Chomsky on Haiti
For decades, Noam Chomsky has been an analyst and activist working in support of the Haitian people. In addition to his revolutionary linguistics career at MIT, he has written, lectured and protested against injustice for 40 years. He is co-author, along with Paul Farmer and Amy Goodman of Getting Haiti Right This Time: The U.S. and the Coup. His analysis "The Tragedy of Haiti" from his 1993 book Year 501: The Conquest Continues is available for free online. This interview was conducted in late February 2010 by phone and email. The interviewer thanks Peter Hallward for his kind assistance.
KEANE BHATT: Recently you signed a letter to the Guardian protesting the militarization of emergency relief. It criticized a prioritization of security and military control to the detriment of rescue and relief.
Noam Chomsky: I think there was an overemphasis in the early stage on militarization rather than directly providing relief. I don’t think it has any long-term significance…the United States has comparative advantage in military force. It tends to react to anything at first with military force, that’s what it’s good at. And I think they overdid it. There was more military force than was necessary; some of the doctors that were in Haiti, including those from Partners in Health who have been there for a long time, felt that there was an element of racism in believing that Haitians were going to riot and they had to be controlled and so on, but there was very little indication of that; it was very calm and quiet. The emphasis on militarization did probably delay somewhat the provision of relief. I went along with the general thrust of the petition that there was too much militarization.
KB: If this militarization of relief was not intentionally extreme but rather just a default response of the US, is it just serendipity that there is a massive troop presence available to manage the rapidly mounting popular protests post-earthquake? A surprisingly large, politicized group comprised of survivors has already mobilized around demanding Aristide’s return, French reparations instead of charity, and so on.
NC: So far, at least, I don’t know of any employment of the troops to subdue protests. It might come, but I suspect a more urgent concern is the impending disaster of the rainy season, terrible to contemplate.
KB: Regarding relief work, aside from Partners in Health, Al Jazeera noted that the Cuban medical team was the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and constitutes the largest contingent of medical workers in Haiti, something that preceded the earthquake. If their performance in Pakistan [earthquake of 2005] is any indicator, they will probably be the last to leave. Cuba seems to have an exemplary, decades-long conduct in foreign assistance.
NC: Well, the Cubans were already there before the earthquake. They had a couple hundred doctors there. And yes, they sent doctors very quickly; they had medical facilities there very quickly. Venezuela also sent aid quite quickly; Venezuela was also the first country and the only country at any scale to cancel totally the debt. There was considerable debt to Venezuela because of PetroCaribe, and it’s rather striking that Venezuela and Cuba were not invited to the donors’ meeting in Montreal.
Actually the prime minister of Haiti, Bellerive, went out of his way to thank three countries: the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela for their rapid provision of aid. What Al Jazeera said about Pakistan is quite correct. In that terrible earthquake a couple of years ago, the Cubans were really the only ones who went into the very difficult areas high up in the mountains where it’s very hard to live. They’re the ones who stayed after everyone else left. And none of that gets reported in the United States. But the fact of the matter is, whatever you think about Cuba, its internationalism is pretty dramatic. And the people who’ve been working in Haiti for years have been awestruck by Cuban medical aid as they were in Pakistan, in fact. That’s an old story. I mean, the Cuban contribution to the liberation of Africa is just overwhelming. And you can find that in scholarship, but the public doesn’t know anything about it.
KB: On that point, you’ve talked about how "states are not moral agents. They act in their own interests. And that means the interests of powerful forces within them." How does the history of exemplary humanitarian work as Cuban state policy relate to that thought?
NC: Well, I think it’s just been a core part of the Cuban revolution to have a very high level of internationalism. I mean, these cases you’ve mentioned are cases in point, but the most extreme case was the liberation of Africa. Take the case of Angola for example, and there are real connections between Cuba and Angola-much of the Cuban population comes from Angola. But South Africa, with US support, after the fall of the Portuguese empire, invaded Angola and Mozambique to establish their own puppet regime there. They were trying to protect Namibia, to protect apartheid, and nobody did much about it; but the Cubans sent forces, and furthermore they sent black soldiers and they defeated a white mercenary army, which not only rescued Angola but it sent a shock throughout the continent-it was a psychic shock-white mercenaries were purported to be invincible, and a black army defeated them and sent them back fleeing into South Africa. Well that gave a real shot in the arm to the liberation movements, and it also was a lesson to the white South Africans that the end is coming. They can’t just hope to subdue the continent on racist grounds. Now, it didn’t end the wars. The South African attacks in Angola and Mozambique continued until the late 1980s, with strong US support. And it was no joke. According to the UN estimates they killed a million and a half people in Angola and Mozambique, nothing slight. Nevertheless, the Cuban intervention had a huge effect, also on other countries of Africa. And one the most striking aspects of it is that they took no credit for it. They wanted credit to be taken by the nationalist movements in Africa. So in fact none of this was even known until an American researcher, Piero Gleijeses unearthed the evidence from the Cuban archives and African sources and published it in scholarly journals and a scholarly book, and it’s just an astonishing story but barely known-one out of a million people has ever heard of it.
KB: You mentioned the Venezuelan debt cancellation. At the same time, the G7 is in the process of eliminating bilateral debt. Why is that?
NC: Well they’re talking about it, yeah. The Venezuelans were first. And they just completely canceled the debt. G7 refused. In the Montreal meeting, they refused to even discuss it. Later, they indicated that they might do something. Maybe they’re embarrassed by the Venezuelan action. But I’m not sure how it’s playing out. As far as the IMF is concerned-the IMF is basically an offshoot of the US Treasury Department-they’ve talked about it but so far they have not agreed, as far as I can discover, to cancel the debt.
KB: Bellerive, Prime Minister of Haiti, thanked the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela. The DR has been lauded for its relief efforts: providing food, materials and medical care, for example. But at the same time there are reports from the border of Dominican troops forcibly deporting family members of Haitian patients and sometimes even the patients themselves, in Jimaní, for example. What is your take on these contrary developments taking place and is there any historical context that you would like to add?
NC: Well, what the Dominican Republic does is up to Dominicans to decide, but the much more striking thing from my perspective, is that the United States has not brought in any-barely any refugees-even for medical treatment. And that was harshly condemned by the dean of the University of Miami Medical School who thought it was just criminal not to bring Haitians to Miami where there’s marvelous medical facilities while they have to do surgery with, you know, hacksaws in Haiti. And in fact one of the first US reactions to the earthquake was to send in the Coast Guard to ensure that there wouldn’t be any attempt to flee from Haiti. I mean, that’s atrocious. The United States is the richest country in the world, it’s right next door to Haiti. It should be offering every possible means of assistance to Haitians.
Furthermore there’s a little bit of background here. I mean, the earthquake in Haiti was a class-based catastrophe. It didn’t much harm the wealthy elite up in the hills, they were shaken but not destroyed. On the other hand the people who were living in the miserable urban slums, huge numbers of them, they were devastated. Maybe a couple hundred thousand were killed. How come they were living there? They were living there because of-it goes back to the French colonial system-but in the past century, they were living there because of US policies, consistent policies.
KB: You’re talking about the forcible decimation of peasant agriculture in the 1990s?
NC: It started with Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson invaded all of Hispaniola, Haiti and the DR, the Wilson invasion was pretty brutal in both parts of Hispaniola. But it was much worse in Haiti. And the reasons were very clearly stated.
NC: Yeah. The State Department said, well, the Dominicans have some European blood so they’re not quite so bad. But the Haitians are pure nigger. So Wilson sent the marines to disband the Haitian parliament because they wouldn’t permit US corporations to buy up Haitian lands. And he forced them to do it. Well, that’s one of the many atrocities and crimes. Just keeping to this, that accelerated the destruction of Haitian agriculture and the flight of people from the countryside to the cities. Now that continued under Reagan. Under Reagan, USAID and the World Bank set up very explicit programs, explicitly designed to destroy Haitian agriculture. They didn’t cover it up. They gave an argument that Haiti shouldn’t have an agricultural system, it should have assembly plants; women working to stitch baseballs in miserable conditions. Well that was another blow to Haitian agriculture, but nevertheless even under Reagan, Haiti was producing most of its own rice when Clinton came along.
When Clinton restored Aristide-Clinton of course supported the military junta, another little hidden story…he strongly supported it in fact. He even allowed the Texaco Oil Company to send oil to the junta in violation of presidential directives; Bush Sr. did so as well-well, he finally allowed the president to return, but on condition that he accept the programs of Marc Bazin, the US candidate that he had defeated in the 1990 election. And that meant a harsh neoliberal program, no import barriers. That means that Haiti has to import rice and other agricultural commodities from the US from US agribusiness, which is getting a huge part of its profits from state subsidies. So you get highly subsidized US agribusiness pouring commodities into Haiti; I mean, Haitian rice farmers are efficient but nobody can compete with that, so that accelerated the flight into the cities. And it wasn’t that they didn’t know it was going to happen. USAID was publishing reports in 1995 saying, yes this is going to destroy Haitian agriculture and that’s a good thing. And you get the flight into the cities and you get food riots in 2008, because they can’t produce their own food. And now you get this class-based catastrophe. After this history-it’s only a tiny piece of it-the United States should be paying massive reparations, not just aid. And France as well. The French role is grotesque.
KB: May I ask, regarding Aristide’s languishing in exile, was he right to go back to Haiti in 1994 in the way that he did, with US troops? Also, was he right to agree, under enormous pressure of course, to the neoliberal reforms laid out in the Paris Accords?
NC: Well, I happened to be in Haiti almost at that time-1993. I was there for a while; this was the peak of the terror. And I’ve been in a lot of awful places in the world. Some of the worst, in fact. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the misery and the terror that was going on in Haiti under the junta, with Clinton’s backing at that time. And there was a lot of discussion, I talked for example to the late Father Gerard Jean-Juste, one of the most popular figures in Haiti, who the government recently forced out, he was then underground in a church but Haitian friends took me to him. He was very close to large parts of the population. I talked to labor leaders who’d been beaten and tortured but were willing to talk, and to activists and others. And what most of them said is, Father Jean-Juste for example, what he said is, "Look, I don’t want a marine invasion, I think it’s a bad idea. But on the other hand," he said, "my people, the people in the slums-La Saline, Cite Soleil and so on, they just can’t take it anymore." He said, "the torture is too awful, the terror is too awful. They’ll accept anything that’ll put an end to it." And that was the dilemma. I don’t have an answer to that.
KB: Was Aristide wrong to argue against calls (made by some of his more militant supporters) for armed struggle inside Haiti to restore democracy after the 1991 coup?
NC: Not in my opinion. Armed struggle would have led to a horrendous slaughter.
KB: On February 17th, Sarkozy was greeted to street protests by thousands of Haitians holding up images of Aristide, demanding his return, and demanding reparations for what the French extorted in exchange for recognizing Haiti’s independence. At that same address, Preval was shouted down and he withdrew into his jeep. With this kind of sentiment brewing in Haiti right now, do you see Aristide’s return as an important priority, or is it something that might be desirable but not that pressing?
NC: Well, the answer to that question is going to be given in Washington. The United States and France, the two traditional torturers of Haiti, essentially kidnapped Aristide in 2004 after having blocked any international aid to the country under very dubious pretexts, not credible grounds, which of course extremely harmed this fragile economy. There was chaos and the US and France and Canada flew in, kidnapped Aristide-they said they rescued him, they actually kidnapped him-they flew him off to Central Africa, his party Fanmi Lavalas is banned, which probably accounts for the very low turnout in the recent elections, and the United States has been trying to keep Aristide not only from Haiti, but from the entire hemisphere.
KB: By which way is Aristide compelled to remain exiled? How exactly is his persona non grata status in the hemisphere maintained and by whom? What is preventing him from flying into a sympathetic country near Haiti, like Venezuela, for example?
NC: He might be able to go to Venezuela, but if he tried to go to the Dominican Republic, for example, they wouldn’t let him in. And there’s good reason for that. International affairs is very much like the mafia, and the small storekeeper doesn’t offend the Godfather. It’s too dangerous. We can pretend it’s otherwise, but that’s the way it is. There was one country, I think it was Jamaica if I remember correctly, that did allow Aristide in, over serious US pressure and protest. And not a lot of countries are willing to take the risk of offending the United States. It’s a dangerous, violent superpower. I don’t have to tell you, you know the history of the Dominican Republic. I don’t have to tell you about it-that’s the way it works.
KB: Using, as you’ve said, the historical US legacy in the DR, can we turn to recent Dominican history? As this humanitarian aid is provided on behalf of the DR, and it fills in the vacuum left by a weak Haitian state, if we go back to the events leading up to the coup of 2004, it worked under US aegis to actively destabilize Haiti by training the paramilitary rebels, Guy Philippe and Louis Jodel Chamblain…
NC: I know. And providing a base for them.
KB: Is there some kind of a contradiction to provide charity for people who you’ve actually worked to dismantle and destabilize?
NC: Well, you can call it a contradiction if you like, but it’s also a contradiction for Sarkozy and Clinton to appear in Haiti without abject apologies for the terrible crimes that France and the U.S. under Clinton, particularly, have carried out against Haiti. But they don’t do it. The head of Toyota has to go to Congress and apologize for hours because some people were killed by Toyota cars, but does Clinton have to go and apologize for what he did to Haiti? He dealt a death blow. Does Sarkozy have to apologize for the fact that Haiti was France’s richest colony and a source of a lot of France’s wealth and they destroyed the country and then posed an indemnity as a price for liberating themselves, which the country was never able to get out of?
A couple of years ago, in 2002 I think, Aristide appealed to France, to Chirac, to pay some remuneration for the huge debt that Haiti had to pay them…
KB: Twenty-one billion dollars…
NC: Yeah, for this huge debt that Haiti had to pay them. And they did set up a commission led by Regis Debray, a former radical. And the commission said that France has no need to give any compensation at all. In other words, first we rob and then destroy them, and then when they ask for a little bit of help, we kick them in the face. It’s not surprising.
KB: Although at the same time there are sources that say that while France put up an indifferent front, it was actually worried about a head of state bringing a legal case with overwhelming documentary evidence for international arbitration.
NC: Well, they really didn’t have to worry, because the way power politics works, the World Court can’t do anything. Look, there’s one country in the world at the moment which has refused to accept World Court decision-that’s the United States. Is anybody going to do anything about it?
KB: You mentioned Clinton, now UN special envoy to Haiti, who intends to woo foreign investors and continue on a low-wage textile focus for Haitian economic development. The lens of neoliberal economist Paul Collier, special adviser to the UN in 2009, dominates the UN perspective of Haiti. An advocate of sweatshop-led growth himself, he’s lavished praise on the much-resented MINUSTAH occupation force there, and has even said that the Dominican Republic "is not engaged in the sort of activities, such as clandestine support for guerrilla groups, that beset many other fragile states." Can a true humanitarian like Paul Farmer-representing a different development model based on fair wages, public health, strengthening the Haitian state-influence the UN as deputy special envoy?
NC: It’s a hard choice. I don’t blame him for trying. We live in this world, not another one that we’d prefer, and sometimes it’s necessary to follow painful paths if we hope to provide at least a little help for suffering people. Like Father Jean-Juste and the marines.
KB: You’ve talked about how the media created an artificial distinction between the South American ‘Bad Left’ and ‘Good Left,’ omitting Brazil’s important collaboration with Venezuela in the interest of maintaining this view. However, with respect to Haiti, hasn’t Brazil legitimately earned a secure place within the ‘Good Left’? A center-left government of the South has spearheaded the MINUSTAH occupation and has pledged to increase its presence, after taking it over from the imperial architects of the coup (US, France, Canada). What factors made it so vigorous in supporting another deposed president of an equally geopolitically-unimportant country in recent times (Zelaya of Honduras)?
NC: Good questions. I haven’t seen anything useful on Brazil’s decisions on these matters.
KB: Any comments on the US media regarding Haiti following the earthquake? For example, Pat Robertson’s ‘pact with the devil,’ David Brooks’ ‘progress-resistant culture,’ pleas with transnational capital to create more sweatshops (Kirstof), Aristide being a despot and a cheat (Jon Lee Anderson). Even Amy Wilentz has compared Aristide to Duvalier in the New York Times.
NC: It’s been mainly awful, but I haven’t kept a record. The worst part is ignoring our own disgraceful role in helping to create the catastrophe, and consequent refusal to react as any decent person should-with massive reparations, directed to popular organizations. Same with France.
KB: I guess my final question is for the future: there have been a discouraging two decades, from 1990-2010, about the popular mobilization for political change in Haiti, and how to proceed, and I guess now that the Haitian people have struggled so hard through parliamentary democracy for 25 years and have so little to show for it, what are the lessons learned and possible strategies now that they’ve exhausted this parliamentary, democratic approach? Two coups d’etat and thousands tortured and murdered in this process.
NC: The lessons are, unfortunately, that a small weak country that is facing an extremely hostile and very violent superpower will not make much progress unless there’s a strong solidarity movement within the superpower that will restrain its actions. With more support within the United States, I think the Haitian efforts could have succeeded.
And that applies right now. Take the aid that’s coming in. There is aid coming in-we have to show we’re nice people and so on. But the aid ought to be going to Haitian popular organizations. Not to contractors, not to NGOs-to Haitian popular organizations, and they’re the ones that should be deciding what to do with it. Well you know, that’s not the agenda of G7. They don’t want popular organizations; they don’t like popular movements; they don’t like democracy for that matter. What they want is for the rich and powerful to run things. Well, if there was a strong solidarity movement in the United States and the world, it could change that.
KEANE BHATT is an activist and jazz musician from New York currently living in the Dominican Republic as a volunteer.