Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee: air, earth,
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
– William Wordsworth,
“To Toussaint Louverture”, 1803.
HAITI is in agony. The largest earthquake in two centuries, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, shook its capital city, Port-au-Prince, and took with it at least a hundred thousand lives. The devastation is complete. Infrastructure, preciously built, is ruined; bodies remain below debris; starvation and frustration among the survivors rise to the surface. The weak government of Rene Preval does its best to deliver the basics in a situation where it was unable to act even before the quake.
The best of Atlantic liberalism emerges. The United States dispatches its Caribbean arsenal; aircraft carriers fasten their bombs and send forth bundles of ready-to-eat food. Crews of disaster relief specialists fly in to unburden the city of its chaos. An emergency room doctor from my hometown hastens onto the next flight to Haiti. She wanted to go and help after the 2004 tsunami, but the distance to Asia was too much. Haiti is closer. She takes her skills to the scene of desperation. A Facebook friend reports that his grandmother, herself a refugee from Vietnam to the U.S., has assembled her friends into a fund-raising group. It is not the Red Cross, but it is something. Established aid agencies report that the donations are at record levels. The disaster touched a chord.
Would that the good feelings of these thousands of people who represent the best of Atlantic liberalism be the policy of their governments! But it is not so. Their concern for Haiti mirrors the words of Wordsworth, drawn as he was to the great tremor from the Caribbean when Haiti under Toussaint threw itself out of the slavery machine. The Haitian revolution of 1791-1803 redeemed the false promises of the French Revolution of 1789; the latter had proclaimed the rights of man but said nothing about the slavery that continued to sustain France from its colonies. Haiti’s actions put pressure on the Atlantic liberals of the 19th century, such as William Wilberforce, whose moral exhortations only then had any force. When Wilberforce spoke of the abolition of slavery, the memory of Port-au-Prince’s rebellion made his option reasonable. It was Haiti’s example from 1791 that pushed the world to abolish slavery, and it is this that Wordsworth celebrated in song. It is this tradition, from Wilberforce onwards, that moved Atlantic liberalism to stretch its hands out to the island.
From the murky corners of American conservatism comes another reaction. Here, there is largely silence about the tragedy (Fox News almost ignored it) or else there is scorn for it. The radio personality Rush Limbaugh has had a long track record of off-colour remarks about the island. In 1994, Limbaugh pilloried Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a zombie, a figure in Haiti Vodou (“I think he blinks once every five minutes,” Limbaugh told his vast radio audience, alluding to the idea that zombies don’t blink). When former U.S. President Bill Clinton was appointed the Special Envoy to Haiti by President Barack Obama, Limbaugh said, “I’m just gonna tell you, if I was named envoy to Haiti, I’d quit government. Envoy to Haiti? You can’t even pick up a prostitute down there without genuine fear of AIDS.” If this is not enough, after the earthquake, Limbaugh offered his view that the Obama administration conjured it up to help its slipping ratings. Why provide more aid to Haiti, Limbaugh pointed out; “we’ve already donated. It’s called the U.S. income tax.”
Limbaugh was not alone. The tele-evangelist and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson went one step further. Robertson has a history of peculiar statements, from his view that the September 11 attacks should be blamed on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians” to his belief that Hurricane Katrina was retribution for legal abortion. With Haiti, Robertson went back to the revolution.
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” Robertson went on to blame the earthquake on a “pact with the devil” made by Haitians to throw off the French yoke in 1791. The end to slavery, then, required a deal between the slaves and the devil; God would have been on the side of the slavers. This is a tradition of thought that goes back to the U.S. reaction to the Haitian revolution. South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne put it plainly in 1824, “Our policy with regard to Hayti is plain. We never can acknowledge her independence. The peace and safety of a large part of our Union forbids us even to discuss it.” Haiti was a challenge to U.S. slavery; its freedom could not be allowed. George Washington’s government sent $400,000 to support the white planters.
Robertson and Limbaugh provide the hidden transcript of official U.S. policy. The U.S. government, since 1804, has never allowed Haiti to be independent. In the last century, it treated Haiti with contempt. Its army occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and in the process destroyed the Cacos Rebellion led by Charlemagne Peralte (1919). From 1957 to 1986, the U.S. provided unconditional support for the dictatorship of the Duvaliers, the most brutal regime in the Caribbean.
It was in this period that the Haitian economy fell apart, open to U.S. agricultural imports that crushed the last remaining independent Haitian peasantry. They fled to the cities, into overcrowded slums with no employment. It was in these slums that the Lavalas (avalanche) movement grew, led by Aristide, then a priest.
The Lavalas wanted to reinvigorate agriculture, introduce land reforms, reforest the countryside and regulate the vast export processing zones. The programme was too radical. Aristide would be removed twice, once in 1991 and again in 2004. Both times he had to go on Washington’s say-so. Clinton reinstated him in 1994 only when the congressional Black Caucus and others put immense pressure on the White House. Aristide returned to implement a neoliberal agenda, not the Lavalas programme. That was the Clinton bargain. It was worse than Robertson’s imputed pact with the devil. Haitians called it the “plan of death”.
No wonder that about three million of the nine million Haitians live in Port-au-Prince. U.S. agricultural imports have destroyed Haiti’s rural economy. Miserable wages in the sweatshop industry did not help. The HOPE II (Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement) Act of 2008 from the U.S. Congress pushed for more sweatshops, a drive backed by United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2009. (Ban praised the HOPE legislation as “a golden opportunity to bring in investors and create hundreds of thousands of jobs”.) The harsh economic environment is responsible for the creation of mostly substandard housing, which crumbled when the earth shook. The earthquake was a natural disaster of the highest magnitude, but it did not help that the social order was ill-prepared to withstand its shocks.
A moderate conservative, David Brooks, came along this grain. “This is not a natural disaster story,” he wrote in The New York Times (January 15). “This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.” But rather than go into the recent history of why this is so, Brooks took refuge in culture. Sure, Haiti suffered from colonialism and dictatorship, but so did Barbados and the Dominican Republic, he says. What marks Haiti is “the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile”. But if Haiti were solely driven by voodoo’s fatalism, it would not have been able to generate the Lavalas movement, nor the Cacos rebellion, nor indeed the original Haitian revolution.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hastened to Port-au-Prince, intoning the rhetoric of the best of liberalism. On her aircraft is the head of U.S. aid efforts, Rajiv Shah, a man given over to the Second Green Revolution (biotechnology, especially genetic modification, and private capital investment: both elements of a U.S. push to continue its domination of the world’s agriculture). Nothing in this Second Green Revolution will give the land back to the Haitian people.
The Obama team has not shifted the century-long U.S. policy vis-a-vis Haiti. Promotion of tourism and sweatshops, increase in debt and rural flight: all this will continue. A $100 million in aid is minuscule, almost insulting. It was Obama’s first tranche for Haiti. More will come, but with substantial conditions, more along the plan of death. These are inevitable, and they will set the stage for further suffering. The earthquake and its aftermath will draw in some relief money and the good feelings of Atlantic liberalism. But little more.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published by Frontline.