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The Tragedy of Haiti … and Us

Dr. Paul Farmer tells the story of the beautiful young Haitian girl Acéphie, whose family was driven out of their small farm by powerful forces: a hydroelectric company whose dam flooded the farmland; a dictator (Duvalier) who paid workers 10 cents a day; political violence that disrupted the operations of medical clinics. And a soldier who took advantage of her and gave her AIDS. When she died, her grief-stricken father hanged himself. [1]

Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president of Haiti in 1957, and upon his death in 1971 was succeeded by his son Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During their 30 years of rule 60,000 Haitians were killed and many others were tortured by death squads. The Duvaliers, supported by the U.S., enriched themselves with foreign aid money while Haiti became the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian people worked in sweatshops for pennies a day while foreign industrialists made millions. In 1986, a people’s rebellion forced Baby Doc out, and the U.S. installed a military government, which continued to terrorize the citizens. [2]

In 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, was elected president in Haiti’s first free democratic election. He surprised the western world by winning 67% of the vote in a field of 12 candidates that included the U.S. candidate, a former World Bank official. Months later Aristide was overthrown by a US-backed military coup. [3] The Council on Hemispheric Affairs stated after the coup: “Under Aristide…Haiti seemed to be on the verge of tearing free from the fabric of despotism and tyranny…”

For the next three years anarchy reigned in Haiti. A study by Boston Media Action revealed that while human rights abuses attributed to Aristide supporters were less than 1% of the total, they comprised 60% of the coverage in major journals during the two weeks following the coup, and over half of coverage in the New York Times through mid-1992. [4]

Aristide was finally allowed to return, provided that he accept a number of political and economic conditions mandated by the United States.

In 2000 Aristide was re-elected president with over 90% of the vote. The Organization of American States claimed that the election was conducted unfairly, and the U.S. began to withhold foreign aid from Haiti. [5] In 2003 the country was forced to send 90% of its foreign reserves to Washington to pay off its debt. Pressure from business and international organizations was relentless. Aristide was vilified by the Reuters and AP wire services, which relied on local media owned by Aristide’s opponents. On February 5, 2004 a major revolt again forced him out of office. He was flown by the U.S. to the Central African Republic. [6]

Conditions in Haiti have remained desperate, with crumbling roads and infrastructure and nonexistent public services, unemployment at 70%, half the adults illiterate, and the richest 1% of the population controlling nearly half of all of the wealth. [7]

It doesn’t seem possible that the situation could get worse. But now it has.

PAUL BUCHHEIT teaches at DePaul University. He can be reached at: pbuchhei@depaul.edu

Notes.

1 Paul Farmer, “Pathologies of Power” (University of California Press, 2005)

2 Noam Chomsky, “Year 501: the conquest continues” (Boston: South End Press, 1993)

3 “Coup in Haiti,” by Amy Wilentz, The Nation, March 4, 2004 (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20040322/wilentz)

 

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