Media images appear to be prime motivation this week in a collective, mobilized response underscored by Western guilt. Bombarded with dust-covered corpses, blood and broken bones, and bodies rotting in the hot sun, millions around the world have donated their money to various relief organizations in support of Haiti. The United States has even organized a text message campaign which allows cell phone users to donate as little as ten dollars by texting the word “Haiti” to a central national phone line. However, this feel-good effort fails to address the circumstances which created this catastrophe. Haiti cannot afford to the typical, Western, Bono-style activism: here today and gone tomorrow, even as its citizens continue to endure the effects of enormous national debt and unfair trading practices which have historically impoverished the nation.
France considered Haiti to be the pearl of the Caribbean and set about stealing both its natural and human resources at will. The average lifespan of a slave in Haiti was a scant twenty-one years, due to harsh living conditions and limited supplies of food. Instead of recognizing the Haitian struggle as akin to that engaged in by Americans against British tyranny, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave foreign aid to the supposedly beleaguered French slave owners. Haitians won their freedom from France through armed conflict, defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the most powerful army in Europe — this is the history that most outside students are familiar with. But what most miss was a move that cannot be considered anything but extortion.
France demanded the sum of 150 million francs in payment for the freedom of the Haitian people. What France could not hold through force, it did through economic colonialism; by 1900, over 80% of Haiti’s annual budget was directed at paying this spurious debt. This form of neo-colonialism would serve as a model for the impoverishment of much of the Global South. Under the crushing weight of such debt, Haiti was unable to ensure its citizens a desent standard of living, forced to take loans from France, America and Germany to service the debt. It was not until 1947 that Haiti managed to pay off the debt it incurred to achieve its freedom.
But this state of economic slavery would not be enough to pacify American capitalists. Woodrow Wilson, the father of the now defunct League of Nations, a supposed signifier of American global peace efforts, would invade Haiti in 1915. From there, U.S. troops dismantled the Haitian government for failing to submit to American ownership of Haitian lands. Setting the standard for democracy, a new government was then elected with a 99% favourable vote by the mere 5% of the population that was actually allowed to vote. Thousands of active or suspected political protestors were slaughtered by the U.S. occupying force.
Even after the official US exit from Haiti, its influence would continue to cause a reign of terror upon the people. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, were embraced by the U.S. government, even as they ran up debt to pay for a lavish lifestyle and brutally terrorized the Haitian people. In a move of shocking brutality, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed largely by the paramilitary leader, Tonton Macoutes.
When Haiti elected the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he was overthrown by a military coup after only a scant seven months in office. He was returned to office by then president Clinton in 1991, who demanded that Aristide accede to neo-liberal polices recommended by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. This policy would force Haiti to import more than fifty percent of its food. How could Haiti possibly compete on the open market with the U.S and European powers when they were not allowed to subsidize any of their farmers? As a 2008 Jubilee USA report notes, although the country had once been a net exporter of rice, by 2005, “three out of every four plates of rice eaten in Haiti came from the U.S.”
The U.S. would prove to be a hard task master. It forced Haiti to import a large quantity of its food and commodities. Haiti was not allowed to place any protectionist restrictions on trade, forcing the nation’s exports to compete with the U.S. and indeed the rest of the industrialized West on the global market. This situation cannot be considered Fair Trade when we factor in that American exports are highly subsidized by the U.S. government. Each restructuring of the debt with the IMF would lead to the further devaluation of Haitian currency as the majority of Haitian working-class men, women, and children toiled in U.S. sweatshops for slave wages.
Aristide was elected again by a majority vote in 2000. This greatly upset Western governments. In 2004, he was kidnapped by private security forces and the U.S. military and then flown out of the country. The U.S., France and Canada all occupied Haiti until a U.N. mission, MINUSTAH, took over.
In May of 2008, the Reverend Jesse Jackson visited Haiti. In a report for The Huffington Post, he wrote:
“Haiti is an epicentre of the global food crisis. Its people live on the margin of survival. According to the UN World Food Programme, the largest and most effective food aid organization here, 56% of the population exists on less than a $1.00 a day. 60% of household cash goes to food. Hunger is a constant companion. 61% of all children under 5 are anemic; 46% are women. Nearly half – 47% — of all Haitians are malnourished. But now the price of rice, wheat, flour and oil has doubled in the last year. In October of last year, $4.50 was sufficient to buy two full meals; now that money would buy one meal. Haiti only produces 43% of its food needs; it imports more than half. Food aid provides only 5%.”
On Thursday of this week, the IMF announced that a 100 million dollar loan would be issued to Haiti to help cope with the disastrous aftermath of the earthquake. Haiti is greatly in need of an influx of cash; however, the terms of the loan include the exact same neo-liberal policies which are largely responsible for the current impoverished state of the country. Haiti cannot afford to pay this current loan or in fact any of the loans that it is currently saddled with. When the eyes of the world turn away from Haiti, its people will still be hungry and greatly impoverished. The same conditions that led to the food crises of 2008 are still in existence today. Unless real and concrete changes occur, Haiti will be in the same position as soon as the cameras pull out and the world moves on to the next polorarizing event.
President Obama also announced a 100 million dollar aid package for Haiti and the U.S. has sent supplies. To ensure that this band-aid solution would be understood for exactly what it is, he placed former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in charge of leading U.S. aid efforts. These two men are perhaps the most responsible Americans in recent history for creating the desperate economic conditions that Haitians find themselves in today. Consider that before the earthquake, Haiti had a rate of 80-90 percent illiteracy and just over 70% unemployment for working adults. Eighty percent of the population lived on less than $2 a day and more than 50 percent on less than $1 a day.
Sending a small donation or even blankets and supplies are only going to help the country’s short-term needs, though because we have been sold on the lie that Bono-style activism is beneficial, this will constitute a “revolutionary” act. It will allow people to assuage their guilt at living in undeserved privilege, while at the same time participating in faux-activism.
If we are serious about helping Haiti, we need to remove the conditions that created the poverty in the first place. Along with texting ten dollar donations, Western citizens need to demand that all of the debt that Haiti has incurred be forgiven. In the U.S., The Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation was sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) on December 17th, 2009. This bill provides the perfect opportunity for US citizens to force its government to take partial responsibility for its role in the impoverishment of Haiti.
If we do not erase the spurious debt and begin fair trade with Haiti, the conditions that made Haiti so vulnerable will still exist long after the rubble is cleared. Not only do we need to think about the here and now, we need to consider Haiti’s future. How long is this country to be punished for having the audacity to become the world’s first Black republic? Conscience dictates that these terrible conditions be brought to an end.
Today, we cry because thousands are dead and there is no food or clean drinking water. However, a brief glance through Haiti’s history shows that this has been the case since France’s imperial rule over the Pearl of the Caribbean. Haiti needs more than money. It needs our commitment to fairness and an end to all neo-colonialist ambitions by Western nations.