Haiti and the ‘Devil’s Curse’
Danny Glover, Peter Hallward, and Anthony Fenton contribute to breaking down the media avoidance of Haiti’s history of foreign intervention. According to Hallward, Haiti’s poverty can be explained as a series of foreign responses to the independence and strength of the Haitian people, but since the media doesn’t acknowledge this, they are forced to propose weakness and bad luck as the sources of Haiti’s poverty. Glover adds that without the history, we are prone to misunderstanding and the blaming of the victim, which in some cases serves to absolve us of our own responsibility for the situation. Fenton reminds that it’s not only the US that has taken part in undermining democracy in Haiti, in recent years Canada has played a very significant role, among others.
Produced by Jesse Freeston.
JESSE FREESTON (VOICEOVER), PRODUCER, TRNN: As the media coverage of the Haitian earthquake nears completion of its second week, one thing has become abundantly clear.
TV NEWS REPORT, AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORP. (UNIDENTIFIED): The island nation of ten million is one of the poorest countries on earth.
TV NEWS REPORT, CBS: Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake struck.
TV NEWS REPORT, FOX NEWS: Eight out of every ten Haitians are living in poverty. Less than a third of them have formal jobs. Most get by on less than $2 a day.
FREESTON: The Real News spoke to Danny Glover, actor, activist, and director of the upcoming film Toussaint, which depicts the life of Toussaint Louverture, a key leader in the Haitian Revolution.
DANNY GLOVER, FILMMAKER AND ACTIVIST: Why is there poverty in Haiti? And there’s outlining reasons why they’re in poverty, many reasons why they’re in poverty. We have to understand this history. If we don’t understand the history, we’re bound to have a missed interpretation and blame it primarily on the victim, certainly. And this victimization, this blaming it on the victim, is something that we become very good at, you know, doing, you know, in this crisis, and that is in some sense to relieve our self of our own responsibility.
FREESTON: Certain media outlets have attempted to explain how Haiti came to be so poor. Pat Robertson caught the attention of many with his atrocious account.
PAT ROBERTSON: They got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, "We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French." It’s a true story. And so the devil said, "Okay, it’s a deal." And they kicked the French out; you know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor.
HANS MARDY, HAITIAN-AMERICAN EMERGENCY RELIEF COMMITTEE: Haiti changed the way people work. We used to have a workforce called "free workforce", where people see you in the street, they look at your color of the skin, and then they brought you to work for free. That was the slavery system. And because of my parents, that’s changed today. Haiti play a role in the world. But you can’t forget that; you cannot take that away from us. If it is because of that you said we have a curse, we have a contract with the Devil, no, my friend; we got the freedom from God, because God create everybody equal.
FREESTON: But while most of the media refrained from claiming secret deals with Satan, the dominant explanation for the poverty was the same as Robertson’s, that Haiti’s misfortunes must be the result of some kind of supernatural damnation.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN: There’s an old saying that goes: if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. It’s an expression that certainly seems to apply to the people of Haiti.
CBS PROGRAM (UNIDENTIFIED): This is a country that was created as a result of slaves revolting against the control of colonial powers.
(UNIDENTIFIED): The French.
(UNIDENTIFIED): The French. And they never—they never really were able to move away from the—to have a functioning state in an effective way.
AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORP.: The birthplace of voodoo and land of the zombie, Haiti appears to be a nation cursed.
FREESTON: The Real News spoke to Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment.
PETER HALLWARD, AUTHOR: The role that journalists tend to be comfortable when they come to talk about Haiti is in the role of the victim. If you ask why the Haitians are so poor and why are they presented, then, constantly as the poorest nation in the hemisphere and so on—which is true; it is the poorest nation in the hemisphere—it has to do with three factors, all of which are a function, really, of Haiti’s independence and the strength of its people. The first is the fact that they became independent by overcoming slavery themselves, and the consequence of that was a war that killed a third of the population, that left the country in ruins, and then left it isolated by an international embargo that was designed to quarantine the country and destroy its economy.
GLOVER: The United States placed a blockade on Haiti immediately after its independence, a blockade that—since it lasted for 60 years. Only after the Emancipation Proclamation here, when it became safe to recognize Haiti as a legitimate country—.
FREESTON: Under embargo and the threat of invasion from France, Haiti was forced to pay 150 million gold francs to France for the loss of property, namely slaves. This was eventually reduced to 90 million, the equivalent of more than $21 billion today.
HALLWARD: And they were paying that debt off, you know, right through to 1947.
FREESTON: Nineteen of those years were passed under a brutal US military occupation.
(UNIDENTIFIED): Fifteen United States Marines land in Haiti to battle Haitian bandits threatening destruction of American properties.
(UNIDENTIFIED): The voodoo ceremonies in Haiti were against the law, were they?
LT. FAUSTIN WIRKUS, US MARINE, COMMANDER OF GONAVE ISLAND: Yes, they were considered against the law.
(UNIDENTIFIED): But they went on nevertheless?
WIRKUS: Yes, they had them out—usually, of course, out in the country, away from all officials.
WIRKUS: Dancing and howling and whooping and various other things. And, in fact, sometimes it looked like they were very dangerous.
(UNIDENTIFIED): One of the pieces was the island of La Gonave, considered a very dangerous post.
WIRKUS: Yes, it was considered very dangerous. In fact, they never get anyone there over six months. The people were considered savages and the place very unhealthy.
HALLWARD: So a big reason why Haiti’s poor has to do with the fact that they fought for their freedom and won it, rather than receive it, you know. The second reason is the price that the Haitian small farmers in particular, the majority of their population, were forced to pay for refusing to follow a dominant trend in world history, which was the one that saw small farmers pushed off their land in all parts of the world—starting in Europe and later in Europe’s colonies—into slums, where they could be exploited by industry. And that didn’t happen in Haiti until much later than other places, because Haitian farmers were determined to resist it. And so that provoked a reaction in the form of a very severe neoliberal plan backed up by extremely violent forms of paramilitary coercion—the army and the Tonton Macoutes that the Duvalier dictators developed—to push this process through. And the result then was, you know, very severe level of exploitation and impoverishment, particularly in the countryside.
GLOVER: And essentially what he did was orchestrated or oversaw a policy of creating jobs, low-paying jobs, you know, sweatshop jobs, which then [inaudible] facilitate something [inaudible] export component of the Haitian economy at the expense of developing the agricultural part of the economy. Now, Haiti had been self-sufficient in rice up until the 1970s. Forcing them into these urban areas and trying to find someplace to live, building facilities, building homes, living in these spaces that shouldn’t be inhabited, don’t have any—they’re very weak in structure. And so this—and it exasperates the situation when you have either a hurricane or you have, in this situation, an earthquake of over seven point.
FREESTON: When Papa Doc died, his 19-year-old son, known as Baby Doc, replaced him. Baby Doc followed the same principles as his father, as laid out in this 1972 interview with 60 Minutes.
JEAN-CLAUDE "BABY DOC" DUVALIER, HAITIAN DICTATOR (1971-1986): The aim of my government is to increase the volume of foreign investment, and at the same time to promote the development of tourism.
FREESTON: He ruled with an iron fist for 15 years before a popular uprising forced him out of office. When the Duvalier dictatorship is mentioned in earthquake coverage, the support they received from Western powers is habitually left out.
HALLWARD: So that was the second reason why Haiti’s poor. And a third has to do with the political steps that they took to try and fight this neoliberalism, precisely by electing a government that could represent a political alternative to neoliberalism. So a movement, a popular movement, develops in the 1980s to fight this tendency, and it elects a government on an anti-neoliberal agenda in 1990. And the story of Haiti ever since has been really, I think, driven by the measures taken by the international community and by the small Haitian elite to force that government and to force this popular movement into accepting this neoliberal plan that has directly resulted in the impoverishment of a great majority of its people.
FREESTON: This has included US-backed coups against the Aristide government in both 1991 and 2004. In recent years, however, Canada has largely taken over the role of undermining Haitian democracy, this according to Canadian independent journalist and author of Canada in Haiti, Anthony Fenton.
ANTHONY FENTON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: From the moment Aristide was reelected in 2000 until he left, fled, or was kidnapped from Haiti in 2004, Canada played a deliberate role undermining, you know, following in lockstep with US policy, starved it of loans. They starved it of being able to fulfill their democratic mandate. They empowered Haiti’s elite, fueled a disinformation campaign. And then, in an unprecedented way, Canada played a leadership role as of regional imperial power, propping up an illegitimate regime from 2004 to 2006, imposing the neoliberal agenda that they tried for so long to impose on Haiti. And this is the new face of Canada; this is Canada for the 21st century.
FREESTON: Canada has also supported the post-coup criminalization of the Fanmi Lavalas Party. But it has been the UN, headed by the Brazilian military, that has been largely tasked with policing the social movement.
HALLWARD: Its main purpose has been to coerce the population into accepting the consequences of the coup. You’ve got to remember the coup in 2004 overthrew a government that had been elected with a massive majority. It had at least 75 or so percent of the vote, it won 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, and by all, you know, credible accounts, that government would remain, and, you know, if it could be elected again tomorrow, it would be. You know. So what the UN’s main job has been is to provide massive, overwhelming military and police presence to basically force the population into accepting it. And particularly in 2005 and 2006, that’s what the UN did. It patrolled Port-au-Prince, treated the population like a hostile force, and in a couple of notorious occasions went in and attacked groups of people who were some of Aristide and Lavalas’ most ardent supporters and killed dozens of them.
FREESTON: In 2009, former US president Bill Clinton took over as the UN’s special envoy on Haiti.
BILL CLINTON, US SPECIAL ENVOY TO HAITI, FMR. US PRESIDENT: And the people of Haiti had an economic development plan that I was helping them to implement, and we’re going to go back to it once the smoke clears.
FREESTON: The plan, known as US Hope II, continues the neoliberal logic of keeping Haiti competitive in textile production. This plan was in action in the summer of 2009 when Haitian President René Préval vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $5 per day.
CAFFERTY: So here’s the question: why can’t a country like Haiti catch a break? Go to CNN.com/Cafferty File.
HALLWARD: This political and historical story is then recast as a kind of natural condition, as if Haiti is a place that is naturally poor, naturally undemocratic, and so on, when it has precisely been made to be such, in large part by foreign interference.
FREESTON: In 2003, there was a closed-door conference in Montreal, Canada, that brought together representatives from numerous countries to discuss Haiti’s future. Not a single Haitian was invited, and Canadian journalist Michel Vastel broke the story that attendees had reached consensus that Aristide had to go. And just over one year later, Aristide found himself on a US plane being flown into exile in the Central African Republic. He has not been allowed back to his country since. On Monday, the same countries will be meeting in Montreal once again for the Friends of Haiti conference. AFP reports that the meeting is, quote, "expected to affirm the central role of the United States in post-quake Haiti, already illustrated by its massive military presence and relief efforts there." By the time the meeting starts on Monday, 20,000 US troops are expected to be on the ground. Despite recent calls to repay the $21 billion that France extorted from post-revolution Haiti, French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined the chorus in blaming Haiti’s misery on the supernatural, saying that Monday’s conference should be, quote, "a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time." Without either an acknowledgment of the roots of Haiti’s poverty nor a democratic and sovereign Haitian government to oversee reconstruction, one wonders whether the new Haiti can possibly serve the interests of Haitians.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.