Peace and Justice

Haiti: Why the dissin' and destroyin'? posted February 19, 2004

It is difficult to know where to begin on a Haiti story. So rather than reinvent, much of what follows was submitted by myself to the New York Times op ed page on February 6, in response to an editorial in the New York Times on February 4, 2004. (My op ed was not printed by the Times.)

My opinion:

The Times editorial on Haiti (February 4), included a phrase that "over the past few months some 50 people have been killed in Haiti political violence". By implication, the number of killings was made to seem outrageous, and the responsibility of Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The violence has escalated since February 6, of course, and the U.S. continues to officially sit on it its hands. By implication, Aristide continues to be blamed for the violence by many, even while Haiti is being overrun by thugs.

There is an unavoidable comparison which needs to be made about the concurring U.S. overwhelming military presence in IRAQ, and our total lack of presence in HAITI: (in a perverse way, we seem to be using opposite tactics to reach the same objective.imposing our will to get 'regime change'.)

In IRAQ, there are approximately 150,000 American troops still on the ground, costing about $3,000,000,000 per month;

In HAITI, there are zero U.S. troops (other than an embassy contingent), or police supplements, and none are being actively suggested, and thus no cost. There is essentially zero 'foreign aid', and virtually none of that paltry sum is going to the standing government of Haiti.

It's not a matter of huge differences in population or geography: Iraq is considerably larger in size than Haiti, but far easier to get around due to much better road systems and basic infrastructure; Iraq has three times the population of Haiti, but, like Haiti, the population is concentrated in urban centers.

Of course, we are bombarded with propaganda here in the good old U.S.of A. about Iraq; and now about Haiti In the Times submission I recalled a few years ago in my own area of the United States:

I live in a 'safe' area of the U.S.: Minnesota, the last statistics I saw, had a homicide rate half the U.S. average.

Still, about 1996, Minneapolis (then about 350,000 population), gained the unwanted nickname 'Murderapolis', due to over 100 homicides in a single year. The killings were mostly, I recall, gang 'turf' battles around the local and lucrative drug trade. I don't recall feeling unsafe then, nor hearing the then-mayor or state governor being accused of responsibility for those murders or the drug traffic. Life went on. No State Department warnings were issued that it was unsafe to come to Minneapolis. (In an average year, Minnesota, with about 60% of Haiti's population, has perhaps 150 homicides.and as I say, we are a very safe state within the U.S. On average it is probably much more likely that one will be killed violently in Minnesota, than in Haiti.)

That Minneapolis murder rate was astronomically greater than the 50 killings in a country of 8,000,000 (Haiti) which the NYTimes wrote about.yet the pictures and the articles continue to focus on the violence in that tiny, impoverished country. Those killings are by both 'sides' - a pro-Aristide gentleman we met in Port-au-Prince on December 9 was assassinated two days later, just for one example.

Subsequent to those remarks, my friend Paul reminded me that New York City, which has about the same population as Haiti, has a police force of 62,000, compared with less than 5,000 police (and no Army) in Haiti and the Haitian police force is ill-equipped compared with New York's.

Two days ago, one of my Haiti travel mates wrote that "my coworker returned from Haiti this past weekend (Feb 14). She was there with her church. She said the news we are receiving is way overblown. They were able to travel around Port-au-Prince without trouble, and some in her group went on to Jacmel. She was really concerned because three other church groups cancelled during the week because of the news. She actually saw an AP reporter on the street, pulled him aside and asked him to provide some fair press (and she is not an Aristide lover.)"

The real outrage about Haiti is the very obvious efforts of the U.S. to starve the Aristide government out of existence, while at the same time likely bankrolling and training the opposition through Non-Government Organization (NGO) funding to U.S. government funded agencies like the International Republican Institute (IRI). Haiti is simply another 'regime change' initiative at its most ugly: make it impossible for a government to succeed, and then blame it for its failure. This U.S. campaign has been going on for years, and the legitimate question is 'why'? I will venture my own opinion on this most vexing question of 'why' at the end of this article.

In every article I see, President Aristide is blamed for not having new elections, and/or being responsible for a few tainted elections in 2000 (which occurred before he was even elected, and have long ago been rectified.). Still, the opposition refuses to participate in setting rules for new elections, stimulating chaos, and the U.S. says it won't help Haiti unless there are new elections, while likely training opposition leaders in American dirty political tactics. American political strategists are experts in the politics of rumor and character assassination and we export our expertise. It seems we will fund the 'right' government in Haiti, once we can get it elected - the Haitians desires and democracy be damned.

The current paradox in Haiti is that the opposition is not only preferred by only a small minority of the Haitians, but that opposition is not even united internally. If Aristide and his party Lavalas were to disappear tomorrow - some would like that - in the most general sense it would be somewhat similar to what has happened with the elimination of Saddam Hussein and the Baathists in Iraq: a power vacuum and potential anarchy exists.except that in Haiti the U.S. is neither ready or willing to fill that power vacuum. Still, the U.S. seems to choose to starve Aristide and his government out of existence, rather than helping him, (and the Haitians), succeed in his final two years in office. Ironically, the United States is encouraging violence and anarchy by its negative actions towards Haiti.

Of course, it is impossible to 'connect' the dots to prove the case that we are trying to bring down a legitimate government in Haiti, but the suggestion is there, very, very strongly, and has been since the Haitians had their first 'Taste of Salt' in 1990, casting ballots to elect their leaders.

I have been seeking detail on the 'foreign aid' for Haiti by the U.S. State Department as outlined on their web site 12/29/03 ( search Haiti). It is there stated that FY allocations may be about $55 million, if they all come through. It seems Impressive, till you do the math: that amount is about $7 per Haitian; Twenty cents per American. Further, that money is not going to the government of Haiti, but rather being channeled through NGOs. There is a claim that $850 million has been spent by the U.S. in Haiti in the last ten years, without specifying in which years those funds were spent, or for what, or how much of the money even went to Haiti. (Paying for military expenses, for instance, ending the 1994 coup, is not 'foreign aid' - it went mainly to Americans for expenditure in the U.S. The $850 million is likely listed for its PR value only.)

Is President Aristide or his party, Lavalas, perfect? Of course not.

Compared against our own rather dismal political system, however, and the Duvalier and Army dictatorships - Aristide and Lavalas look pretty good, even excellent. My home, the United States, leverages its money and power.and arrogantly ignores an immense blind spot about our own imperfections.

So, why is the United States approaching Haiti in the seeming destructive manner that it is and has been?

I am not sure that anybody, including long time government officials directly involved with Haiti can honestly answer that question.

One of the main reasons stated for U.S. disengagement - so common it is almost a mantra - is the supposed problem with the 2000 Haiti elections. I see and hear it constantly. I doubt that the elections are a reason at all; rather they are an excuse.

A large part of the answer could be a 200-year long superior-subordinate relationship between the two countries. One small but very important example might help define the problem: it is said that in 1991, when the Haitian Army coup overthrew Aristide just a few months into his first term - the 32nd coup in Haitian history - President George H.W. Bush was outraged, and was prepared to invade and liberate Haiti and return Aristide to power until he was advised that his own American embassy in Port-au-Prince had actually been a key player in facilitating the coup. Haitian Army leaders were likely trained in America, and advised by Americans, etc.

Beyond that, elementary racism is doubtless very heavily involved, and has been since the beginning: Haiti was born of a slave revolt about the same time as the United States was born as a country controlled by slave holders. Haiti is closest to the American south, the part of America most threatened by potential immigration of poor black people; additionally, key congressional leaders in Haiti policy have been and are people like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms - people not known for their racial tolerance, representing states with no great record of racial tolerance and understanding. Then there is the whole very uncomfortable (to the establishment) issue of self-determination for the poor. Aristide and his party represent the poor; it is the poor who elected him, and still support him, and represent the vast majority of the Haiti population. Aristide's government is a threatening paradigm to those accustomed to being in control of Haiti.

But these are all guesses, and there are doubtless many others. Whatever the reason, Haiti from our most selfish and disinterested perspective is a mess in which we are involved whether we want to be or not. From a humanitarian perspective, it is a catastrophe.

If I ruled the world, I'd want to help Haiti succeed, not guarantee its failure. At the very least, care about the poor, and help Haiti really celebrate its bicentennial as a free country.