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Shock Therapy?

Haiti, Where America Never Learns

by TOM REEVES

In April 2004, my CounterPunch article, ¨Haiti: An American Learning Zone,¨ chronicled all the failures of U.S. policy in Haiti at that time, which those of us who regularly visited Haiti believed doomed Haitians to remain the world´s poorest people, subject to devastation at the whim of weather or geology.   Among these failures was the U.S. emphasis on aid for urban jobs, rather than for sustainable agriculture.   This meant continued support for the sweat shops of garment industries that had long been virtual slave factories, with a minimum wage of less than $2 a day.   It meant a focus on a Haitian economy linked to the world ¨free¨ market of big multinationals, rather than on regional markets (multilateral and Caribbean) and local, self-sustaining markets.  Taken together, U.S. and international economic policies were touted as ¨neoliberalism¨ and urged on Haiti by the World Bank and via U.S. AID policies that hooked Haitians on cheap U.S. rice and other products, undermining locally-produced Haitian rice and casava, among other foodstuffs.  From a self-reliant agriculture, Haiti was rebuilt as a profitable neoimperial outpost. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. totally ignored the sound advice of the international Haiti solidarity movement  – including groups like Oxfam, Partners in Health and Amnesty International. These groups insisted that Haitian democracy could only thrive if a vibrant and locally-controlled Haitian economy thrived – with deference to the country´s huge peasant movements. When Haiti´s first democratically elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was removed – not by a ´rebellion´ as recent  US media have said -  but by a U.S.-engineered coup, the solidarity movement and NGOs were proved right.  Without a sound and independent Haitian economy, there could be no democracy. Period.  Aristide´s sin was not that he courted Cuba (he did – and who wouldn´t, since Cuba alone has supplied doctors, engineers and educators for Cuba en masse), nor even that he dared propose a minimum wage of $5 a day (a day, not an hour!), but that he based his administration on a genuine Creole-speaking mass oeasant movement, Lavalas, which challenged the tiny Francophone elite with its ties to US business – a trend that the US had fostered since at least the early 1900s to replace France as the imperial power.   A black country truly ruled by black masses was just not to be tolerated, a few miles from the only truly independent country in the hemisphere (Cuba). All of this continued  a U.S. imperial approach to bind Haiti to U.S.. tutelage at the expense of its own economic  health.  

At the end of the 2004 CounterPunch article, I wrote: ¨It remains to be seen whether the U.S. empire will gain more from its exercise in the learning zone of Haiti, or the international solidarity movement. Let us hope for the latter — since the next learning zones may come sooner than we expect, especially if the Bush regime lives through its debacle in Iraq and survives the November election…¨   

Bush did survive, but Bush is now gone.  America has still not learned from the Haitian learning zone. Obama – the first U.S. black president now sits in the White House.   But just as he has changed little in Afghanistan or Iraq (and possibly made things worse there), Obama – and the former first couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton (Clinton is the special envoy to Haiti – called the ¨colonial governor¨by some peasant leaders) – are just proposing more of the same! Hillary dared pronouce that the Haitian situation after the earthquake was a Biblical tragedy – the work of God, in other words. A.N.S.W.E.R, a radical blog, put it better:  The degree of suffering in the wake of disasters like last year´s hurricanes, and this terrible earthquake – is not the work of God, but the work of American imperial policy – specifically neoliberalism, that sees shoddy construction, urban growth in Port au Prince from 50,000 in 1975 to 3 million today, with peasants fleeing from a Haitian agriculture that was once self-sufficient, to the teeming slums of the capital.  As A.N.S.W.E.R. put it, the makeshift dwellings of Haiti´s slums turned into graves.¨  It is not coincidental that the massive hurricanes that hit Cuba and Haiti with equal force in 2008 took 800 Haitian lives, but only 8 Cuban lives.  If 50 or 100,000 Haitians die in this earthquake as feared , more than half of them will have died needlessly, or rather because of U.S. greed.

The Clintons clearly have learned nothing from their visits to Haiti, and Obama seems only to follow the tired notion of ¨saving the poor Haitian people¨ by sending in ships of aid and marines. Clinton proposes that Soros build a huge garment industry industrial park to expand, not cut back, on sweat shops.   He proposes swanky tourist resorts on remote beaches and at the mountain palaces of former emperors.  He celebrated  $324 million in pledges last June from the InterAmerican Devlopmemt Bank – when Haiti´s ambassador Raymond Joseph says less than 35% of those pledges had been seen by January, and when 80% of any money that did arrive would go to pay salaries of non-Haitian ´experts´ or for goods and services contracted from the U.S..  And when IADB refuses to cancel the Haitian debt, and continues to collect huge interest fees from the Haitian government every year.  More of the same.  America doesn´t learn from Haiti, because to really learn those lessons would be to give up the prerogative of empire, and America – even under a black President – is obviously not ready to consider that option.

The only alternative to America´s unlearned lessons on Haiti, is for the international Haiti solidarity to revive, and for the so-called U.N. Peacekeepers to get off the backs of Lavalas activists, and allow the re-invigoration of that revolutionary movement.   Maybe this horrible earthquake can shock American ¨humanitarians¨ and ¨radicals¨ into reviving their lagging interest in Haiti – and surely it will revive the revolutionary yearnings of the Haitian peasant masses.   Let´s hope so.

Without that,  the horror will go on and on, enriching the coffers of U.S. business and bureacracy, via various earthquake relief measures and massive food aid,  and continuing to enslave the brave, proud nation that first saw a genuine revolution in this hemisphere.

TOM REEVES was Professor at Roxbury Community College in Boston, and
director of the Caribbean Focus Program, which sponsored nine
delegations of nongovernmental activists from the US and Canada to Haiti
during the Aristide and Preval presidencies, and during the times of the
coup d´etats.