HAITI: “Aid” and Imperialism

“If we are serious about assisting this devastated land,” Peter Hallward writes, “we must stop trying to control and exploit it.” Dan Freeman-Maloy looks at “how calls to ‘help’ Haiti were a cornerstone justification for one of the greatest crimes in the past decade of Canadian foreign policy.”

For more on Haiti, visit the website of the Canada Haiti Action Network

Our role in Haiti’s plight

By Peter Hallward

If we are serious about assisting this devastated land we must stop trying to control and exploit it

Any large city in the world would have suffered extensive damage from an earthquake on the scale of the one that ravaged Haiti’s capital city on Tuesday afternoon, but it’s no accident that so much of Port-au-Prince now looks like a war zone. Much of the devastation wreaked by this latest and most calamitous disaster to befall Haiti is best understood as another thoroughly manmade outcome of a long and ugly historical sequence.

The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake back in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of 7 May 1842 may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap ­Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, mostly recently in 2004 and again in 2008; the storms of September 2008 flooded the town of Gonaïves and swept away much of its flimsy infrastructure, killing more than a thousand people and destroying many thousands of homes. The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable.

What is already all too clear, ­however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”. This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.

The noble “international community” which is currently scrambling to send its “humanitarian aid” to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.

Aristide’s own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.

Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population “lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day”. Decades of neoliberal “adjustment” and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today. Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti’s agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums. Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately sub-standard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more “natural” or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.

As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: “Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses.” Meanwhile the city’s basic infrastructure – running water, electricity, roads, etc – remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government’s ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil.

The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission’s mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this “investment” towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international “aid”.

The same storms that killed so many in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal “reform”, and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster. If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then we should take this comparative point on board. Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti’s people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop ­trying to control Haiti’s government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we’ve already done.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

Relief Efforts in the Shadow of Past “Help”

Can we move from crimes-as-charity to actual support for Haiti?

By Dan Freeman-Maloy

Over the course of the past decade, Canada’s leading officials and most prestigious commentators have learned how to approach Haiti in the spirit of cynical power politics and racist condescension (or worse) while maintaining a posture of national self-flattery. With attention again riveted on Haiti following the horrific tragedy inflicted by Tuesday’s earthquake, this ugly mixture is once again on display. The need for emergency aid is, without question, urgent. But established patterns of “help” for Haiti need to be overcome if the destructive impact of this catastrophe is to be somehow limited.

Scattered self-congratulations can already be heard in Canada’s mainstream press (a willing partner, for the most mart, in recent Canadian government crimes against Haiti). On Thursday, papers across the country ran editorials on Canadian policy and the relief effort. Under the title “Helping Haiti,” the Calgary Herald editorialized that “Canada’s response is not only appropriate, but one to be proud of. … Once again, Canada’s humanitarianism and compassion shines brightly.” The Montreal Gazette concurred: “Canadians have, to their credit, been involved in helping Haiti help itself for years.” For its part, the Globe and Mail yet again cast Haiti as the “basket case of the Western hemisphere,” the editorial headline promising that “Today’s rescue is just the beginning.”

In previous years, such benevolent rhetoric has been to Western policy in Haiti what anti-terrorist slogans have been to Western policy in the Middle East. It was under the cover of such declared benevolence that the elected Haitian government was overthrown in 2004 by means of US, French and Canadian involvement; it was amidst similar rhetoric that Haitian movements resisting this outrage were decimated in the ensuing years with the “security assistance” of foreign powers.

This is not to distract from the urgent need for a massive international relief effort. But it should give us reason for pause. The Haitian struggle for sovereignty and decolonization is very much ongoing. And for many years, it has been common practice to package assaults on Haiti as aid. It is imperative that genuine aid and relief work be disentangled, in our understanding and in practice, from the criminal policies they are often used to justify.

This article does not address the details of the ongoing catastrophe in Haiti triggered by the earthquake of January 12. Rather, it provides a reminder of how calls to “help” Haiti were a cornerstone justification for one of the greatest crimes in the past decade of Canadian foreign policy. It is beyond me to discuss how the Haitian struggle for independence is likely to adapt to the catastrophic circumstances that have now emerged. What is clear is the need to not only expand the evolving relief effort, but also engage with the inevitable tensions within it.

“Operation Halo,” 2004: regime change as an aid package

The 2004 regime change in Haiti was one of most despicable episodes in a miserable decade of Western aggression. Early that year, Haiti faced intervention from the two powers which have most tormented it throughout its history: France, which grew rich on this slave colony through to the late 18th century (Haiti declared its independence in 1804); and the US, which occupied Haiti from 1915-1934 and maintained client dictatorships in the country through to the late 1980s, and then again from 1991-1994. The intervention of 2004 was preceded by years of destabilization. Aid to the government was cut and re-routed through sources more beholden to donors. Finally, on February 29, US Marines occupied the National Palace and forced Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile. Canadian troops secured the airport from which he was flown out of the country.

Put simply, the country produced by the world’s only successful slave rebellion — punished for centuries by spiteful racist powers — marked its bicentennial with renewed Western occupation. And so a presidential term that was supposed to last until 2006 was violently cut short. Among the Aristide presidency’s crimes was constructing a legal case for repayment by France of the massive payment extorted from Haiti in the 19th century to compensate for the slaves France lost when they freed themselves (the equivalent of $21.7 billion today). The aftermath of the coup saw paramilitary forces with a well-known record of torture and extra-judicial killing ruthlessly target Haiti’s main mass-based political party, Lavalas. It is against the backdrop of centuries of such sabotage that Haiti has been made so vulnerable to disaster.

At the time, prestigious Canadian media joined officials in whitewashing the intervention as somehow charitable. Facing outrage from the 20-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom), Prime Minister Paul Martin framed the issue for the Globe and Mail immediately after Aristide’s ouster: “their upset is not with Canada per se. Their upset is with the fact a constitutionally elected president has lost his position.” What was necessary, he implied, was to refocus on humanitarian assistance for Haitians and spin Canadian involvement in these terms. As Martin put it: “we’ve got to get aid in there.”1 Caricom, alongside the African Union (AU), refused to recognize the regime that had been installed with Canadian support. In the Canadian press, Martin found a more receptive audience.

Indeed, a sample of Globe headlines from the weeks of Canadian involvement leading up the coup is illustrative: “Martin helps in Haiti,” “PM offers to help solve Haitian crisis” (January 13); “How to help Haiti” (January 24); “U.S. asks Canada to help police chaotic Haiti” (February 13); “…Canada, U.S. adopt France’s suggestion that President’s departure might help Haiti” (February 27); “Canada considers sending troops to help Haiti” (February 28); “Time to help Haiti” (March 1); and so on. Official presentation of Canadian participation in the coup as an aid package fit all too naturally into such Globe reports.

Riding out these diplomatic bumps, the Prime Minister would within a couple of months go on an official visit to Washington. Drew Fagan reported approvingly for the Globe how “Martin smiled broadly as Mr. Bush praised Canada’s commitments in Afghanistan and Haiti.”2 By 2005, the Haitian regime change of February 2004 factored into news coverage as the start of a Canadian “peace mission.”3 The spinning of “Operation Halo” (the official name for Canada’s February-July 2004 troop deployment) involved rewriting a state crime as a charity effort.

In the summer of 2004, the Canadian military role in Haiti gave way to such other forms of involvement as police deployment, financing and diplomatic support for the installed government of Gérard Latortue (who had been flown in from Florida to head the government after the coup). A combination of the reconstituted Haitian National Police (HNP), associated paramilitaries, and foreign police and military forces (now operating with United Nations authorization) acted to suppress movements calling for the restoration of democratic rule. Canadian involvement remained wide-ranging. In a period of mass political imprisonment without trial, for example, the installed Minister of Justice, Philippe Vixamar, explained to the University of Miami’s Thomas M. Griffin “that he is a political appointee of the Latortue administration, but the Canadian International Development Agency (‘CIDA’) assigned him to his position and is his direct employer.”4

Such were the forms of Canadian “aid.” With a willing press, the Canadian government had little problem maintaining this destructive fiction at home. The routine was often laughable.

The fall of 2004, for example, witnessed an upsurge of popular demonstrations calling for Aristide’s return, and a wave of lethal repression. For Prime Minister Martin, Canadian involvement in such a fight compensated for the limitations of Canadian participation in the occupation of Iraq. “Think about what we’re doing in Afghanistan, think about what we’re doing in Haiti,” Martin explained in mid-October: “we are not on the sidelines.”5

With Haitians reeling from the intensified repression, the Canadian government dispatched Prime Minister Martin for a November 2004 visit with the stated aim of bolstering the installed Haitian government’s legitimacy. For good measure, Martin packed his plane with food and other aid supplies — a point Canadian reporters happily emphasized. The Globe and Mail account of his visit was published with a large picture of a young Haitian girl sitting on Martin’s lap, waving a Canadian flag for the camera. This visit was later cited as a “humanitarian trip.”6

Within this setting, it has been all too easy for Canadian commentators to express thinly veiled racism towards Haitians and to openly question their right to independence. Sticking with the case of the Globe and Mail, one may recall Marina Jiménez giving voice to Canadian hopes that “the poor people of Cité Soleil will have a change of heart, switching allegiance from the shadowy and ruthless chimères [i.e., activists affiliated with Haiti’s leading mass party] to ‘les blancs’ in the uniforms who, this time, are in it for the long haul.” Or Jeffrey Simpson, shedding crocodile tears over this “failed state” — whose “ills … have persisted and even grown worse despite a United Nations military and police presence and hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid” — only to propose that independent Haitian governance be revoked and formally (if temporarily) replaced by a UN protectorate.7 Simpson floated the proposal under a headline with the familiar message: “Hello, my name is Haiti and I really need your help.”

More “help” of this kind is the last thing that Haiti needs.

Disaster relief and reconstruction

The election of René Préval in 2006 was a testament to the perseverance of Haitian society and its independent political organizations in the face of harsh circumstances. However, this decade’s round of destabilization and repressive violence capped off a much longer period of imposed under-development, and again tipped the balance in favour of international and against sovereign Haitian institutions. Any country would require massive international support to cope with a disaster on the scale of this week’s earthquake. Now, international relief efforts are plainly imperative.

Massive reparations from Western powers to Haiti are long overdue. (This is in addition to the minimalist demand that the indemnity France extorted from Haiti for lost slave labour be repaid.) It is at this point flatly obnoxious to accompany the sending of any Western funds, even on a massive scale, with the faintest hint of self-congratulations. But funds and resources certainly need to be sent. An immediate challenge, as Naomi Klein argues, is to ensure that all government resources are sent as grants, absolutely none as loans. Such demands are urgent and pressing.

The danger that Western powers will use this occasion to increase their leverage over Haitian society is real. President Obama’s appointment of former president George W. Bush to join Bill Clinton in organizing the relief effort is a troubling sign. In Canada, while it was the Martin Liberals who carried out the intervention of 2004, the main apparent objection of the Harper Conservatives was that Canadian forces left too soon and should have participated more directly in repression. With Sarkozy’s France calling a donors conference amidst a flurry of international commitments, the actual policies that emerge need to be carefully monitored and considered.

In sum, it is necessary to acknowledge and deliberately break with past crimes. Those who set up a continuum between recent years’ intervention and proposed relief missions are issuing threats, not promises.

Over the past decade, the idea that more Western involvement in Haiti is always better has dovetailed with what Peter Hallward has flagged as “perhaps the most consistent theme of Western commentary on the island: that poor black people remain incapable of governing themselves.” At a time when the need for international involvement is indeed urgent, it is all the more important to keep this racist tendency in check.


[1] “Ottawa works to ease Caribbean ‘upset,’” Jeff Sallot (March 3, 2004; A17). What follows draws from the Globe and Mail unless otherwise indicated, partly because it is most representative of official opinion in Canada, partly because my notes from the period are based mostly on its coverage.
[2] “Bush backs open border for beef,” Drew Fagan – Ottawa Bureau Chief (May 1, 2004; A1).
[3] “Martin vows to ease Darfur’s suffering,” Paul Koring (February 23, 2005; A1).
[4] Thomas M. Griffin, “Haiti – Human Rights Investigation: November 11-21, 2004,” Center for the Study of Human Rights, University of Miami School of Law (www.law.miami.edu/cshr/CSHR_Report_02082005_v2.pdf): p. 24.
[5] “Martin cool to renewed U.S. request for assistance; Canada stretched too thin to contribute to Iraq, PM says in Paris,” Mark Mackinnon (October 15, 2004; A16).
[6] “Internal strife will undermine rebuilding plan, PM tells Haiti,” Brian Laghi – Ottawa Bureau Chief (November 15, 2004; A4); “On the road again,” Brian Laghi (January 15, 2005; F3).
[7] “Backyard Baghdad,” Marina Jimenez (January 22, 2005; F4); “Hello, my name is Haiti and I really need your help,” Jeffrey Simpson (June 8, 2005; A17).

Reproduced from ZNet


Posted on January 17, 2010, in Imperialism & Colonialism. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on HAITI: “Aid” and Imperialism.

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