by Ben Terrall
Haiti briefly entered the U.S. news last
week, thanks to a new round of protests in that much-beleagured
land. Food riots throughout Haiti were reported as part of a world-wide
wave of uprisings responding to increasing food prices (brought
on by various factors including extreme weather, likely linked
to global warming, and competition for food crops from biofuel
The broader context of years of heartless
U.S. policies toward Haiti and the ongoing UN military presence
in the island nation were missing from most coverage.
MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, was
put in place to defend the U.S.-backed coup regime which ousted
the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide
in 2004. After the coup, thousands of pro-Aristide dissidents
were killed, raped or forced into exile, thousands more jailed
Last August, UN Secretary General Ban
Ki Moon visited the sprawling seaside slum of Cite Soleil and
boasted, "In an operation lasting six weeks, amid fierce
firefights, UN forces took control of the slum." He told
reporters, "I am convinced that Haiti is at a turning point.
Long the poorest country in the western hemisphere, seemingly
forever mired in political turmoil, it at long last has a golden
chance to begin to rebuild itself. With the help of the international
community - and the UN in particular - it can." Ban Ki Moon
went on to warn against the UN leaving "too soon" and
pushed for a renewed mandate for MINUSTAH.
But Brazilian soldier Tailon Ruppenthal
is less starry eyed about MINUSTAH. In a recent memoir of his
tour of duty, Rupenthal writes, "After a few months even
getting out of bed is hard. You remember that you will cross paths
with all those people who are starving but there's nothing you
can do." The Brazilian, who now suffers from post-traumatic
stress syndrome, concludes, "we are losing the real war:
against poverty Only the fight against poverty will bring peace.
When will they see that?"
"We are hungry and have given up
on the UN and the Preval government to help us," Sonia Jeanty,
32, told the Haiti Information Project in early April. "After
all the money they have spent here most of us are eating only
one meal a day. It's unacceptable especially as we hear the UN
trying to tell us everyday on the radio that things have gotten
better. It's a lie!" Rene Preval was elected president in
2006 with broad popular support, but observers note that most
ministries in his government remain dominated by coup figures
installed with U.S. backing. Those pro-coup officials were approved
by a parliament also dominated by pro-coup individuals. Repression
and illegal imprisonment kept progressives who might have been
elected to parliament from effectively running.
The Haiti Information Project also reports
that information officer with the 1000-strong Chinese force in
Haiti Zhang Jin said in 2007, "We have the firepower and
technology to control any situation that may arise here. What
we gain from this experience is a real life situation where we
can practice strategic and tactical deployment. That is invaluable
to any fighting force."
Mark Schuller, an anthropologist at Vassar
College who writes about the political economy of Haiti, told
me that "Washington consensus" economics are at the
root of the current situation in Haiti. He points out that the
country has "the greatest inequality in the hemisphere, with
more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the Caribbean."
Schuller referred to anthropologist and medical doctor Paul Farmer's
writings about "structural violence" - long-standing
foreign control and underdevelopment - which has kept the majority
of Haitians in misery, and notes that the "interim"
coup government of Gerard Latortue promoted local and multinational
capitalist interest at the expense of the poor majority. Schuller
points to the three year tax holiday which Latortue gave large
companies, while doling out millions in "back pay" to
the notoriously brutal former military (which Aristide had disbanded),
all of which contributed to an increase in the cost of living
for the poor.
Schuller told me, "It behooves us
not to think of it as a 'failed state.' Rather, it is best understood
as a successfully failed state. As of last estimate, 65% of Haiti's
government revenue comes from international agencies, 84% of its
rice grown abroad. This is because of U.S. and other Northern
countries' economic policies wherein Haiti's ability to feed itself
with domestic rice production was wiped out by Washington-subsidized
imports that U.S. agribusiness has profited from. At Ronald Reagan's
behest, Haiti initiated a series of neoliberal measures in the
1980s, including trade liberalization, privatization and decreasing
investment in agriculture, that led to the disappearance of Haiti's
cotton and sugar export industries. During the 1990s, the U.S.
conditioned its food aid - sent to alleviate a hunger crisis -
with demands that Haiti lower its tariffs and open its markets
to U.S. imports. This subsidized U.S. rice was much cheaper than
Haitian rice, forcing local farmers out of business. Over the
same period, Haiti became increasingly more reliant on the International
Financial Institutions, which imposed more neoliberal conditions
on its help. Since 1980, when Haiti started receiving the Banks'
help in earnest, its per capita Gross Domestic Product has shrunk
by 38.3%. Haiti is left with a 1.4 billion dollar multinational
debt, with a debt service next year of almost 80 million. In addition
to draining resources from needed sectors - such as health, education,
or developing national production, this debt has served as leverage
for the IMF and World Bank to impose even more neoliberal measures."
In an email to me earlier this week, Fr.
Gerard Jean-Juste, a popular liberation theologian who works closely
with Aristide's Lavalas movement, wrote, "Some Haitians and
foreigners are swimming in wealth while the poor ones are down
deep in the pit of misery. A near famine situation reduces many
people in skin and bone. As thousands of needy ones could not
take it anymore they took the streets and let out their anger.
I wish the wealthy ones in Haiti could accept to share and stop
looking down at the lowly ones. We are all God's children. Exclusion
of a majority in dire need is not the answer. A policy of inclusion
and sharing is the answer."
There is some good news. The Jubilee USA
Network-backed Jubilee Act, which advances debt cancellation for
Haiti and extends it to 23 other poor countries, passed in the
House of Representatives on April 16 by a vote of 285 - 132. Additionally,
Rep. Alcee Hastings' (D-FL) amendment to the bill, calling for
complete and immediate cancellation of Haiti's debts to all IFIs,
passed unanimously by voice vote.
The Jubilee Act now moves to the Senate.
Voters in the U.S. still have time to urge their Senators to help
give Haiti a long-overdue break.
Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose
work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times,
Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be
reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles by Ben.