Monday, January 18, 2010

Contextualing Haiti

I want to build upon Chad's post from yesterday thinking about natural disasters and the poor. Chad said:

It also is worth noting that, as Mike Davis argued in the case of famines in the 19th century, natural disaster death tolls are the result not of the "natural" severity of the event as much as of the man-made conditions leading into the event and in the response. Haiti has been victimized by a global power distribution that was punitive towards black liberation from day one, that collaborated with the worst kind of local tyrannies, and that produced its underdevelopment.

Absolutely, and we see this over and over again in American and world history. Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts is a brilliant look at the relationship between colonial, climate, and starvation in the 19th century. Ted Steinberg has written extensively on a similar phenomenon in the United States, noting that the poor have consistently had to take the brunt of natural disasters with little government help.

Natural disasters strike. Tornadoes, hurricanes, fire, earthquakes, etc. These are facts of life. But what's interesting is what happens after the fact. Social inequalities become magnified. The rich might die in the disaster itself, but usually escape long-term suffering. The poor have their lives destroyed.

The most obvious example is post-Katrina New Orleans. The hurricane affected people throughout the New Orleans area. But white suburban areas were affected far less. Three centuries of decisions forced African-Americans into low-lying areas prone to flooding. Three centuries of racism gave these people less opportunities to escape, less access to technology allowing to know what was coming, less ability to negotiate the post-storm bureaucracy. That same racism made media outlets accuse people foraging for food to survive of "looting," the same language the American media is using today to describe Haiti.

There are innumerable other, usually less-known, examples of this. Another way of putting it is asking why tornadoes always strike trailer parks? They don't of course, but because we force poor people into substandard housing like mobile homes, they don't have the protections against tornadoes that someone with a basement has. These are conscious decisions we have made as a society. People pay for those decisions with their lives.

What we are really looking at in Haiti, like New Orleans, is deeply institutionalized environmental racism and injustice. While Pat Robertson and others have blamed Haiti for its own suffering, many others are noting the historical relationship between Haiti and the white world. Renee Martin says it well:

France considered Haiti to be the pearl of the Caribbean and set about stealing both its natural and human resources at will. The average lifespan of a slave in Haiti was a scant twenty-one years, due to harsh living conditions and limited supplies of food. Instead of recognizing the Haitian struggle as akin to that engaged in by Americans against British tyranny, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave foreign aid to the supposedly beleaguered French slave owners. Haitians won their freedom from France through armed conflict, defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the most powerful army in Europe — this is the history that most outside students are familiar with. But what most miss was a move that cannot be considered anything but extortion.

France demanded the sum of 150 million francs in payment for the freedom of the Haitian people. What France could not hold through force, it did through economic colonialism; by 1900, over 80% of Haiti’s annual budget was directed at paying this spurious debt. This form of neo-colonialism would serve as a model for the impoverishment of much of the Global South. Under the crushing weight of such debt, Haiti was unable to ensure its citizens a desent standard of living, forced to take loans from France, America and Germany to service the debt. It was not until 1947 that Haiti managed to pay off the debt it incurred to achieve its freedom.

But this state of economic slavery would not be enough to pacify American capitalists. Woodrow Wilson, the father of the now defunct League of Nations, a supposed signifier of American global peace efforts, would invade Haiti in 1915. From there, U.S. troops dismantled the Haitian government for failing to submit to American ownership of Haitian lands. Setting the standard for democracy, a new government was then elected with a 99% favourable vote by the mere 5% of the population that was actually allowed to vote. Thousands of active or suspected political protestors were slaughtered by the U.S. occupying force.

Even after the official US exit from Haiti, its influence would continue to cause a reign of terror upon the people. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, were embraced by the U.S. government, even as they ran up debt to pay for a lavish lifestyle and brutally terrorized the Haitian people. In a move of shocking brutality, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed largely by the paramilitary leader, Tonton Macoutes.

When Haiti elected the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he was overthrown by a military coup after only a scant seven months in office. He was returned to office by then president Clinton in 1991, who demanded that Aristide accede to neo-liberal polices recommended by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. This policy would force Haiti to import more than fifty percent of its food. How could Haiti possibly compete on the open market with the U.S and European powers when they were not allowed to subsidize any of their farmers? As a 2008 Jubilee USA report notes, although the country had once been a net exporter of rice, by 2005, "three out of every four plates of rice eaten in Haiti came from the U.S."

Today, all this historical racism and inequality manifests itself in Haiti's ineffective government, its almost nonexistent infrastructure, its corrupt police force, etc. We may not bear responsibility for the earthquake itself. But the United States and France very much do bear responsibility for Haiti's inability to deal with the quake effectively and for the suffering the Haitian people are dealing with a week after the storm and will continue to bear for the rest of their lives. Allowing more Haitian immigration to the U.S. would be a good start in turning a new leaf in our treatment of that country, as would massive economic aid. Of course, given our inability to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, I have limited confidence in the U.S. to make a positive difference in Haitians' lives.