Monday, January 18, 2010

After the earthquake, Haiti needs more than your latte money

This is a post I wrote for Global Commentimage

Media images appear to be prime motivation this week in a collective, mobilized response underscored by Western guilt. Bombarded with dust-covered corpses, blood and broken bones, and bodies rotting in the hot sun, millions around the world have donated their money to various relief organizations in support of Haiti. The United States has even organized a text message campaign which allows cell phone users to donate as little as ten dollars by texting the word “Haiti” to a central national phone line. However, this feel-good effort fails to address the circumstances which created this catastrophe. Haiti cannot afford to the typical, Western, Bono-style activism: here today and gone tomorrow, even as its citizens continue to endure the effects of enormous national debt and unfair trading practices which have historically impoverished the nation.

France considered Haiti to be the pearl of the Caribbean and set about stealing both its natural and human resources at will. The average lifespan of a slave in Haiti was a scant twenty-one years, due to harsh living conditions and limited supplies of food. Instead of recognizing the Haitian struggle as akin to that engaged in by Americans against British tyranny, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave foreign aid to the supposedly beleaguered French slave owners. Haitians won their freedom from France through armed conflict, defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the most powerful army in Europe — this is the history that most outside students are familiar with. But what most miss was a move that cannot be considered anything but extortion.

France demanded the sum of 150 million francs in payment for the freedom of the Haitian people. What France could not hold through force, it did through economic colonialism; by 1900, over 80% of Haiti’s annual budget was directed at paying this spurious debt. This form of neo-colonialism would serve as a model for the impoverishment of much of the Global South. Under the crushing weight of such debt, Haiti was unable to ensure its citizens a desent standard of living, forced to take loans from France, America and Germany to service the debt. It was not until 1947 that Haiti managed to pay off the debt it incurred to achieve its freedom.

But this state of economic slavery would not be enough to pacify American capitalists. Woodrow Wilson, the father of the now defunct League of Nations, a supposed signifier of American global peace efforts, would invade Haiti in 1915. From there, U.S. troops dismantled the Haitian government for failing to submit to American ownership of Haitian lands. Setting the standard for democracy, a new government was then elected with a 99% favourable vote by the mere 5% of the population that was actually allowed to vote. Thousands of active or suspected political protestors were slaughtered by the U.S. occupying force.

Even after the official US exit from Haiti, its influence would continue to cause a reign of terror upon the people. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, were embraced by the U.S. government, even as they ran up debt to pay for a lavish lifestyle and brutally terrorized the Haitian people. In a move of shocking brutality, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed largely by the paramilitary leader, Tonton Macoutes.

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