U.S. racism and imperialism fuel turbulence in Haiti
Beginning on February 7, Haitians have been in the streets protesting against corruption, high prices, shortages, inflation, and power outages. Demonstrators are demanding that President Jovenel Moïse, in power since January 2017, resign. Moïse blames the disturbances on “armed groups and drug traffickers” and is calling for negotiation.
Facing police brutality, masses of Haitians have blocked roads, stoned officials, burned vehicles, and ransacked stores; nine are dead and over 100 wounded. Food and drinkable water are scarce. The United States withdrew non-emergency diplomatic representatives and issued travel warnings. The Trump administration indicated humanitarian aid may be on the way.
Haitians protested massively in October 2018 after the highly indebted government raised gasoline prices. It was complying with instructions from the International Monetary Fund in order to obtain low-interest loans. The protests forced a reversal of the price hike and continued.
Currently the Haitian people’s main complaint is corruption arising out of a 2006 oil deal with Venezuela. Haiti, led by President René Préval, was one of 17 countries joining Venezuela’s Petrocaribe project. The agreement called for Haiti to pay for 60 percent of the oil within 90 days and the remainder after 25 years at 1 percent interest. Haiti presently owes Venezuela $2 billion.
The government sold the oil to private entities and accumulated some $4 billion in funds. The idea was to use the money for sanitation, health care, education, infrastructure, and agricultural innovations. Needs mounted after the 2010 earthquake.
The funds were “misused, misappropriated, or embezzled by government officials and their cronies,” according to reports released by the Haitian Senate in 2017. Money flowed into the coffers of President Moïse’s business and into the hands of leaders of the political party formed by Michel Martelly, Moïse’s predecessor as president.
Haiti’s involvement with Petrocaribe ended in October 2017. U.S. anti-Venezuela sanctions had prevented Haiti from paying on its oil bill with Venezuela—or “gave them a golden excuse not to,” according to close Haiti observer Kim Ives. “Life in Haiti,” he writes, “which was already extremely difficult, now became untenable.” Ives castigates Haiti’s January 10 vote at the Organization of American States as “cynical betrayal by Moïse and his cronies.” That day Haiti supported a U.S. motion declaring President Maduro’s Venezuelan government to be “illegitimate.” Ives asserts that for deeply unhappy Haitians, “treachery against the Venezuelans after their exemplary solidarity…was the last straw.”
These troubles play out amid social disaster. For example, some 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty. Income inequality in Haiti, as reflected by the Gini index, rates as the world’s fourth most extreme case. Life expectancy ranks 154th in the world, and 40 percent of Haitians depend on agricultural income, while 80 percent of farms can’t feed families living on them.
This account now turns to background information. To begin: Michel Martelly became president courtesy of the U.S. government. Taking advantage of heightened distress in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the Obama administration retaliated against then-president René Préval. His offense was to have cooperated with the Venezuelan government of President Chávez in the matter of cheap oil.
Endorsed by military and paramilitary leaders, Martelly was able to compete in the 2010 presidential elections only after the Organization of American States and the U.S. government strong-armed Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council. Secretary of State Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince to urge Préval “to get out of the way.”
In 2015 Martelly protégé Jovenel Moïse was elected president. As shown by legal observers from abroad, voting was marked by a 26 percent voter turnout, irregular procedures at the polls, and 50 percent fake ballots. The Electoral Council diagnosed fraud, appointed an interim president, and set repeat presidential elections for November 2016. Moïse won. The turnout was 21 percent. In Haiti, consequently, “there’s a huge apathy when it comes to elections.”
It wasn’t always that way. Progressive theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president in 1990 with 67 percent of the vote. A U.S.-engineered military coup removed him eight months later. Paramilitaries led by CIA associate Emmanuel Constant subjected Aristide’s supporters to a reign of terror. He was re-elected in 2000 with a 92 percent plurality. Paramilitaries kidnapped him in 2004, again under U.S. auspices. The U.S. government transported him to the Central African Republic.
The United States isn’t alone in abusing Haiti’s national sovereignty. Soldiers of a United Nations “stabilization mission” arrived shortly after Aristide’s removal and stayed until 2017. Those troops introduced a cholera epidemic which added to Haiti’s woes.
What remains at this point is to explore the origins of Haiti’s chronic difficulties. The establishment-oriented U.S. Council on Foreign Relations recently–and reasonably–took note of factors like foreign intervention, debt, “instability” and natural disasters. But analyst Amy Wilentz goes to the essence of the problem, indirectly. Often the question regarding Haiti, she suggests, is: “How does a state fail?” She explains that “a state fails because of its history,” and not “because of some innate inferiority in its people.”
She thus politely refutes claims from those focused mainly on the fact that Black people established and have maintained the Haitian nation. Such views, racist in nature, point to the role of racism in thwarting Haiti’s development. Wilentz’s explanation as to a failed state needs modifying. In the case of Haiti, it ought to say: “a state may fail because of a history of racist assaults.”
When Haiti declared its independence in 1804, formerly enslaved people were free. France sought to recoup the money its citizens lost when slaves no longer were property. Threatening to blockade Haiti, France forced Haiti to provide compensation, and thus Haiti’s government between 1825 and 1947 paid France a total of $20 billion to settle the matter. Big question: What ethos other than white supremacy might induce high officials to assign monetary value to human beings who now, like white people, were ostensibly free?
Haiti became an independent republic in 1804, but it was not until 1862 that the United States extended diplomatic recognition and not until 1863 that U.S. economic sanctions were lifted. Racist attitudes were on display when the U.S. invaded Cuba in 1898. That was the heyday of Jim Crow, and a leading rationale was that of forestalling “another black republic.” The rebel army included tens of thousands of Afro-Cubans.
The U.S. Army occupied Haiti for 19 years beginning in 1915. The advertised purpose was that of enforcing payments on debts owed to New York banks. But U.S. troops viciously employed torture and massacres as they squashed rebellions and uprisings.
Presidents Duvalier, father and son, ruled in Haiti between 1957 and 1986. They imposed murderous oppression, something that in Washington was purified through the rationale of anti-communism. In fact, U.S. actions in Haiti often have included elements of both racism and imperialism. The boundaries tend to blur.
Nevertheless, U.S. memories of Haiti helped to shape white America’s attitudes toward race. “American slaveholders trembled for their own security as they followed the tremendous revolutionary activity of the French West Indian slaves in the 1790s” (Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts). And in his biography of John Brown, ally of slaves, W.E.B. Du Bois states that Brown “was born just as the shudder of Hayti (sic) was running through all the Americas.”
Haiti became a special case, and probably still is.
Beginning on February 7, Haitians have been in the streets protesting against corruption, high prices, shortages, inflation, and power outages. Demonstrators are demanding that President Jovenel Moïse, in power since January 2017, resign.