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What is a “Shithole Country” and Why is Trump So Obsessed With Haiti?

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Photo by MichelleWalz | CC BY 2.0

On Thursday, the day before the eighth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti that killed at least 230,000 people, President Trump called Haiti – as well as a single, undifferentiated “Africa” – “shithole countries.”

Of course, the president’s first impulse was to deny the statement, just as he had denied the statement made public through an anonymous source to the New York Times that “all Haitians have AIDS.”

Triggering the conversation is his administration’s denial of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 58,000 people from Haiti currently living in the U.S., some for as much as thirty years.

His comments speak to the callous attitude of an individual that feels no accountability, who thinks he can rewrite history as is convenient. Senator Durbin (D-IL) confirmed that indeed 45 had spoken these “hate filled words” many times in a conversation about immigration policy, that Trump has been actively sabotaging despite an apparent deal with Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) for his “yes” vote on Trump’s tax plan.

It would be unfortunate if the media were to exceptionalize Trump’s comments as the latest gaffe from an individual too accustomed to bullying people on Twitter, recently claiming that his “nuclear button” is bigger than North Korea’s. The comments are also indicative of an unchallenged white supremacy that has unfortunately been allowed to fester in our society. It is more useful to see this as an open expression of often hidden feelings, unresolved cultural aftershocks of the institution of plantation slavery that our nation has to deal with head on and with courage and honesty.

As Haitian literature professor Regine Jean-Charles has written, she was not surprised by the comments, as “evidence of a brand of racism that has always been present in U.S. society, which since the 2016 campaign has been fanned into virulent flame.”

What is behind Trump – and white America’s – obsession with Haiti?

Haiti has been targeted for its decisive role in challenging what Southern planters – including eight U.S. Presidents – called a “peculiar institution.” The Haitian Revolution was the first time slaves were able to permanently end slavery and forge an independent nation. It also was a tipping point in U.S. history, leading to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, paving the way for U.S. “Manifest Destiny” stretching from sea to shining sea and eventual dominance. Chicago, the country’s third largest city, was founded by a Haitian, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who Haitian historian Marc Rosier called an “agent” of the Haitian government to pursue a pro-freedom international policy.

Haiti’s contribution to U.S. “greatness” has long been unacknowledged. The pivotal Haitian Revolution was literally “unthinkable,” as Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillotargued. The demonization of Haiti was so strong, its inspiration to slaves so dangerous, that Congress imposed a gag order in 1824, preventing the word Haiti from being uttered in Congress, a year after the imperialist Monroe Doctrine.

White supremacy was not defeated in the Appatomox Court House in 1865, nor the 13th Amendment that allowed for a back-door legalization of slavery, nor in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, nor in the 1965 Voting Rights Act following “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, nor in the 2008 election of the first African American President.

Through it all, as Haitian anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse analyzed, Haiti has served as the “bête noir” in a deliberate smear campaign against the descendants of the people who said no to white supremacy.

These narratives of Haiti continued throughout the initial response to the 2010 earthquake, from the likes of televangelist Pat Robertson and the New York Times’ David Brooks. As New Yorker contributing writer Doreen St. Felix pointed out, this obsession with Haiti has to do with white society’s rejection of black self-determination.

These discourses have definite and powerful material consequences.

France, which in 2001 declared slavery a “crime against humanity,” extorted 150 million francs from Haiti as a condition of recognition of Haitian independence, plunging Haiti into a 120-year debt that consumed up to 80% of Haiti’s tax base. Socialist president Jacques Chirac scoffed at Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s demand for reparations before being the first to call for his resignation in 2004.

Calling Haiti “ungovernable” provided justification for U.S. intervention: The United States invaded Haiti twenty-six times from 1849 to 1915, when U.S. Marines landed and occupied the country for nineteen years. During the U.S. Occupation, the Marines set up the modern army, opened up land for foreign ownership, solidified class and racial inequality, laying the groundwork for the 1957-1971 Duvalier dictatorship.

Incorrectly blaming Haiti for its role in the AIDS epidemic killed the tourist industry, which, along with the deliberate destruction of Haiti’s pig population, sent the economy in a nosedive. Neoliberal capitalist interests seized the opportunity to take advantage of the massive rural exodus to build sweatshops, exploiting people’s misery by offering the lowest wages in the world. With poverty wages, and a crippling foreign debt that according to the IMF’s own recordkeeping went to the paramilitary tonton makout, Port-au-Prince’s shantytowns had no services and no government oversight. These foreign interventions were the main killer in the 2010 earthquake.  

Fearing Haitians as “looters” or the other familiar racist scribes, and calling Haiti a “failed state” led to the invisibility of Haitian people’s heroic first response, and also to the complete exclusion of Haitian state and non-state actors in rebuilding their own country and providing aid. Bill Clinton co-chaired the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, making decisions about aid, and humanitarian aid was coordinated in a UN Logistics Base, where Haitian people were excluded by foreign soldiers responsible for the cholera epidemic that killed almost 10,000 people or the English language of the meetings. Nongovernmental organizations reproduced a top-down, hierarchical structure that excluded people living in the camps from decisions. These humanitarian aftershocks led to, among other consequences, the breakup of Haitian families and increasing violence against women.

Calling the world’s beacon of freedom a “shithole” sullies not only Haiti’s ten million residents on the island and three million in the U.S., but is an affront to human freedom and equality.

As award-winning Haitian author Edwidge Danticat argued, “today we mourn. Tomorrow we fight.”

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Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of six books, including forthcoming Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.

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