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Monday, February 06, 2006

Sak passè avèk Haiti (What's up with Haiti)?

Tomorrow Haiti will hold its first elections since 2000 when the nation elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide as its President. In 2004 Aristide was removed from power following months of turmoil domestically through groups who strongly and violently opposed him as well as internationally from world powers such as France and the U.S. On February 24, 2004 one of these two groups completed the rebellion by removing him from power. Some say it was the pressure from rebel groups that forced Aristide to resign and exit the country with the help of the U.S. (he left the country on a U.S. military plane that took him to the Central African Republic); Aristide himself says that it was the guns of the U.S. Marines who arrived and demanded he board a plane out of the country.

Few people look at the history of Haiti to gain an understanding of its current political or economic situation. Many will be able to tell you that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere though few know that this stems in large part from the reparations that Haiti was forced to pay to French slaveholders by France, the U.S. and other nations in 1825: 90 million francs (or $21 billion today). This embarassing, morally backwards, and economically crippling demand impeded Haiti from utilizing its early independence, only 17 years after the U.S., for the betterment of its nascent republic. Haiti did not complete paying off this debt for 122 years. Luckily, the U.S. didn't have to pay similar reparations to the British for the 587, 182 slaves (very near the population of present-day Boston) in the U.S. around the time of independence since they kept them and proceeded to utilize their labor for free for the next several decades. What if...


At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Guess Who said...

Moreover, for a large chunk of its history, Haiti had the second largest and one of the most expensive militaries in the entire Western Hemisphere, despite being half of the small island Hispaniola (the other half being the Dominican Republic). Why did Haiti have such a huge military? Because even before France surrendered in 1803, Haiti was under the constant threat of invasion from other colonial powers (Britain, Spain, etc.) hoping to bring the island-- which was one of the most profitable pieces of land in the world at the time-- under their influence. This threat of invasion increased as the United States grew more powerful and the white supremacist and expansionist doctrines of Manifest Destiny took hold in the mid-1800s. The cost of defending their hard-earned sovereignty as the second free republic in the Western Hemisphere (or perhaps first if you dispute America's claim given it's status as a slaveholding society) with this disporportionately large military force coupled with the costs of the "reparations" paid to France (which were also for recognition as an independent state)crippled the Haitian economy and government-- a situation exacerbated further by the fact that the prevailing economic model of the time-- the plantation economy-- was rejected by the newly freed slaves and their descendants in favor of small subsistence farms and communities. This rejection was, at least partly I would assume, a rejection of the brutality and exploitation of such a mode of socioeconomic organization. One might object to the Haitians' reliance on a large military as sheer paranoia, but their fears were indeed realized as the United States occupied the nation twice in the 20th century and, as Jersey Slugger has indicated, been involved in the this most recent ouster of a democratically elected government. And to whet Mr. Slugger's conspiracy theory appetite, this makes no mention of something that I consider a much more valid potential conspiracy than a fake 9-11, and that would be the strange death of Clinton Secretary of State and former ambassador to Haiti, Ron Brown-- whose name many scholars at Harvard happen to carry as part of a scholarship. Beyond the financial costs of having such a large military is the social disorder that is bound to come with the proliferation of well-trained military men and arms in an area of poverty-- especially in the era of the international illicit drug trade.

Ironically enough, the United States could even be said to owe a bit of debt to Haiti, as its victory over the forces of Napoleon ended his dreams of Transatlantic empire and precipitated his bargain sale of Louisiana to that president who knew the Negro people most intimately, Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase, whose 200th anniversary was not too long ago, led to the rampant expansion and economic growth of the United States, and of course, to the forced incorporation (or elimination) of Native Americans, Chicanos, and the induction of impoverished and mistreated Chinese workers into the West's labor force. It also provided the chance for there to be gay cowboys, which America ultimately seems more interested in at this point. America, however, has always had a desperately spiteful relationship with Haiti (outside of perhaps the Congressional Black Caucus and Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard chap)-- intimately connected to the sheer terror that the Haitian rebellion and the prospects of black self-rule inspired amongst white Americans. Anyone interested in doing some brief archival research will see how afraid whites were that the unrest of Haiti would spread to America's shores, sparking race warfare across the nation, and robbing America of the enslaved engine of it's progress and perhaps more importantly to America today, the chance to have gay cowboys.

At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what? Americans doesn't care about Haiti as evidenced by the lack of news coverage about that area.

At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To 'guess who': I don't understand why you felt the need to take a shot at Brokeback Mountain in your post. It was a beautiful movie, and it was about love (not gay cowboys). Also, the issue of how non-heterosexuals are treated by society is legitimately important (as is love). Your post provided interesting information about the situation in Haiti and this kind of insight is also important-- I'm glad I know these things now, but I'm wondering why you felt it necessary to put down other important issues at the same time.

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the second anonymous commenter. It's not so much that you're rude and dismissive, but that you're simply wrong: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/haitisstruggle/

At 5:05 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

I think I get where you're coming from with the gay cowboy thing, guess who (of course, correct me if I'm off on this): our tendency to hail certain signals of social progress is accompanied by a tendency to develop complacency and to avoid tackling other issues of social injustice on which we've barely scratched the surface. Discussing (and appreciating) gay cowboys can be detrimental *if* it contributes to a fale narrative of social progress that obscures other ongoing, or even worsening, problems. So talking about gay cowboys can be negative *if* it becomes a way of, as my WGS soph tutorial leader would say, "simultaneously *not talking* about something else," like the situation in Haiti. Of course, we can't talk about everything all at once, but gay white males (especially in fiction) do seem to get a lot more airtime than the people of Haiti, although the Washington Post's coverage is encouraging. Am I hearing you correctly on this o misinterpreting some or all of your point?

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous sarika bansal said...

From Guess Who: "Anyone interested in doing some brief archival research will see how afraid whites were that the unrest of Haiti would spread to America's shores, sparking race warfare across the nation, and robbing America of the enslaved engine of it's progress and perhaps more importantly to America today, the chance to have gay cowboys."

I took a Hist B called "Liberty and Slavery: The Making of an American Paradox," in which we studied Haiti for a lecture, so I guess I have a little background in this. I had no idea how hypocritical Americans were at that time! So in terms of its ideals, the Haitian Revolution can be seen as an outgrowth of the French Revolution -- freedom from an oppressive monarch and all that. In the early 1790s, Jefferson supported the French cause, saying how it mirrored the American Revolution, but saw the Haitian Revolution as an anathama. Specifically, he and most Americans thought the Haitian efforts were savage and disgraceful, and any media surrounding it focused on the barbaric bloodshed (the French and American revolutions were completely bloodless and civilized, of course). Towards the end of the decade (1798), the French and the Americans got into a quasi-war and the Americans started trading with Haiti to spite France. This favored-nation status lasted two years, during whith time Haiti accumulated enough capital to fight France and eventually gain independence in 1804.

The interesting thing about the Haitian case is that VERY few Americans actually made connections between the revolutions -- one guy did, but apparently he was an anomaly. Most Americans focused on how uncivilized the black Haitians were, and, as Guess Who so aptly noted, were frightened that the sentiment would enter the minds of slaves in the United States.

After they gained independence in 1804, it took until 1863 for the US to recognize them as a free country. The US had the potential to be Haiti's biggest and best trading partner (and we had so much to potentially gain! The island was so fruitful until environmental destruction came knocking...), but we steadfastly believed they were too incompetent to rule themselves. If that hasn't contributed to Haiti's current-day situation, I don't know what has.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

This NY Times article from today speaks to the raw passion for democracy that Haitians still possess though have been deprived for. It's interesting that the article says early on that the current government in Haiti was INSTALLED by the U.S. Does that strike anyone else as strange? I guess similar things have happened in other nations where the U.S. has been intimately involved in their high levels politics but nevertheless...

Any thoughts on the debate between this being a U.S. coup and Aristide leaving of his own volition? Do we believe the U.S. government or the deposed President? Why?

At 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't really read enough on that debate to offer an informed opinion--can you offer some news articles so i can read up? Thanks.

At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jersey, I think you're very right to bring up for discussion the horrible situation of the Haitians. I am a little confused, though.

Does the American government deny the fact that they forced him to leave? I was under the impression that Powell essentially tacitly admitted to this fact and did so because he was able to get reassurance 1. that he would be able to stop a pretty vicious and bloody conflict and 2. that he would be able to have democratic elections fairly soon.

Could you argue that the fact that they had an election today actually vindicates the American policy (in this case only, of course)?

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

OK. So on the side of this being a coup you can read:

This from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, this from the World Socialist Website, this information from Democracy Now, and this information from Aristide.Org.

On the side of Aristide leaving on his own you can read:

This resignation letter from CNN (whether Aristide signed this through free will has been debated), this article from the BBC, this from Voices of America, and this from the Washington Times.

Note that the coup articles are mostly opinion pieces and the latter articles are supposed to be unbiased.

To Anonymous at 9:35, yes, the U.S. government is denying that they forced him to leave. They purport that Aristide asked them for their help and they sent the plane and security forces that allowed him to escape the nation. This would seem surprising in light of the state of Haiti-U.S. relations at that time and the U.S.'s sharp criticism of Aristide leading up to his exile.

The election today vindicating U.S. policy is up for debate as well. Opinions, anyone?


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