“With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are our neighbours in the Americas and here at home,” said Barack Obama, days after the earthquake that killed thousands in Haiti last week. The two countries certainly share a long history, although whether Haitians would agree that America has been a good neighbour over the last 200 years, is more debatable
Along with the natural curse that comes from sitting on the middle of a fault line of two tectonic plates, Haiti has been cursed with extremely lucrative supplies of natural resources, drawing in the attention of the Western world who, since the days of slavery, have not been able to leave Haiti alone. Colonised by the French in the 18th century, it became the richest asset of their empire, exporting nearly all of the coffee and sugar consumed in Europe. A 12 year war against French forces that began on the plantation fields, eventually ended with Haiti declaring its independence and becoming the first black republic. But this came at a price. With the support of the US, the French bullied Haiti into paying 150 million francs in gold as payment for their liberation. They were still paying this debt in 1947 and had to take huge loans from European and American banks to finance it. This crippled them economically, and trapped them in a spiral of debts they have never been able to escape.
A Haitian revolution in 1911 was followed by an invasion by the US, anxious to ensure that their debt repayments continued. They occupied the state for 19 years, dismissing the Haitian Parliament at gunpoint, passing laws to seize land and setting up an army and police force to protect their interests and suppress the population. In future generations this force would be used by dictators.
From 1957 to the mid 1980s, Haiti was ruled by a brutal dictatorship, led first by Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, and then by his son. These dictatorships have been called the most corrupt and repressive in modern history, and it is estimated over 60,000 Haitians were killed by the regime, and countless more imprisoned, tortured and raped. Both regimes received billions in economic aid from the US, often in the form of outright gifts. Marines were even sent to protect the dictatorship from the threat of rebellion, at the same time as the refugees fleeing it were being turned away from the American border. Why? The plundering of Haiti’s rich natural resources by its leader allowed US banks and businesses to do the same.
Following a rebellion that rid them of this US backed dictatorship, in 1990 Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president with 70% of the vote. He began a process of economic reforms which started to turn around the fortunes of the nation, but only a year later he was removed from power by the military. One of the leaders of this coup, Emmanuel Constant, was a former CIA asset and currently lives in New York. The US has refused several extradition requests for him. This is because, many believe, a trial would reveal ties to the operation that removed Aristide from power.
However, in 1994 US forces declared that they would ‘restore democracy in Haiti’ and helped Aristide return to power. As with the liberation from slavery two centuries before however, this came at a price. Aristide was forced to adopt a pro-US export driven economic policy, that involved privatising the state owned enterprises and allowing multi-national businesses in to build sweatshops.
However this policy was not followed to the extent that the US would have liked. In 2003, at a conference in Ottawa, a group of Western nations said they would like to see regime change in Haiti in under a year. By 2004, Aristide had been overthrown again. There is extensive evidence that the rebellion that removed him from power was financed and orchestrated by allies of the US government. Aristide himself was put on a plane by US forces in the country and flown to the Central African Republic where he remains. Although the US argues that this was done with his consent to save his life, he claims he was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to resign.
The government that took over following this rebellion has followed the US approved economic plan much more tightly. More sweatshops have been built and more agriculture has been turned over to producing goods for export to the Western world. Consequently Haiti’s poverty has deepened and it has become one of the most stricken countries in the world, with unemployment at 75%. A UN ‘peacekeeping’ force of 7000, there since 2004 to support the new government, has been accused of the murder of civilians and the destruction of homes.
And thus Haiti, “the first nation in the world to argue the case of universal freedom for all humankind”, lies buried under the rubble of a tragic and devastating earthquake. But the real damage was done before the earthquake struck. For years countries like the US have been sucking the wealth out of Haiti. It has become so depleted that it cannot respond to natural disasters and the people are far too poor to afford earthquake proof housing. In many ways the country, and what it could have been when it was liberated from oppression at the beginning of the nineteenth century, lies buried under the rubble of 200 years of America’s concept of what it means to be a good neighbour.