Why Haiti Matters: Barack Obama and the Larger Discourse on Haiti [Essay]

by Guest Contributor Shannon Joyce Prince

In the current edition of Newsweek[1], President Obama claims to tell Americans why Haiti matters. Unfortunately, his claims reflect the racism, dishonesty, and denials of history that surround the way the “First World” frames Haiti and Haiti’s earthquake. Haiti does indeed matter to a variety of people and entities for reasons both good and ill – but not for the reasons Obama gives in Newsweek.

First, Haiti matters to the American government and American society because it gives us a chance to rewrite history. This tragedy provides us with the opportunity to expiate our crimes and portray ourselves as Haiti’s saviors. Due to America’s and the First World’s extensive financial and media resources, we get to determine the story that is told to the world about Haiti’s past and present. Thus, Obama’s version of the story claims, “… in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America’s leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up…” However, in terms of our relationship with Haiti (and other non-white or non-Western countries) the opposite is true.

As Randall Robinson pointed out in his works Quitting America and An Unbroken Agony, the U.S. has been sabotaging Haiti ever since the country’s independence. I could write an entire essay on the U.S.’s crimes against Haiti, but I’m just going to give a few of the examples Robinson offers on pages 200 and 201 of Quitting America.

The U.S. sided with France against the slave rebellion that brought Haiti independence. We then destroyed Haiti’s economy by forcing the country to pay 150 million francs in reparations to French slave-owners for their loss of property (slaves.) We occupied Haiti for nineteen years beginning in 1915, re-enslaving Haitians and leasing over 200,000 acres of land to American corporations – land stolen from tens of thousands of peasants. President John F. Kennedy gave military aid to Dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. We even provided the murderous post-Duvalier National Council of Government with millions in aid.

But the story doesn’t end there. As Paul Street has noted [2], “A reformist priest named Jean Bertrand Aristide threatened Washington’s vicious neoliberal regime when he won Haiti’s first free election in 1990… Aristide was removed in a U.S.-supported coup in 1991 but returned amidst popular upheaval in 1994. The Clinton White House initially backed the coup regime even more strongly than did George Bush I. Thanks to its rhetoric about ‘democracy’ at home and abroad, the militantly corporate-neoliberal NAFTA-promoting Clinton administration felt compelled to pretend that they backed Aristide’s return to power in 1994. The Clinton Pentagon and State Department delayed that return for two years and made it clear that Aristide’s restoration to nominal power depended upon him promising not to help the poor by offering any further challenges to Washington’s ‘free market’ economics.”

The story continued in 2004 when the U.S. government ousted President Aristide and sent him to the Central African Republic, although as Colin Powell notes, “We did not force him onto the airplane.” [3] I give this lengthy excerpt from a far lengthier litany of crimes to show that Obama’s claim that America doesn’t use power to subjugate others, but rather to lift them up, is untrue. But while America has overwhelmingly been a negative force towards Haiti, Haiti played key positive roles both in the development of the United States and in the worldwide quest for liberty that is as old as humanity itself.

Therefore, the second reason Haiti matters is that in contrast to the image the First World seeks to create for it as pathetic, backward, and incompetent, Haiti is a nation of heroism. When Haiti formed a free republic after the world’s only successful slave uprising, France’s economy was so weakened that it could no longer afford Louisiana (which at the time included Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, as well as parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and present day Louisiana, and parts of what is now currently Canada.) Thus, the United States was able to buy 828,000 square miles of land at three cents an acre (a low price even for the era) doubling America’s size. In other words, we benefited from the very revolution we opposed. While we have oppressed and impoverished Haiti, Haiti enriched us. While we claimed to represent freedom, we sided with French slave-owners against the Haitian slaves liberating themselves. While we declare ourselves a force for democracy, we support Haitian dictators and undermine or remove their democratically elected leaders. Haiti matters because the nation has never ceased to fight for freedom – despite the huge opposition it faces from us. Haiti matters because the nation shows us the immense gap between who we are and who we claim to be – a hypocrisy they pay for with their suffering.

A third reason Haiti matters is that the country’s most recent tragedy allows the First World to play with language with the audacity of an Orwellian villain. So in Newsweek Obama can say, “it is particularly devastating that this crisis has come at a time when—at long last, after decades of conflict and instability—Haiti was showing hopeful signs of political and economic progress” instead of saying, “it is particularly devastating that this crisis has come at a time when—at long last, after decades of the U.S. causing conflict and instability—Haiti was showing hopeful signs of political and economic progress.” Let’s be clear, if you’re running a race I repeatedly trip you, it’s a bit rich for me to claim you’re “progress-resistant”— to use the words of David Brooks. [4] If I break in your house and steal all your possessions, it would be inaccurate for someone to say that your house is empty because you’re simply poor instead of that you’ve been robbed. If I repeatedly burglarize your house because I’m stronger and it profits me and you can’t fight back, I have no grounds to wonder what innate failing you have that leads to your house being perpetually empty. Nor can I legitimately tell others that if they want to help you have a furnished house they should ignore my past and continued plundering and focus on changing what’s allegedly wrong with you. If I regularly rob you, and those robberies are a matter of public record, it would be silly, to say the least, for your neighbors to wonder, perplexedly, why you don’t have any furniture. If I steal a fortune from you and then give you pennies, it’s ridiculous for me to claim that I’m giving you aid.

A fourth reason Haiti matters is that its earthquake, like all tragedies in heavily black places (see New Orleans), become free-for-alls for racists. Bigots get to ignore all the reasons listed above for Haiti’s suffering and blame anything that comes to mind – from the nation’s religion to its values – for its poverty, sometimes bolstering their arguments with specious sources. They can explain that black peoples from urban U.S. cities to islands in the Western Hemisphere to Africa just can’t rule themselves as though neo-colonialism, globalization, military industrialism, First World backed violence and wars, theft of resources, political sabotage, unjust and illegitimate debts, structural adjustment programs, farm subsidies in Western nations, aid tied to brutal conditions, and other forces are imaginary. People such as the aforementioned Brooks can even claim that what Haiti needs a culture of “No Excuses” – conveniently excusing our culpable nation. Racists can pass on Katrina-style fears of rioting, rampaging blacks, ignoring evidence to the contrary [5] – since, you know, black people get barbaric in a crisis. The benevolent racists get to disseminate or pore over images of helpless black victims and wonderful white heroes. Haiti matters to the prejudiced because the Haitian tragedy allows them to be as paternalistic, cruel, or imaginative with their prejudice as they want to be. They can even blend charity with contempt like Pat Robertson and accuse Haitians of deals with the devil while offering aid.

Speaking of wonderful white heroes, Haiti matters to Bill Clinton. He gets to advocate for Haiti despite his administration’s role in brutally harming the country through its actions towards President Aristide. Despite a résumé that includes helping Chiquita to wreck the economies of black Caribbean banana farmers and suppressing news of the genocide in Rwanda so as not to have to help[6], Clinton has still managed to portray himself as a friend to blacks. Haiti allows him to polish up that illusionary image. Rudyard Kipling would be proud.

Haiti matters to investors. As Naomi Klein explained in her bookThe Shock Doctrine and Jerry Mander and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz observed in Paradigm Wars, what is called “aid” is often promised to poor and desperate governments while tied to terrible conditions. Those conditions include structural adjustment plans and other conditions that force aid receiving nations to, among other things, privatize their resources and infrastructure – so First World corporations can profit from them, remove protections for workers and the environment – so First World corporations can exploit them, spend less on health and education – in order to redirect that money where the lender says it should go, and remove trade barriers – so that First World corporations can export into “Third World” countries, undermining Third World farmers and industry in the process. As you might imagine, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization have aided eighty countries right into worse poverty, damaging their environments and wrecking the health of their populations in the process. [7] These organizations really aid First World nations and their business. So Haiti matters to investors in the guise of aid-bearers now because both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have each promised $100 million loans to Haiti. As Klein has remarked,[8] Haiti is ripe for some disaster capitalism. She gives an example of what to expect by posting some facts on the specifics of post-Katrina disaster capitalism here: Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas. What will happen in a country as vulnerable as Haiti is bound to be worse.

On her website Klein quotes The Heritage Foundation as saying, “In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.” When The Heritage Foundation, known for putting business before morals when it comes to international relations,[9] realized how blatantly evil it sounded to use another country’s disaster as a PR opportunity and to take advantage of an earthquake to mold a vulnerable nation for the economic and political benefit of America, it quickly changed its internet posting.[10] The new post is entitled “Things to Remember While Helping Haiti.” It was originally called, “Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the US.”

In Obama’s article, “Why Haiti Matters,” he says, “In the aftermath of disaster, we are reminded that life can be unimaginably cruel. That pain and loss is so often meted out without any justice or mercy. That ‘time and chance’ happen to us all.” What happened in Haiti was not a matter of “time and chance.” It was a “classquake.” Classquakes are earthquakes exacerbated by poverty. Street quotes Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, as saying, “”Even more than landslides and floods, earthquakes make precise audits of the urban housing crisis…seismic destruction usually maps with uncanny accuracy to poor-quality brick, mud, or concrete residential housing…” Haiti’s earthquake was a matter of time and chance. The devastation the earthquake caused was not. The devastation that is occurring is due to the country being too poor to have buildings that can stand up to a hurricane and too poor to have the resources to deal with the resulting trauma. Time and chance didn’t make Haiti poor. America did.

Ultimately, Haiti matters for the same reason it has since 1804 – Haiti is our teacher. Haiti teaches us that a group of slaves can take on one of the world’s most powerful empires and win. Haiti teaches us that like peoples, histories are vulnerable to distortion and destruction. Thus Haiti teaches us not to consume media uncritically. And since everyone from the slave-owners to the conquistadors have approached non-white nations claiming they only intend to do good, Haiti teaches us to be vigilant in the face of claims of benevolence. Haiti teaches us to look more deeply. And if we benefit from the lessons Haiti has taught us, as have from the enrichment we have procured from it, from the land its revolution enabled us to acquire, from the unparalleled example of courage it has set for us, then we are responsible to Haiti. We are responsible for overwhelming the television programs, newspapers, internet websites, and other forms of media that twist the story of Haiti with letters of protest and correction until the tale of the island is accurately told. We are responsible for sending resources to Haiti responsibly – and recognizing such transfers of resources as small payments on a very large debt – not aid. We are responsible for standing in watchful solidarity with Haiti as governments and investors seek to profit from its misery. It is not for our nation to tell Haiti what it should become – Haiti has never had a poverty of vision. We are responsible for helping the dream of those tortured and daring slaves who attained an improbable freedom, that dream that now belongs to the descendants of those slaves who elected a humble priest as president, to come true. At a time when the powerful will suggest that further domination of Haiti will actually mediate the damage that First World domination of Haiti has heretofore caused, we are responsible for ensuring respect for the nation’s sovereignty and dignity. Haiti is bravery and resistance and majesty and strength. That’s why Haiti matters.

[1] Why Haiti Matters,Newsweek

[2] http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/23640

[3] Ibid.

[4]The Underlying Tragedy,” New York Times

[5]Surprising calm as Fort Bragg troops begin patrols in Haiti,Fay Observer

[6]US chose to ignore Rwandan genocide,” The Guardian

[7]EDITORIAL – Criticism of World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund,” BNet
[8]Haiti Disaster Capitalism Alert: Stop Them Before They Shock Again,” Naomi Klein.com

[9]Think Tank’s Ideas Shifted As Malaysia Ties Grew,” The Washington Post

[10] “Heritage Foundation Covers Up Its Opportunistic Hopes in Haiti,” Governnmentality