Haitian Refugees, Sovereignty and Globalization
On Oct. 29, 2002, 200 Haitians jumped off their grounded boat near Miami and floundered ashore, seeking a level of economic security that has been historically available only to a tiny minority of the population in their home country. These refugees were soon deported from the United States, as have been almost all Haitian boat people who arrived in the last 25 years. The ostensible reason for sending them back to Haiti was that they are not genuine political refugees—a status automatically awarded to all Cubans arriving on our soil. But to the informed observer, the Haitian boat people really are political refugees: refugees from political and economic violence perpetrated by the very country they seek to reach.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Over 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Seven out of every 10 Haitians are unemployed. There are profound inadequacies in health care, education and housing. Haiti’s infant and maternal mortality rates are the highest in the hemisphere, and life expectancy at birth has dropped to below 50 years. More than a third of all children who live to see their first birthday show signs of severely stunted growth, a result of malnutrition and infectious diseases. A research center based in the United Kingdom recently developed what it calls a water poverty index, and ranked Haiti 147th out of 147 countries surveyed. Contaminated water is probably the number one killer of Haitian children.
This level of poverty is not the result of chance; it has been shaped by historical forces stemming from Haiti’s past as a French slave colony. When, after a successful revolution initiated in 1791 by the slaves, Haiti achieved independence in 1804, the world was hostile to the idea of a black republic. The French straightaway orchestrated an international commercial embargo against Haiti, which ended only in 1825, after the former slaves paid 150 million francs—about $500 million in today’s currency—to the government of King Charles X as “indemnity” for having freed themselves. The United States also actively contributed to the political and economic isolation of Haiti during the 19th century, blocking Haiti’s invitation to the famous Western Hemisphere Panama Conference of 1825 and refusing to recognize Haitian independence until 1862. From 1915 to 1934, Haiti was occupied by the U.S. military. During the Duvalier dictatorships (1959-86) and the junta regimes that followed, the Haitian military, created by an act of the U.S. Congress—and that has known no other enemy than its own people—was used to control and terrorize the population into submission.
Despite what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles, grass-roots organizing and innumerable sacrifices by dedicated groups and individuals led to Haiti’s first democratic elections in 1990. In a field of a dozen candidates, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide received 67 percent of the vote in the first round, making him the most popular standing president in all of the Americas. But that did not prevent his overthrow in a bloody coup after only seven months in office. Under the junta government that followed, refugees streamed out of Haiti. One of the chief reasons that the U.S. government led a U.N. force to Haiti was to reinstate Aristide. But aid to rebuild a devastated Haiti was conditioned on concessions from Aristide.
In order to receive the promised $500 million in humanitarian and development aid, Aristide was asked to sign on to a program that included a number of concessions that were unattractive to those who elected him. Although Aristide became the first Haitian president ever to pass on power to a democratically elected successor, he left office without having succeeded in bringing much-needed aid to the country. His successor, René Préval, became the first Haitian president to serve out his complete term, not a day more or less, and then pass the baton to another democratically elected president. This time, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won more than 90 percent of the popular vote. Could a man so popular in Haiti, but so unpopular in Washington, really lead such a fragile country? The answer to this question has yet to be heard. Overlooking apparent problems in its own presidential elections at the time, the United States once again used a double standard and chose to isolate Haiti, on the pretext of protesting voting irregularities in some local and parliamentary elections (this at the very time when more serious voting irregularities were registered in Florida during the U.S. presidential vote). The United States used its veto power to block loan agreements between the InterAmerican Development Bank and the Haitian government.
These loans are of great interest to a doctor working in rural Haiti, because they are intended for health care, water improvement, education and roads. Thus is the richest and most powerful country in the hemisphere blocking already approved humanitarian and development assistance to the poorest. Although the U.S. State Department denies this, such an allegation is not a conspiracy theory, as the comments of U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, speaking in the Senate on July 31, 2002, might suggest:
Ironically, it is the United States that has taken the lead in preventing Haiti from receiving assistance from the [Inter-American] Development Bank—the institution that is supposed to be the premier regional development agency. Proponents of withholding crucial I.D.B. funding point to Haiti’s weak institutions, to the need for drastic and timely economic and administrative reforms, as a prerequisite to restarting assistance. True, Haiti is an impoverished nation with weak institutions.
But that is not the real reason that assistance is being withheld. The real reason funds are being withheld is political—namely, as leverage in ongoing O.A.S. negotiations to resolve issues related to the May 2000 Haitian elections.
Shame on the Inter-American Development Bank for allowing itself to be used in this manner. It does not speak well of an institution that for the most part has a very good reputation. Shame on the United States for pressuring the I.D.B. to do so.
Strong words for a U.S. senator, but not strong enough. This aid embargo, still in effect today, has been the primary cause of the ongoing economic crisis. And although the U.S. government now states that it does not wish to block such assistance to Haiti, those in Washington know that each day the amount Haiti is said to owe in “arrears” will grow. Already at over $20 million, such arrears would be difficult to pay. By the end of the year Haiti will owe closer to $100 million.
When the U.S. government claims to premise its international relations on “freedom and the development of democratic institutions” and to “promote freedom and support those who struggle non-violently for it, ensuring that nations moving toward democracy are rewarded for the steps they take” (see The National Security Strategy of the United States of America), perhaps nowhere do these fine words ring more hollow than in Haiti. Compare Cuba and Haiti in terms of health statistics, and decide what freedoms the Haitian sick (the majority) enjoy. In terms of responding to the current crisis, can a Haitian act more effectively than by trying to buy passage out of a country that the United States has led on with false hopes and then abandoned?
Peasant cooperatives and the organized poor should not be required to build clean water systems, a good public health network and public schools. Why should the poorest have to do this, when in affluent countries such tasks are relegated to the public sector? Those of us who grew up in Europe and North America did not have to turn to popular organizations for clean water, schools, vaccinations and clinics—not in recent centuries. We were able to grow up without even thinking of these basic social and economic rights. Such rights were part of what society owed its members, a minimum standard of well-being.
Consensus among classes is not going to be found in Haiti, any more than in any other society riven by deep social inequalities. And the gap between peasant leaders and the rural poor is growing, to say nothing of the gap between the middle class/urban poor and the rural poor. Many of these peasant leaders who have leapt into international consciousness desired nothing less than political office. Do we really want to listen to them instead of the poor they allegedly represent? This is a country in which factory and maquiladora workers constitute an elite compared to the rural poor majority.
As for our own community of solidarity with Haiti, I sometimes doubt that even we are capable of consensus. My pessimism is based in part on hearing from self-proclaimed Haitian progressives—many of whom, in fact, live in Canada, France or the United States—who have some grudge against the elected government. My pessimism is also based on observing a predominantly ahistorical analysis of the current Haitian crisis. The crisis has always been transnational, compounded by the forces of globalization. As a result, comments on local problems, whether in Gonaïves or a village near the border to the Dominican Republic, are misleading if they do not bring into relief the connections between the actions of the powerful (few of whom live in Haiti) and the lot of the poor.
I would argue that instead of trying to identify “good” popular organizations in Haiti, people of good will should instead spend some time attempting to identify the powerful, malignant forces and actors that have long sought to deny sovereignty to the Haitian poor. Most of these actors are not going to be found within Haiti’s borders. Are progressive political activists willing to stand up to them and defend Haiti’s right to govern its own affairs through a democratically elected government? Are we for or against sovereignty?