President Jean-Bertrande Aristide : “Haiti’s exceptional poverty is the result of an exceptional history—one that extracted equally exceptional wealth.”
By April Knudson August 22, 2012
Editor’s Note: This speech is one of several given at forum entitled ” Is U.S. Military Intervention Ever Humanitarian?” held August 22, 2012 at Mayday Books, Minneapolis.
Humanitarians with missiles, bombs and an agenda: Every U.S. military intervention seems to be justified with “humanitarian concerns.” In Afghanistan, the war is said to be about rights of women. There are calls for U.S. intervention in Syria over “human rights.”
• What economic and political issues drive U.S. military interventions?
• Will “humanitarian intervention” be the new justification for waging wars?
• Can the Pentagon play a humanitarian role?
Haitians were the first and only people in world history to emancipate themselves from slavery and win their independence from an imperial power at the same time. The slave rebellion began in 1791 with a voodoo ceremony in the fugitive slave community in the mountains above Cap Haitien, the colonial capital. Soon all the slaves were in revolt against their French plantation owners. Toussaint Louverture, a former slave, took command of the rebellion and named himself governor of the colony—recognized by the revolutionary government in Paris, which also abolished slavery in all French possessions.
The French colony of Haiti, known as Saint Domingue, produced more wealth than all other French overseas possessions combined, and more than all British possessions in the New World combined. Three-fourths of the world’s sugar came from Haiti plus most of the coffee, rum, cotton, and indigo.
When Napoleon came to power, he was determined to win back this lucrative land. He re-established slavery in all French colonies and sold Louisiana to the United States to finance the largest naval expedition in French history to retake Haiti. Louisiana was of course much more than Louisiana—it was the Louisiana Purchase, explored by Lewis and Clarke, that more than doubled the size of the United States.
The French naval expedition sailed to Haiti, kidnapped Toussaint Louverture, sending him to a prison in the French Alps. This kidnapping was repeated in 2004, when French, U.S. and Canadian forces joined together to kidnap democratically elected President Aristide.
But the kidnapping of Toussaint Louverture did not derail the Haitian revolution. Dessalines assumed command of the self-emancipated slaves and defeated the French forces in November of 1803. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines proclaimed Haiti an independent country, ripping the white strip out of the French tricolor flag. The name Haiti was the name for the country that the indigenous people had given to the land, before Columbus landed there in 1493. Somehow, although almost all of the indigenous people were wiped out by the Spanish, the name was passed down to the African peoples who were brought to the island as slaves.
The defeat of the French was seen by the imperial powers and by the newly formed United States, still ½ slave holding, as an inexcusable insult to the doctrine of white supremacy and the Enlightenment project. Undeveloped, uncultured peoples should welcome the civilizing mission of the West. As Edouard Glissant has said, “The West is not a place, it is a project.” No country recognized Haiti. France imposed a total embargo of the island, eagerly supported by all other European countries, and of course, the United States.
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France asked Haiti to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs, compensation for the land and the slaves they had lost. In 1825, Haiti finally agreed to pay that sum in order to break the blockade. President Aristide calculated that that sum would be $21.7 Billion in 2004 currency and demanded that France pay that sum back to Haiti. That is why France, just after their fierce opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq less than a year earlier, cooperated with the U.S. and Canada in the kidnapping of Aristide on February 29, 2004.
Even though more than 70 percent of the Haitian population is illiterate, every Haitian knows this history. They also know that the United States Marines occupied their country from 1915 to 1934, trained an army that later defended the brutal dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc from 1957 to 1986, with financial support from the United States. Haitians also know that all the so-called natural disasters that have devastated their country are not just natural, but social, economic, and political disasters a long time in the making.
Before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti suffered torrential floods from Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004. As many as 2000 people died in the floods and mudslides in Gonaives on the west coast of Haiti, north of Port-au-Prince. The same storm hit Cuba and no one died.
Let me quote from the Los Angeles Times: “The torrents of water that raged down onto Gonaives are testimony to an ecological disaster—and very much a man-made one. French colonizers destroyed tens of thousands of acres of virgin forest in the 1600s to plant the cane that made Haiti the world’s largest sugar producer. More wood was cut to fuel the sugar mills. Entire forests were shipped to Europe to make furniture. Deforestation continued during the centuries as, increasingly pressed for income, farmers chopped trees to make and sell charcoal.”
The earthquake of January 12, 2010, that destroyed Haiti’s capital and several towns near Port-au-Prince, was of a magnitude of 7. 0. Just six weeks later, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake hit the west coast of Chile. 521 people died in Chile; 316,000 people died in Haiti. The horrendous death toll in Haiti was the result of political, economic, and social policies that produced shoddy construction, crowding of thousands of people in make-shift housing in some of the largest slums in the world, ineffective emergency services, understaffed and ill-equipped hospitals.
And yet there were U.N. Occupation Forces on the island who had been there since the kidnapping of Aristide in 2004. What were they doing there? What did they do after the earthquake? As Amy Wilentz wrote in 2011, “The U.N.’s mandate is only to stabilize, not improve, so it’s just a repressive force. With their millions of dollars, the troops have built nothing for the people under their control—only U.N. bases, U.N. commissaries, U.N restaurants, U.N landing pads.”
And what did the U.S. troops do, who took over the international airport in Port-au-Prince hours after the earthquake and refused for days to allow planes from around the world carrying relief and emergency workers to land. As Ezili Danto wrote in The Progressive in March of 2010, “As much as the U.S. media and the Pentagon wanted footage of U.S. soldiers rescuing Haitians, the people that could get saved got saved mostly by Haitians frantically using their bare hands to dig through the rubble and lift pulverized concrete in the immediate 48 hours after the earthquake.”
The situation has not changed. In 2011 Haitian President René Préval addressed the U.N. General Assembly. “We need bulldozers, not tanks. Tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers should have given way to bulldozers, engineers.” He went on to say, “Instability in Haiti is basically due to underdevelopment—in other words, unsatisfied elementary socioeconomic rights.”
Haiti’s underdevelopment has been a long-term, conscious policy of the imperial powers which would not let Haiti succeed, who would not let Haitians control their own destiny. The U.S. government allocated $379 million to so-called disaster relief in the weeks immediately following the earthquake.
Each American dollar breaks down like this, according to the Associated Press: 42cents for disaster assistance, 32 cents for U.S. military aid, 9 cents for food, 9 cents to transport the food, 5 cents for paying Haitian survivors for recovery efforts, and just less than one cent to the Haitian government. That biggest chunk, 42%, did not go to Haitian agencies or organizations, but to USAID and U.S.- friendly NGOs.
The United States did not even formally recognize Haiti as an independent country until 1862. Since then the U.S. has occupied Haiti and supported brutal regimes which have made Haiti safe and stable for U.S. corporate investment and estranged from her communist neighbor, Cuba. The United States has overthrown democratic governments and decimated popular movements which were trying to improve the lives of the Haitian people.
On February 13, 2010, just a month after the earthquake, more than 50 organizations representing grassroots sectors met in Port-au-Prince to develop their political, economic, and social priorities and to make their voices heard. The declaration from this meeting read in part: “ We have decided to launch a national and international campaign to bring forth another vision of how to redevelop this country, a vision based on people-to-people solidarity to develop the opportunity now facing this country to raise up another Haiti.
We want to build a social force which can establish a reconstruction plan where the fundamental problems of the people take first priority. These include housing, environment, food, education, literacy, work, and health for all; a plan to wipe out exploitation, poverty, and social and economic inequality and a plan to construct a society which is based on social justice.” (As reported by Beverly Bell)
April Knudson is a member of WAMM and of the Haiti Justice Committee. She is a retired professor who taught French, Women’s Studies, and Global Studies at the University of Minnesota and has led tours of students to Haiti.