them that
"you may never use it again in a state where law prevails".
Later, liberal critics sought to draw a parallel between the
so-called chimères, ie, members of Lavalas self-defence groups,
and the Tontons Macoutes, the notoriously murderous gangs of the
Duvalier dictatorship. The fact that there is no numerical basis
for comparison of levels of political violence under Aristide and
under Duvalier is not allowed to get in the way of the essential
political point. Asked about these chimères, Aristide points out
that "the very word says it all. Chimères are people who are
impoverished, who live in a state of profound insecurity and
chronic unemployment. They are the victims of structural
injustice, of systematic social violence [. . .] It's not
surprising that they should confront those who have always
benefited from this same social violence."
Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by
Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called
"divine violence": they should be located "beyond good and evil",
in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical.
Although we are dealing with what can only appear as "immoral"
acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them,
because they are a response to years, centuries even, of
systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.
As Aristide himself puts it: "It is better to be wrong with the
people than to be right against the people." Despite some
all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in effect one of
the figures of how "dictatorship of the proletariat" might look
today: while pragmatically engaging in some externally imposed
compromises, it always remained faithful to its "base", to the
crowd of ordinary dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf,
not "representing" them but directly relying on their local
self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic rules,
Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is not where
things are decided: what is much more crucial is the effort to
supplement democracy with the direct political self-organisation
of the oppressed. Or, to put it in our "postmodern" terms: the
struggle between Lavalas and the capitalist-military elite in
Haiti is a case of genuine antagonism, an antagonism which cannot
be contained within the frame of parliamentary-democratic
This is why Hallward's outstanding book is not just about Haiti,
but about what it means to be a "leftist" today: ask a leftist how
he stands towards Aristide, and it will be immediately clear if he
is a partisan of radical emancipation or merely a humanitarian
liberal who wants "globalisation with a human face".
Slavoj Zizek is the author of "In Defence of Lost Causes" (Verso,
URGENT APPEAL FOR THE PEOPLE OF HAITI
From the Canada Haiti Action Network
January 14, 2010 Two days ago at 5 pm local time, a powerful magnitude-7
earthquake struck in Haiti. It was centred near the capital city Port-au-Prince
and has caused massive destruction. The Canada Haiti Action Network urges
Canadians and others around the world to contribute generously to emergency
You can contribute to the Haitian Red Cross through its international partners
in the International Red Cross. Contributions are tax deductible. The Canadian
Red Cross is at: http://www.redcross.ca/article.asp?id=33900&tid=001. We also
encourage contributions to the following organizations. Remember that you must
provide a name and return mailing address in order to receive a tax-deductible
Zanmi Lasante/ Partners in Health
The Zanmi Lasante medical center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and
delivers health care through a network of clinics in that region of the country.
It also trains Haitians as doctors and health professionals. The health center
survived the earthquake and is moving to deliver aid to the disaster zone.
Donations in the U.S. are tax deductible. To donate, go to:
By mail, "Haiti Earthquake Relief" in cheque memo line to:
Partners In Health
P.O. Box 845578
Boston, MA 02284-5578
Doctors Without Borders/ Medecins sans frontières
Doctors Without Borders operates clinics in Port au Prince and surrounding
neighbourhoods. It has expertise in disaster relief. Donations in Canada and the
U.S. are tax deductible. Go to:
By mail, "Haiti Earthquake" in memo line:
Doctors Without Borders
720 Spadina Ave, Suite 402
Toronto ON M5S 2P9
Sawatzky Family Foundation-SOPUDEP School
SOPUDEP is a pioneering school in Petionville with an enrolment of 600 students
from elementary to senior high school grades. The school was not in session when
the disaster struck; we do not know if the building survived. The resources of
the school and its teachers are being mobilized to assist the neighbouring
population. The Sawatzky Family Foundation is a registered charity in Canada and
issues tax deductible receipts. Go to: http://www.sopudep.org/donate .
The Sawatzky Family Foundation
PO Box 626, 25 Peter Street North
Orillia, Ontario, Canada L3V 6K5
Haiti Emergency Relief Fund
In association with the Haiti Action Committee in San Francisco/Bay Area, this
fund delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations in Haiti. It was
founded 04 following the 2004 coup d'etat that forced the elected president of
Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from office and imposed a two-year regime of
human rights violations whose consequence continues today. Go to:
Haiti Emergency Relief Fund/EBSC
East Bay Sanctuary Covenant
2362 Bancroft Way
Berkeley, CA 94704
For more information, including telephone contact, go to the website of the
Canada Haiti Action Network http://canadahaitiaction.ca/.
"Thanks to the Haitian slaves, Latin America could win its freedom"
Discovered by Columbus, built by France - and wrecked by dictators
He ended years of brutal regime. Now an exiled ex-president wants to be the saviour again.
Haiti's former president, a man twice forced into exile but whose name has long been whispered like a prayer among the country's poorest citizens, is again trying to make his mark on his country.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted by coups that received backing from the US, said he was ready to return to Haiti from South Africa in a jet filled with emergency supplies. "We feel deeply that we should be there, in Haiti, with them, trying our best to prevent death," Mr Aristide told reporters in Johannesburg.
Six years ago, the priest-turned-president was bundled out of the country as a small rag-bag force of former soldiers advanced on the capital, Port-au-Prince. He was driven to the airport in the early hours by US marines and diplomats; a chartered jet was waiting. They gave him little option. "Come with us or stay. Live or die," they said.
The forced exile of Mr Aristide plunged Haiti into fresh turmoil as an interim government imposed by the US, France and Canada oversaw two traumatic years, when supporters of the former president were attacked and killed, or summarily jailed.
But his enforced exile, first to the Central African Republic and then to South Africa, was just the latest in a series of crises - both natural and man-made - to befall the former French colony, which by the time Aristide was first elected in 1990 was already notorious as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Indeed, on almost every scale used to measure quality of life - income, health, literacy and child mortality - only a handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa were worse. Tens of thousands set sail in makeshift vessels to escape to a better life in the US.
It might, and ought, to have been quite different. Together with the neighbouring Dominican Republic, Haiti constitutes the island of Hispaniola discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. During the 18th Century, the island, divided between the Spanish and French, was a major source of the world's sugar, but conditions for the slaves, who were imported from Africa, were utterly brutal. A series of uprisings culminated in 1804 with the declaration of independence by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the rebellion who, went on to become Haiti's first president.
The action was revolutionary. At that moment, Haiti became the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial black country anywhere in the world, and the only nation whose citizens were overwhelmingly former slaves.
In his history of the country, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Laurent Dubois writes: "[The revolution was] a dramatic challenge to the world as it then was."
Yet even at its birth, the seeds of hardship that would hold back and even cripple the country were being sown. As Bill Quigley, a veteran US-based Haiti democracy activist, recalled this week, the first response by France to its former colony was to enact a military blockade and force the new Haitian authorities to pay reparations - 150 million francs - in exchange for its freedom. From the start, Haiti was bankrupted. Up to 80 per cent of the country's budget went to pay off this debt. The US, which had secured its own independence in 1776, refused to recognise it [and actually invaded and occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934.]
In a 2004 article in the London Review of Books, Paul Farmer, an agronomist who has spent several decades working to boost Haiti's agricultural sector, noted that the reparations to France - which, with no small irony, yesterday contacted other members of the so-called Paris Club of creditors to speed up cancelling Haiti's current debt - continued until well after the Second World War. Indeed, many supporters of Mr Aristide believe that his repeated demand to France that it pay back $21bn, the amount that he calculated was owed to Haiti for the reparations paid between 1825 and 1947, was a factor in France's support, at least tacitly, for those behind the 2004 coup.
Yet even after the reparations to France stopped, things barely got better. Between 1957 and 1986, the country was ruled by the ruthless dictators François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude. The years were stable but brutal. Haiti styled itself as an exotic Caribbean destination for celebrities ranging from Jackie Onassis to Truman Capote, who joined other guests to sip Barbancourt rum cocktails on the veranda of the Hotel Oloffson, but the Duvaliers accepted no dissent. The notorious Tonton Macoutes militia, used to carry out intimidation and killings, reported directly to the senior Duvalier. Indeed, Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, has estimated that up to 50,000 people lost their lives during these years.
It was against this backdrop of violence, an economy in which three-quarters of Haitians lived on less than two dollars a day, and a country where hope had vanished, that Mr Aristide emerged in the Port-au-Prince slum of La Saline. Preaching a mix of political empowerment and liberation theology from his pulpit in Saint John Bosco's church, he gradually built up so much popular support that his opponents felt threatened enough to firebomb his chapel during mass, with the loss of 12 lives.
"In a dark corner of our little world I take up my pen to write to you," Aristide would later write to his supporters. "The light I set by my side to illuminate my task is a faint light but it will grow stronger as I write because it is the light of solidarity."
Aristide was elected with a landslide in a 1990 election, but his tenure did not last long. His opponents, covertly supported by the CIA, carried out a coup the following year. The exiled leader would be reinstalled by the Clinton administration and then re-elected for a second term in 2000.
He remained highly popular among the Creole-speaking poor, but his policies calling for higher wages and resisting demands to liberalise the economy continued to anger Haiti's elite as well as powerful elements in Washington.
Loans worth $500m were blocked, and when his enemies turned on him a second time no-one was prepared to help. Indeed, there is evidence the Bush administration prevented additional private security guards, contracted to Aristide's government, from reaching Haiti. When René Préval, Haiti's current president, was elected in 2006, he said there was nothing preventing Aristide from returning to Haiti, though it is likely that a tacit understanding between the US and Aristide's opponents in Port-au-Prince has kept him in South Africa.
Aristide was not unblemished. There is evidence, for instance, that during his second term his supporters resorted to violence to silence his opponents. Yet were he to be given the opportunity to place his hands once more on the tiller of his country's history, it is likely he would receive a hero's welcome among those currently suffering the most.
Kevin Pina, a US filmmaker who was in Port-au-Prince two weeks ago, said. "If he were to return, people would mobilise. Tens of thousands would mobilise like that. With just picks and shovels they would clean up the mess in just a month. They still love him that much."