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Haiti briefly entered the U.S. news last week, thanks to a new round of protests in that much-beleagured land. Food riots throughout Haiti were reported as part of a world-wide wave of uprisings responding to increasing food prices (brought on by various factors including extreme weather, likely linked to global warming, and competition for food crops from biofuel production).
The broader context of years of heartless U.S. policies toward Haiti and the ongoing UN military presence in the island nation were missing from most coverage.
MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, was put in place to defend the U.S.-backed coup regime which ousted the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. After the coup, thousands of pro-Aristide dissidents were killed, raped or forced into exile, thousands more jailed without charge.
Last August, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited the sprawling seaside slum of Cite Soleil and boasted, "In an operation lasting six weeks, amid fierce firefights, UN forces took control of the slum." He told reporters, "I am convinced that Haiti is at a turning point. Long the poorest country in the western hemisphere, seemingly forever mired in political turmoil, it at long last has a golden chance to begin to rebuild itself. With the help of the international community – and the UN in particular – it can." Ban Ki Moon went on to warn against the UN leaving "too soon" and pushed for a renewed mandate for MINUSTAH.
But Brazilian soldier Tailon Ruppenthal is less starry eyed about MINUSTAH. In a recent memoir of his tour of duty, Rupenthal writes, "After a few months even getting out of bed is hard. You remember that you will cross paths with all those people who are starving but there’s nothing you can do." The Brazilian, who now suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, concludes, "we are losing the real war: against poverty Only the fight against poverty will bring peace. When will they see that?"
"We are hungry and have given up on the UN and the Preval government to help us," Sonia Jeanty, 32, told the Haiti Information Project in early April. "After all the money they have spent here most of us are eating only one meal a day. It’s unacceptable especially as we hear the UN trying to tell us everyday on the radio that things have gotten better. It’s a lie!" Rene Preval was elected president in 2006 with broad popular support, but observers note that most ministries in his government remain dominated by coup figures installed with U.S. backing. Those pro-coup officials were approved by a parliament also dominated by pro-coup individuals. Repression and illegal imprisonment kept progressives who might have been elected to parliament from effectively running.
The Haiti Information Project also reports that information officer with the 1000-strong Chinese force in Haiti Zhang Jin said in 2007, "We have the firepower and technology to control any situation that may arise here. What we gain from this experience is a real life situation where we can practice strategic and tactical deployment. That is invaluable to any fighting force."
Mark Schuller, an anthropologist at Vassar College who writes about the political economy of Haiti, told me that "Washington consensus" economics are at the root of the current situation in Haiti. He points out that the country has "the greatest inequality in the hemisphere, with more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the Caribbean." Schuller referred to anthropologist and medical doctor Paul Farmer’s writings about "structural violence" – long-standing foreign control and underdevelopment – which has kept the majority of Haitians in misery, and notes that the "interim" coup government of Gerard Latortue promoted local and multinational capitalist interest at the expense of the poor majority. Schuller points to the three year tax holiday which Latortue gave large companies, while doling out millions in "back pay" to the notoriously brutal former military (which Aristide had disbanded), all of which contributed to an increase in the cost of living for the poor.
Schuller told me, "It behooves us not to think of it as a ‘failed state.’ Rather, it is best understood as a successfully failed state. As of last estimate, 65% of Haiti’s government revenue comes from international agencies, 84% of its rice grown abroad. This is because of U.S. and other Northern countries’ economic policies wherein Haiti’s ability to feed itself with domestic rice production was wiped out by Washington-subsidized imports that U.S. agribusiness has profited from. At Ronald Reagan’s behest, Haiti initiated a series of neoliberal measures in the 1980s, including trade liberalization, privatization and decreasing investment in agriculture, that led to the disappearance of Haiti’s cotton and sugar export industries. During the 1990s, the U.S. conditioned its food aid sent to alleviate a hunger crisis with demands that Haiti lower its tariffs and open its markets to U.S. imports. This subsidized U.S. rice was much cheaper than Haitian rice, forcing local farmers out of business. Over the same period, Haiti became increasingly more reliant on the International Financial Institutions, which imposed more neoliberal conditions on its help. Since 1980, when Haiti started receiving the Banks’ help in earnest, its per capita Gross Domestic Product has shrunk by 38.3%. Haiti is left with a 1.4 billion dollar multinational debt, with a debt service next year of almost 80 million. In addition to draining resources from needed sectors such as health, education, or developing national production, this debt has served as leverage for the IMF and World Bank to impose even more neoliberal measures."
In an email to me earlier this week, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a popular liberation theologian who works closely with Aristide’s Lavalas movement, wrote, "Some Haitians and foreigners are swimming in wealth while the poor ones are down deep in the pit of misery. A near famine situation reduces many people in skin and bone. As thousands of needy ones could not take it anymore they took the streets and let out their anger. I wish the wealthy ones in Haiti could accept to share and stop looking down at the lowly ones. We are all God’s children. Exclusion of a majority in dire need is not the answer. A policy of inclusion and sharing is the answer."
There is some good news. The Jubilee USA Network-backed Jubilee Act, which advances debt cancellation for Haiti and extends it to 23 other poor countries, passed in the House of Representatives on April 16 by a vote of 285 – 132. Additionally, Rep. Alcee Hastings’ (D-FL) amendment to the bill, calling for complete and immediate cancellation of Haiti’s debts to all IFIs, passed unanimously by voice vote.
The Jubilee Act now moves to the Senate. Voters in the U.S. still have time to urge their Senators to help give Haiti a long-overdue break.
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org