Sunday, March 06, 2005

Haiti: Fear of a Black Nation

(With apologies for my long absence, this post was intended for last weekend. Last weekend not only marked the end of Black History Month, but also a year since the coup in Haiti overthrowing, once again, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.)

One of my favorite books in my collection is the astoundingly well-written, researched and edited Africana, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In regards to the Haitian Revolution of 1791 it says:

In late August a slave insurrection broke out in the north of the island. Within weeks, the slaves had destroyed most of the plantations, murdered many white citizens, and forced the surviving whites to flee the island.

Within the next several years, black, mullato, French, Spanish and English troops all found themselves fighting each other at various times for control of the island. The European troops were driven partly by greed over the island’s former plantations, but also by their horror at the idea of a black state in the Americas – and there fear of the example it would set for their own slaves.

Occupying the western third of Hispaniola, Haiti began its existence as a French slave colony in 1697. Ironically, it was the French Revolution that helped to set in motion the events that would eventually lead to Haitian independence. The events in France provoked a power struggle between whites and freed people of color on Haiti. It was against this background that a successful slave revolt in 1793 would lead to full scale civil war. By 1796, Francois Dominique Tousaint L’Ouverture, a former slave, had control of the entire island. But rather than seeking full independence, he ruled as a French governor.

Seeking to return the island to full French control and reinstate slavery, in 1801 France sent 22,000 soldiers (the largest force to have crossed the Atlantic at the time) to recapture the "Pearl of the Antilles". In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: "The freedom of the negroes, if recognized in St Domingue and legalized by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World." Aided by England’s declaration of war on France in 1803, on January 1, 1804, Haiti declared its independence.

However, backed by the US, France succeeded in demanding reparations from the new nation to the tune of 150,000,000 francs to compensate former plantation and slave owners – in return for international recognition. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of Haiti's national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest, and the country was locked into the role of a debtor nation - where it remains today.

And the dynamics of much of the subsequent events would follow the pattern that had been set. The west was disinterested in or fearful of a strong Haitian republic, offered little in the way of assistance. The revolutionary struggle and the struggles for power which ensued destroyed a good deal of the economic infrastructure, which at any rate had been built on slave labor. In 1844 the eastern two thirds of the island broke away to form the Dominican Republic. Haiti continued to struggle under a long series of dictators.

In 1915, the US intervened, not so much out of concern for the Haitian people, but due, in part, to ostensible fears of German influence on the island during World War I. The immediate cause offered was the overthrow in 1915 of the tyrant Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. In fact, plans for an invasion of Haiti had been discussed in the Wilson administration over a year prior.

In 1910 the National Bank of Haiti (NBH), capitalized by the French, went broke, and the National City Bank of New York (NCBNY) took over administration of the NBH. This essentially gave the bank control over the Haitian treasury. US economic interests were attracted to Haiti. However, led by the railroad industry, US business interests began to lobby for the revenue coming in from Haitian customs to be used as repayment for the government's debt. Customs income, it turned out was nearly the only source of income for the Haitian government. Turning over the income would be granting de facto control of the Haitian government to the US and US business interests.

In 1914, under the pretext of staving off German influence in the Americas, US marines landed and relieved the NBH of half a million dollars, transporting to New York.

It was believed by many that President Sam had been prepared to sign a treaty with the to hand over the customs revenues. This was an enormously unpopular move among the Haitian people. There were widespread fears among the Haitian people about a return to slavery, in fact or by default. Just prior to his assassination, Sam had summarily executed 70 political prisoners. Friends and relatives of the victims tracked him down and killed him in the street. No further rioting occurred.

Believing that factions unfriendly to US interests would likely come to power, under the guise of restoring democracy, the US moved in with a full-scale invasion in late 1915. Martial law was declared on Sept 3rd. The US would occupy Haiti until August 15th, 1934. During that time, the Haitian constitution was conveniently rewritten to allow foreign business interests to own land. The US occupation was brutal. Thousands died and many thousands were forced to build roads and infrastructure for the occupation.

The aftermath of the US occupation and the Depression left Haiti in turmoil. In September 1957, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier took power. He dissolved and reconstituted the legislature in 1961, seizing for himself substantial economic powers. The US cut off direct aid to demonstrate disapproval. However, they continued to channel aid surreptitiously into funding Duvalier’s counterinsurgency forces, presumably to help maintain some sense of stability.

After a brutal and murderous regime, Duvalier was succeeded upon his death in 1971 by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Like his father, Baby Doc Duvalier had himself declared president for life by modifying the constitution. However a popular uprising against his oppressive rule led to his fleeing the country in 1986. Despite an influx of new direct US aid, in the two years afterwards, successor governments were responsible for more civilian deaths than in the past 15.

More turmoil ensued. Questionable elections in 1988 brought in a military backed candidate. By early 1990 popular unrest had forced the US to begin pressuring the Haitian military to allow new elections. Under intense international scrutiny, in December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in Haiti’s first genuinely democratic election, beating the US favorite, former World Bank official Marc Bazin.

From the start, Aristide earned the enmity of organizations like the IMF and World Bank. Soon after taking office, Jean-Bertrand Aristide's administration made three proposals for economic reform designed to benefit the poor: the imposition of price controls on basic foodstuffs; the raising of the hourly minimum wage to a combined cash and benefit total of U.S. $.75 per hour; and the enforced payment of legally required social security taxes.

On September 29, 1991, a military coup ended this short excursion into popular sovereignty just seven months after Aristide’s February inauguration. One year later the New York Times' reported:

Since shortly after the overthrow -- when Secretary of State James Baker echoed President Bush's famous "this aggression will not stand" statement about Iraq -- little consideration has been given to backing up American principles in Haiti with American muscle. ... Recently, an adviser of the [coup government] repeated Father Aristide's longtime complaint when he said that "all it would take is one phone call" from Washington to send the army's leadership packing. ... supporters and opponents of Father Aristide agree, nothing more threatening than a leaky and ineffective embargo, quickly imposed ... has ever been seriously contemplated, which reflects Washington's deep-seated ambivalence about a leftward-tilting nationalist [who] often depicted the United States as a citadel of evil and the root of many of his country's problems. ... Despite much blood on the army's hands, United States diplomats consider it a vital counterweight to Father Aristide, whose class-struggle rhetoric ... threatened or antagonized traditional power centers at home and abroad.

UN sanctions were imposed, then lifted when it looked like an agreement had been reached to return Aristide to power and then imposed again when that failed. Instability in Haiti and a flood of refugees created mounting political pressure in the US to do something. Finally in 1994 and agreement had been reached to return Aristide to power. And in September 1994, a force of 20,000 US troops landed to oversee the transition.

Gary Younge assesses for The Guardian:

But, in return for political freedom, Aristide was compelled to accept economic enslavement, bound by terms imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Post-colonial military aggression gave way to the brutal forces of globalization. Before Aristide had even considered fixing the elections, the west had already rigged the markets. Take rice. Forced by the agreement to lower its import tariffs, Haiti suddenly found itself flooded with subsidized rice from the US, which drove Haitian rice growers out of business and the country to import a product that it once produced. When the country fined American rice merchants $1.4m for allegedly evading customs duties, the US responded by withholding $30m in aid.

Beyond that, the now deposed military dictators were offered golden parachutes by the US. They were not charged with any crimes and were allowed to retain all of their assets. They had the option of remaining in Haiti or choosing exile in the country of their choice. Those choosing the later option received all expense paid trips and were promised “lease” payments for the properties they left behind.

In exchange for financial aid, investment and credit, Aristide was forced to accept a drastic reduction of state involvement in the economy and an enlarged role for the private sector through privatization of public services, with a bare minimum of tariffs or other import restrictions, and offering itself, primarily in the assembly industries, as a source of cheap export labor, with wages at about 10 to 25 cents per hour.

In 1995, Prime Minister Smarck Michel, the US backed choice, resigned in a dispute with Aristide over Michel’s support for US backed economic “reforms” such as privatizing utilities, banks and the main port. The suspended aid in retaliation. Constitutionally forbidden to run for a second consecutive term, Aristide chose his friend and supporter Rene Preval to run in the December 1995 elections. Preval won handily.

In the nine years since Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas party were in power, they had few accomplishments to boast of. And with no army and only a few thousand poorly trained police, Aristide has relied on armed gangs to sustain his authority. In the 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party claimed victory with a turnout that hardly rose above 10 per cent of the voters. There were charges that he had rigged the parliamentary elections in order to govern more effectively in a constitutional structure with a relatively weak presidency. However, the sole disagreement was over run-off elections for seven senators from Aristide's party who obtained pluralities but not majorities in the first round. The seven senators eventually resigned. It was a move not unlike a congressional leader in the US make take to gerrymander districts for his party’s advantage.

Heather Williams reports for Counterpunch:

Nonetheless, these electoral "abuses" were grounds for the Bush administration and pliant international partners in Europe to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in credit lines and aid to Haiti. Allegations of fraud were used to permanently block the release of $400 million in already-approved loans from the Interamerican Development Bank. The IMF, World Bank, and European Union were also pressed to cut off crucial lines of credit. Meanwhile, Haiti was brutally taken to task for its external financial obligations, emptying its coffers in July 2003 to pay $32 million in debt service arrears. As a final blow, Haiti's ability to conserve any remaining foreign reserves was foreclosed by agreements signed with the U.S. government under President Clinton in 1996. These obliged Haiti to abolish tariffs on U.S. imports in the name of what was curiously called "free trade" but was in fact commodity dumping by U.S. exporters. Under threat of huge fines, Haiti was obliged to accept the import of foodstuffs priced far below the cost of production. (Direct subsidies to U.S. farmers since the mid-1990s have averaged over $30 billion a year.) In a nation where the majority of the population works in agriculture, this all but shut down production in the rice-producing northwest of Haiti, as well as among livestock producers throughout the country. Under these conditions, it stands to reason that no government could dodge the discontent of the population.

On the economic ropes again, Haiti destabilized politically. In the period preceding the political transition, several hundred people were killed and many more injured, there were extensive property losses (5½ percent of GDP) and damage to Haiti's institutional and administrative capacity. On February 29, 2004, shortly after Haiti’s bicentennial, Aristide was once again forced from office by a violent coup. Aristide was whisked from the country aboard a contracted U.S.-government plane to the impoverished Central African Republic. Versions of the events differ. But it isn’t hard to see how, from Aristide’s perspective, it would have seemed that his ouster was orchestrated by the US.

The US sent in troops to keep the order until a UN peacekeeping force could be assembled. But signs of future trouble were already manifest as rebel forces that had promised to lay down arms after Aristide’s removal seemed reluctant to abandon their newfound power. The US assembled a team of “wise men” to choose an interim Prime Minister and as luck would have it, they chose the US backed and long-time Florida resident, Gérard Latortue. And in a move likely to be regrettable, none ``of the opposition party leaders under Aristide or members of the Lavalas party have been made a part of the new government.

Elections are supposed to held sometime this year, with a newly elected president to start serving in 2006. However, so far, the Lavalas Party has refused to participate in the upcoming elections.

Haiti is currently the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. At approximately 80 percent, unemployment is higher today than during the military rule because of the shrinking of Haiti's export sector, as a result of international sanctions and the extensive looting that occurred after Aristide's departure. Crime is rampant and urban slums have become war zones. Political and security conditions remain difficult as armed rebel groups challenge the transition government's authority in the provinces, and gang-related crime and kidnappings have increased. Inflation has topped 22 percent since January. 65 percent of the population live on less than one U.S. dollar a day. According to the IMF's figures, roughly 50 percent of Haitian children younger than 5 suffer from malnutrition.

To make matters worse, Haiti has suffered two devastating natural disasters this year, with thousands dying in mudslides and floods from Tropical Storm Jeanne in September from torrential rains last May. Nearly 5,000 persons lost their lives or were missing, and the property losses are estimated at 3½ percent of GDP. Widespread deforestation that has left only two percent of Haiti's arboreal cover standing and has produced widespread land degradation has intensified the devastation.

Billions of dollars in international assistance have done little to improve conditions in the countryside, where two thirds of Haitians live. Per capita income has dropped from around $600 in 1980 to $369 today.
Currently, the Haitian external debt totals over $1.2 billion, however in 2002 Haiti's exports only totaled $248 million. International aid is flowing too slowly. Only 10% of the $1.34 billion promised in July had been disbursed. Additionally, Haiti’s loans from the 1994 reconstruction aid package will come due this year, doubling the country’s debt service payments.

What aid is given often leaves out involving the Haitian people in the planning. As a result, predictably, foreigners and elites reap a windfall while the poor get poorer. There is little indication that the IMF, on whose approval much of the aid is contingent, is likely to take a more inclusive approach to Haiti’s future.

Through a series of structural adjustment programs, beginning in the late 1980s, the IMF encouraged Haiti to adopt some of the lowest tariffs in the Caribbean. The IMF's influence was magnified by its role as the gatekeeper to funds from other international organizations, including the World Bank and the European Union. The Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF) follows the standard prescriptions of the World Bank and IMF for impoverished countries. It recommends more free trade zones, with very low wages, and export agriculture. In Haiti and elsewhere, these policies have facilitated huge increases in profits for multinational corporations that can get labor and commodities at ever-lower prices, while doing little to assist those most in need. A pillar of Haiti’s failed 1994 reconstruction plan, privatization of state-owned enterprises, is likewise central to the ICF. And when Haiti fell behind on the privatization schedule, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund withheld funding for nearly five years.

Furthermore, the IMF’s own actions have undercut one it’s prime prescriptions – specializing on producing what can made most economically for export. The IMF has forced Haiti to open its market to imported, highly subsidized U.S. rice at the same time it prohibited Haiti from subsidizing its own farmers. Over the past two decades, exports of American rice to Haiti have grown from virtually zero to more than 200,000 tons a year, making Haiti the fourth-largest market for American rice in the world after Japan, Mexico and Canada. The result has been a massive shift in local consumption habits, with many Haitians now choosing cheap imported rice at the expense of domestically grown staples, including rice, corn and millet.

Meanwhile, little has been heard of the Haiti Economic Recovery and Opportunity (HERO) Act since it ran into resistance in the US House of Representatives in September 2004. The legislation would provide duty-free entry into the US for garments assembled in Haiti, with some estimates suggesting that up to 100,000 new jobs could be created as a result of inflows of foreign investment to construct free- trade zones (FTZs) where textiles would be assembled.

However, the proposal has stalled in the US legislature. Its approval now seems unlikely. Some of the act’s critics have raised reservations over the benefits of the act to those working in assembly plants, given the low wages. But without any preferential access to the US market, there are fears that the expiry of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement on January 1st 2005, ending the 30-year-old quota system governing global trade in textiles and clothing, will result in the erosion of opportunities for export-oriented textile production in Haiti as a result of competition from well-established producers elsewhere in the region and in the Far East.

Under pressure from textile-producing Southern states and their representatives in Congress, the bill was watered down in the House. But even that modest helping hand for Haiti was too much for two Southern Republicans, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who blocked a vote in the Senate.

Since Haiti declared independence, the US, western governments and international institutions have not shied away interfering in Haiti’s political and economic life. The history of Haiti is one of foreign exploitation, subjugation and greed. Haiti has been subject to the political and ideological needs of its American big brother. And it has become thoroughly dependent on foreign assistance. That assistance never comes free.

It is easy to imagine an assistance policy towards Haiti geared toward to repairing the enormous damage wrought over the years by invasions, sanctions and interventions; a policy geared toward building a stable and productive economy. However, we would need to entirely forgive Haiti’s foreign debt. And we would need to be willing to give, while expecting nothing in return.

I hope that this brief history demonstrates that, if there were ever a case in which one nation owes to another that helping hand, this is it.

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At 4:44 PM, Blogger jennifer said...

I get tired of sounding like I'm repeating myself but this post really impressed me. The quality of your writing is equally impressive and always provocative.
I'm always intrigued by what you choose to write on as well. The depth of thought is commendable both as a craft of writing but also in the "craft" of making an argument that will leave someone sitting after reading it, speechless. peace!


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