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It is now eight days since an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, along with numerous other places that we do not hear much about—Carrefour Feuille, Léogane, Petit Goave, Miragoâne, Jacmel. My friends in Haiti report that the UN and the U.S. military and the countless humanitarian aid agencies are nowhere to be seen. The United States, in control of the airport and, in effect, of much else, has designated the center of what was once the capital city a “red zone.” In other words, it is a security risk, so the U.S. relief workers remain in the “green zone,” a term that has become all-too familiar to us from the disaster that is Iraq.
Richard Auguste Morse—musician, writer, and beloved manager of the Oloffson, the model for Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s The Comedians—has been tweeting every day since the catastrophe. On January 17 he asked:
How can the UN help the people of Carrefour Feuille if they are prohibited from coming to the neighborhood!! If the UN can’t help poor people then what are they doing in Haiti!!! . . . UN is not staying out of my neighborhood 4 reasons of security. It’s just some kind of warped politic.
Haiti has once again fulfilled its traditional role for the United States and the international media. When I see CNN reporters commenting on the smell of urine and decay, taking viewers through the garbage, through crowds of the injured, the dying, and the dead, I recall other representations of Haiti. They never change. As early as 1853, the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle lamented the destruction of the richest French colony in the New World. He called Haiti “a tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle.” Thirty-five years later, his biographer, the historian James Anthony Froude, would describe his first impression of the “ulcer of Port-au-Prince” as a smell of “active dirt fermenting in the sunlight.”
Amid evocations of a desperate people and festering landscape, the media and the “humanitarian” community continue to ignore the history of the island. Without reference to the foreign occupation, intervention, and exploitation that define the Haitian political experience, we cannot appreciate the sinister politics of Clinton and Bush’s promise of “compassion.”
Haiti was the scene of the only successful revolution by slaves in history, the first black republic in the Americas. The “Black Jacobins”—Toussaint l’Ouverture and his successors, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe—defeated, in turn, the local whites; the remaining soldiers of the French monarchy; a Spanish invasion; a British expedition of some 60,000 men; and the soldiers of Napoleon, led by his brother-in-law, General Charles Le Clerc. Yet at the moment of its birth it was stifled by those who feared its example. France, using warships and heavy cannon, imposed a 150-million franc “indemnity” on the new nation. This was the defeated colonial master’s price for recognition of Haitian independence, compensation for the former slave-holders’ lost “property.” The United States withheld recognition of the ex-slaves’ victory and independence until 1862, lest its own slaves follow their lead.
During the American occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, the U.S. government rewrote the Haitian Constitution to permit foreign investment; dissolved the Haitian army and replaced it with a police force, known as the garde; seized peasants’ land; imposed martial law; and instituted the corvée, a program of forced labor to build roads throughout the countryside. In 1918 the peasantry, under the leadership of Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batraville, began a revolt. A year later, more than 3,000 peasants had been killed. Another 5,000 died in labor camps that the garde supervised for the occupying forces. When the United States left, she saddled the country with another foreign debt—a massive $40 million—which destroyed any possibility that Haiti might enjoy a stable financial regime.
And the media, then as now, have acted as faithful water carriers for powerful outside states and their financial interests. Generalizations about criminality and barbarism have always been a good way to avoid the particulars of history. In the gritty world of politics and power, a retrograde Haiti—the portrait of pathos—derails our attention from the real causes of suffering and poverty there.
Analysts and policymakers have never been subtle. Lawrence E. Harrison, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission to Haiti from 1977 to 1979, turned Haitian culture itself into the source of the country’s poverty and an excuse for the imposition of American-style development: Haiti is a “moral void,” he wrote in a 1987 article for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service. “The principal cause of Haiti’s acute underdevelopment is a set of national values and attitudes dominated by voodoo religion and compounded by the experience of slavery.” In the chaos following Baby Doc Duvalier’s departure and dubious “transition to democracy,” Harrison proposed a version of the American dream for Haiti. The program featured “the establishment of assembly industries employing tens of thousands in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.” The workers in these factories, he predicted, would “learn that a combination of organization, cooperation, technology and work can vault them into the middle class—something the voodoo priests have failed to achieve.”
In a New York Times op-ed last week—“The Underlying Tragedy”—David Brooks alluded to “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences” and renewed Harrison’s civilizing mission: replacing Haitian practices with “middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos, and tough, measurable demands.” History keeps repeating itself. So let us be wary of the U.S. media coverage of looting, violence, and chaos in Haiti. The exaggerations serve a purpose: rationalizing the militarization of aid, pushing for a new status for Haiti, that of U.S. protectorate, like Puerto Rico.
When The New York Times questioned the capacities of Frederick Douglass as U.S. Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889, it described Haiti as “a black mob pretending to be a government.” In 2010 it is still too easy to blame Haiti for bad government, or, as we keep hearing, for no government.
What is perhaps more difficult is to understand how every disaster and every coup—including the numerous coups abetted by the U.S. government, such as those against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and 2004—never ceases to inspire an old vision for the country: a site for multinational investment. Once a colony, then an occupied territory, then a land under the thumb of USAID and the World Bank.
Their project in the 1980s displaced farmers from the countryside and created a captive labor force in Port-au-Prince. The people lived in the shantytowns on the hillsides, only to become victims of a natural disaster made worse by the endless, quite unnatural programs promoting “democracy.”
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods and With Dogs at the Edge of Life, a fierce personal enquiry into canine profiling, preemptive justice, and extermination. She has recently published the memoirs Looking for Ghosts and Animal Quintet.
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