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Opinion

Will US Help or Hurt Haiti?

Skeptics have reason to fear that soldiers distributing aid will also enforce exploitation.

By Sean Condon 20 Jan 2010 | Megaphone Magazine

Sean Condon is the editor of Megaphone Magazine and regularly writes for The Tyee and its political news blog, The Hook. His article profiling the life and death of a Vancouver homeless man received the Special Award for External Press given by the International Network of Street Newspapers.

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Author Naomi Klein: Beware the 'Shock Doctrine'

As Haiti frantically struggles to rescue shattered survivors from the devastating earthquake that struck the nation last week, there is growing concern around the world about what role the United States will play in the country's relief efforts.

With 10,000 American troops in the country, and U.S. soldiers having turned away relief planes so its own citizens can flee the island first, there is a fear that the earthquake will be used to occupy and exploit the ravished nation once again.

The earthquake is just the latest in a long line of tragedies for Haiti, which has suffered two centuries of vindictive and brutal punishment from white, Western countries for being the only slave colony to fight for -- and win -- its independence.

"We have to be absolutely clear that this tragedy -- which is part natural, part unnatural -- must, under no circumstances, be used to, one, further indebt Haiti and, two, to push through unpopular corporatist policies in the interest of our corporations," said Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, in a recent interview on Democracy Now. "This is not conspiracy theory. They have done it again and again."

From coup to chaos

The most recent chapter in the history of Haiti's abuse occurred six years ago when Western troops swooped into Port-au-Prince in the middle of the night and whisked Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out the country. While American officials insist Aristide left voluntarily, the exiled president insists he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Either way, five years after the rebellion, the Caribbean country was still ravaged by violence, corruption and poverty.

In 2008, just a month after then-First Lady Laura Bush was in Haiti to bask in the "progress" and hope that "success continues," the country was besieged by food riots that killed at least a half-dozen people and forced Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis out of office. A 50 per cent rise in imported food costs had a devastating impact on a country where three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Critics charge that the U.S. and Western nations have let Haiti suffer in chaos because of the skin colour of its inhabitants.

"Shadowed by a long past of cruel experiences, contemporary Haitians have ample reason to believe that where the world's white nations are concerned, notions of democracy and other abstract decencies weigh little against the ageless and seductive traditions of color prejudice and greed," wrote Randall Robinson in An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. "The leaders of the white world simply do not accord to the constitutions and laws of black countries the near sanctity they accord to their own."

The price of freedom

When a group of former slaves chased Napoleon's armies from the island in 1804, the rebellion sent shockwaves throughout the imperial world. Not only did France lose its richest colony, it also signalled the end of the African slave trade. Led by Toussaint L'ouverture and Jean des Dellalines, a free Haiti had a vibrant economy and racial and social equality. It was a victory that would not be forgiven.

The U.S. and Europe quickly imposed a global trade embargo on the Republic of Haiti, with France demanding exorbitant financial reparations for Haitian freedom. The tariffs and ensuing debt would cripple Haiti socially, politically and economically for the next 200 years. Completely bankrupt, it was now open to American exploitation and interference.

As the European countries fought imperial wars around the world, the U.S. occupied Haiti in 1915 in order to defend its strategic interests in the region. During the occupation, more than 2,250 Haitians were killed by U.S. troops. Haitians peasants, enslaved once again, were forced to labour for the American soldiers.

After leaving Haiti in 1934, the U.S. continued to destabilize the country by supporting two of the most brutal dictators in the Western world -- Dr. François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Between the two, who controlled the country from 1957 to 1986, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed, exiled or fled the country. While Papa Doc may have been more brutal, it was Baby Doc who did the most economic damage to the country. By accepting the neo-liberal "American Plan," Duvalier transformed the country into a giant sweatshop for foreign corporation and consumers.

Not content to just use Haiti as a cheap factory, the U.S. pressured the impoverished country to lift its rice tariffs in the 1980s and 1990s, only to dump its heavily subsidized rice into the country. Haitian farmers were run out of business and the country became completely dependent on imported food -- the root of it current poverty.

Democracy Deposed

To prove that the U.S. would not allow Haiti to free itself from this economic imperialism, American, Canadian and French troops helped depose Aristide during a 2004 rebellion, forcing the controversial, but democratically elected president into exile in South Africa. Although Aristide was accused of human rights violations and drug trafficking, he initially pleased the U.S. by accepting many of the neo-liberal policies imposed on his country. But he quickly fell out of favour by doubling the minimum wage, turning down some privatization projects and, most brazenly, demanding that France repay the reparations it forced on Haiti at independence (now valued at $21 billion).

Haiti, though having proved itself more than once over its history to be capable of being a proud and independent country, was reduced once again to a fragile government propped up by international soldiers.

"It's still under occupation," Robinson said in a 2008 interview on the PBS Charlie Rose Show. "It's under a UN occupation. And until Aristide is allowed to come home, until there's a removal of American and Western meddling, external foreign meddling, allowing Haitians to take over their own business, it will be troubled and unstable. America has committed against that country an unpardonable sin."

The earthquake means the country is occupied once again.

Haiti's Tree of Liberty

Two centuries ago, black Haitian slaves rose up to break the shackles of foreign imperialism. When he was captured and shipped to France just two years before Haiti secured its independence, L'ouverture told his captors that they may "have killed the trunk of the tree of liberty of the black people," but that "it will grow back by the roots because they are deep and numerous."

To keep L'ouverture's words from bearing fruit, Western countries have raped Haiti's lands for the past 200 years. Free in name alone, Haiti continues to be a country of slaves.

Let us hope that history does not repeat itself during Haiti's most recent crisis, which the United Nations called the worst disaster it has ever dealt with. As the international community responds with donations and supplies, it is everyone's responsibility to keep a close eye on the country and ensure the relief effort and eventual rebuilding actually benefits the people of Haiti.

"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," Klein quotes the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank on her website.

It is time for the the West to stop interfering in Haiti's business and help it's tree of liberty to finally grow.  [Tyee]

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