In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake the words of slave general Toussaint L’Ouverture come to mind: ‘In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of black liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.” Perhaps a politically charged maxim does not seem appropriate in the face of a natural disaster. Yet this revolutionary saying has echoed throughout Haiti’s struggles for stability and democracy. When we look at the current events in Haiti, we must consider the historical actors that built its vulnerable infrastructure.
The drawbacks initially outnumbered the benefits when Haiti proclaimed itself the first black republic in 1804. After the slave-led revolution, internal power struggles plagued Haiti. A mulatto elite took hold of the land and built a feudal system dependent on the labor of the black peasant majority. In 1825, Haitian officials signed a document agreeing to a debt of 150 million francs to France (approximately $21 billion today).
Haiti was also unpopular with its powerful neighbor. The United States refused to recognize Haiti’s independence and cooperated with Europe’s trade embargo on the young nation. The debt to France, slavery’s legacy and economic isolation hindered Haiti’s stability in its first 100 years.
In the 20th century, U.S. intervention determined Haiti’s fate. The Wilson administration launched a military occupation in 1915 that lasted nearly two decades. The American military then established the Haitian army as a political institution and increased Haiti’s debt with infrastructure projects.
The occupation provoked a Haitian nationalist movement that birthed the infamous Franois Duvalier. The American-supported Duvalier regime produced state-terror, censorship and extensive poverty. Corruption swallowed up aid provided by the IMF and Inter-American Development Bank for ‘development projects,” steeping Haiti deeper into debt.
The early 1990s brought a glimpse of hope for democracy in Haiti. When Haitians democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the United States (or as Aristide once claimed, ‘Haiti’s cold neighbor to the north”) was not pleased with a leftist government.
Both Bush administrations, however, succeeded in undermining Haitian democracy. The CIA helped launch two coups to overthrow Aristide, one in 1991 and one again in 2004. Military efforts under the Clinton administration to reinstate Aristide in 1994 were ultimately futile.
After two decades of coups and rigged elections, Ren Preval is the only Haitian president to serve a full term. Disruptive foreign intervention thwarted Haiti from reaching its potential for democracy and stability.
Now more than ever the United States must acknowledge history and rethink its approach to Haiti. Long-term goals should include open U.S. markets to Haiti’s agricultural produce and manufactured goods. Such an effort would ensure investment and provide jobs for Haitians.
A more symbolic effort would be to return Aristide from exile. While he is not a savior, Aristide is a significant unifying figure for Haitians.
The Obama administration should also take greater steps beyond a temporary protected status for Haitian immigrants. Displacement and homelessness will surely increase Haitian migration. The international community must ensure that aid for reconstruction resists foreign interests and reaches the Haitian people. This will not cure political ailments, but it will begin a reorganization of power.
Currently Haiti’s main priority is immediate aid distribution. These processes, however, have undermined the ability of Haitians to self-organize. Despite the fact that ships with aid arrived promptly after the earthquake, U.S. security regulations prevented its immediate distribution.
Major aid organizations abide by the U.S. State Department’s security restrictions on designated ‘Red Zones.” As a result, the United Nations and the United States have increased militarization of aid distribution.
UN aid trucks circulate Port-au-Prince with protective gear, while U.S. military personnel carry weapons on aid missions. These ‘security measures” have prevented efficient aid distribution and much needed rapport with local communities. Haitians with wells and water trucks need help from leading organizations to utilize their resources. Instead, the United Nations personnel act on the assumption that Haitians will raid and loot, which undermines their dignity.
Haitians are capable of extricating their nation from the most common phrase used to describe it: ‘the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Able-bodied Haitian men have organized to look for people under the rubble, and protect tent communities erected in Port-au -Prince. Homeless mothers care for their children and look after others orphaned by the earthquake.
In the face of incredible loss of life and infrastructure, Haitians are cooperating with each other. With this in mind, the international community needs to rethink its relationship with Haiti. The United States in particular must overturn its history of working against the Haitian people and instead work with them.
Chinelli is a member of
the class of 2011.