Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: Primer Of A Purposeful Destruction

If one only read mainstream American news, we should look at the recent earthquake as just another natural disaster, reacting in surprise that the country lacks the state capacity to deal with this catastrophe. Or that poverty is to blame for all of Haiti's ills in itself, without anything resembling a historical context for why the country is in the condition it is in.

This is an unfortunate occurrence because in the midst of this tragedy of epic proportions for Haiti, those of us in the US have a moral duty to understand the historical context of Haiti and why its problems persisted for as long as they have. And it is a sordid and hellish context, and I will only concentrate on recent history, as the past two decades have been the most devastating for this country. If one remembers Haiti under Baby Doc Duvalier, Haiti resembled a highly centralized terror state, something akin to North Korea in the efficiency of its police forces and death squads to hunt down dissidents or everyday critics so to torture, rape, and/or kill them. In his three decades of rule, Baby Doc left behind a body count of about 60,000 killed, hundreds of thousands arrested and tortured, and as many who were raped by security forces. As a corollary, he was also responsible for creating something like a unified and centralized state in the country, probably his greatest (if terribly obtained) legacy.

Between 1986 (when Baby Doc was finally deposed [to which he still lives in exile to this day]) and 1990, Haiti underwent many changes, the most significant was a sprouting of a civil society as a response to the decades of political repression. The social movements were numerous and all of them contained nearly the same demands for the impoverished majority: Economic equality, greater access to resources for the poor, more representative government, and an end to the terror of the Duvalier regime. It is the kind of civil society manifestation that democratic peace theorists like R.J. Rummel should be only too happy to write about. Of course, he did not because Rummel only believes in market democracies as being peaceful, and anything less in need of 'democratization' through the civilizing deliverance of drones, cruise missiles, and Marines. No, in Latin America, the liberal democratic peace theorists that pollute American academia (or as my graduate school mentor called them "stormtroopers for democracy") are nowhere to be found because the social movements in this region pushing for democratization, more often than not, come from the kinds of dispossessed people, in places like Haiti, whose impoverishment they consider a visual inconvenience.

From this uprising in post-Baby Doc Haiti came Jean-Betrand Aristide, a priest who was forced to quit his duties for believing in liberation theology--the kind of radical Christianity that the church was originally built upon, back when Christians still pretended to care about poor people. For his support for the poor, Aristide was under the threat of death constantly throughout his campaign (the violent response of which in a couple of his speeches US Senator Helms used to try to discredit Aristide, his campaign, and of course his support for the poor). After the debacle of the attempted 1987 elections, it is nothing short of a miracle that the 1990 elections took place under better circumstances, and were reasonably clean and fair. It was a mistake the wealthy light-skinned elites of Haiti would never make again. Aristide won that election with two-thirds of the vote, and was in power for less than a year before the Haitian military, at the behest of the US (and supported by the Bush Sr. administration), overthrew the elected Aristide and replaced him with a wealthy, light-skinned military officer Raoul Cedras, who ruled the country from 1991 to 1994.

The Cedras years are the forgotten years in the American mainstream media. Almost no one ever mentions them. There is a reason for that. Our government put him in power. We opposed Aristide for the same reason we have opposed any leftist in Latin America (and that includes the deposed president of Honduras); because they are socialist, or in any way sympathetic to the lower economic stratum of their societies, and also on account that the US continually treats Latin America in the same paternalistic manner in which the Soviet Union acted toward the Eastern bloc nations during the Cold War (with the exception being that the Soviets killed far fewer Europeans during the Cold War). Let a hundred people die in Prague Spring, and we still see memorials to them in the Czech Republic. No one sheds a tear or cares one wit for the quarter million slaughtered by military huntas and deaths squads in Central America (supported, armed, and subsidized by our government) in the 1980s alone. Even fewer still care to talk about the thousands killed, tortured, and raped by Raoul Cedras.

The consequence of General Cedras's time in power was not just a return of Baby Doc's death squads (FRAPH being the most notorious), but strangely enough an inverse rule from Duvalier. Whereas Baby Doc built state institutions and centralized governance, Cedras tore down those institutions (ruling indirectly and through powerless appointees to the presidency), and in its place left a government predicated on ineptitude, corruption, and a dependence on the military and paramilitary forces for any functions of the state to operate. I have always felt, then and now (as I recall his reign vividly), that this was destruction of state capacity was purposeful, as Cedras was well aware his rule was not going to last for long (certainly not as long as the Duvalier family's). Without a state, future governance (and who gets elected) is no longer a concern, or not as great as the worrying of the private elites hiding in their gated communities in 1990.

What followed was the demonstration effect of Cedras's success in gutting Haitian civil society and governance. By 1993, with the election of Bill Clinton, and under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus (who Aristide lobbied tirelessly in exile in the US), the US government "changed" its policy towards Haiti completely, imposing sanctions in the Haitian government, freezing the assets of the military leaders (including General Cedras), and attempting to coerce the government to hold elections (which would include the possibility of the return of Aristide to power). After much negotiation, and under threat of a military invasion, Cedras accepted his own departure to Panama (where he lives today in luxury, at no small expense of the American taxpayer), and Aristide was reinstalled in power as the President of Haiti.

The second presidency of Aristide was nothing like his first in that while popularly elected, those elections had little meaning because there was next to nothing the central government could do to implement what laws it had. The military was abolished after 1994 and in its place was left a dilapidated police force trained by the US and the UN. Before last week, that police force numbered somewhere around 10,000 (who policed a country of over 9 million people). Stateless, the Haitian government felt it had little choice but to cave into American demands for opening its country to foreign investment (as part of the neo-liberal globalization craze brought on during the Clinton era [and our prid pro quo to the government for letting us reinstall a 'democracy' in a country whose military came into power only a few years before at our behest]).

From 1994 until today, Haiti (for all intents in purposes) has no government. Aristide survived only long enough to resign the presidency, come back, get elected, and be overthrown yet again (under the encouragement of Bush Jr. [carrying on the legacy of his father]). The country, instead of advancing economically or any other way, has gone further backwards, with predictable results (the kinds you see in so many other stateless countries like Somalia and Afghanistan [poverty, corruption at all levels of society and from what few powerless authorities remain, etc.]). That is the Haiti we overlook in the sadness of the events following the recent earthquake. This is not to say it explains a natural disaster, but had Aristide never been overthrown in 1990 (even accounting for his own corruption), had Haiti been allowed to develop politically and economically along its own path, in the way Venezuela and Bolivia has, we might have seen something like a reasonable response from that government to this disaster. At the very least, Haiti would have been better prepared, its impoverished classes less pauperized, and naturally the US government seething with anger at the thought of losing yet another hemispheric market for its food and cruise liner companies.

What you are seeing today in the collapse and inability of the Haitian government to react is largely a result of what happened in the '90s, the military coup and rule, and the destruction of Haiti's state capacity by both Cedras and the US/UN occupation forces (who insisted on the abolition of Haiti's military and "restrained" with a new police force barely able to govern its own police stations, not alone the rest of the country). That is what CNN, The Washington Post, New York Times, MSNBC, never mind Fox "news", is missing when discussing the problems of Haiti and the need for the international community to respond to this disaster. We put Haiti in its predicament because of our hatred of socialism in the Caribbean (and anywhere in Latin America, whenever it presents itself, no matter how democratic), and the suffering of this country has been compounded by that haphazard response by a nation whose government we intentionally defanged and made sure could never pursue the kind of social justice the Lavalas party and Aristide wanted two decades ago (sort of our insurance that even if they obtain power again, there will be nothing left for them have to make sure the population could be distributively provided for). And sadly, it is nothing new in the history of this country. It started with President Jefferson's embargo on Haiti, as a response to the slave rebellion succeeding in gaining the country's independence, as well as our most esteemed founding father's proposal to Napoleon to re-invade and enslave the black majority population, to our numerous military invasions and occupations, throughout the 19th century, from 1915-1934, and again in the 1990s. It is a history stained with the blood of its people at our hands, and it is the kind of history we will never have to worry about Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh reciting or paying attention to.

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