This commentary is written in response to Mr. Winston D. Munnings’s commentary entitled, “Should Haiti Become a UN Protectorate?,” which was published by Caribbean News Now on November 22, 2010.
Indeed, as Mr. Munnings’ notes, it is true that the Haitian people have endured, and continue to endure, some of the worst tragedies we have come to learn of in recent history. However, the fact that “there is no other nation in the Western Hemisphere that has endured the adversities and misfortunes as that of the Republic of Haiti and its people”, as Mr. Munnings writes, seems to suggest that foreign interventions in the country need to be reduced instead of increased given the proven and unprecedented strength, resilience and spirit the Haitian people have demonstrated in the face of incredible odds, and which they have exemplified to the world since achieving independence in 1804.
As Mr. Munnings rightfully notes, Haiti’s problem did not begin with the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. However, it is not true that the country’s problems “started a half century ago under a merciless dictatorship, a poorly planned economy, greed, corruption, isolation”. Yes, the dual Duvalier dictators (first of Papa Doc Duvalier 1957-71, and his son, Baby Doc Duvalier,1971-1986) engaged in an appalling and criminal campaign of tyranny, terrorism, repression and neglect against the Haitian people for the entire duration of their reign. But Haiti’s problems began at least 185 years ago in 1825. Here’s how:
In the early 1800s, the existence of a free Black republic was a great threat to the major profiteers and politicians of Europe and America because of their heavy economic dependence on the unfree labour of enslaved Blacks at the time. As such, Haiti was diplomatically and commercially isolated by the rest of the world out of fear that other enslaved Africans around the world would revolt in demand of their freedom. In other words, Haiti’s punishment for achieving freedom and independence was that the economic powers of the world totally isolated Haiti in attempts to make the Haitian economy fall into total collapse, the purpose of which was to dissuade other Blacks from entertaining ideas of living free and governing their own affairs (this logic is currently being applied to Cuba).
By 1825 Haiti’s leaders had decided that the people of Haiti could suffer the effects of global economic isolation no more. With a bankrupt economy, they invited officials from France to a summit. As if Haitian people had not paid enough through being stolen from Africa and enslaved to make European descendants wealthy, or through the blood shed to defeat European armies and gain independence, the French officials decided that they would only recognize Haiti as a sovereign state and engage in commercial relations with this Black Republic if Haiti paid France 150 million gold francs. This, they said, was the value of what France’s slave-holders lost when Haiti gained its independence. Hoping to end Haiti’s global economic and political isolation, repayment installments equal to 90% of the Haitian economy began immediately and did not finish until 1925 when the last franc was paid, exactly 100 years later.
In a campaign launched at the 2001 UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, it was shown by financial actuaries that 150 million gold francs in 1825 was equivalent to US$ 21 billion in 2001. Today, this amount, with interest, is some $40 Billion dollars. France still refuses to repay any of this money.
The story does not stop there, however. Although Europe and North America slowly began to recognize and open up trade and commerce with Haiti, the Haitian economy remained severely strained to the point that by the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, Haiti was falling short on its repayments to France. To keep Haiti paying the promised installments, French officials encouraged American bankers to step in. The American bank, City Bank, responded and eventually offered Haiti a debt exchange with a lower interest rate and longer-term debt. Thus, the illegally extracted debt was not fully paid by Haiti until 1947.
Despite the new terms of repayment offered by City Bank, Haiti still struggled to pay the exorbitant sums. Payments slowed to such a level that the US invaded Haiti in 1915 to protect the financial interests of France and City Bank. As a pretext, the US claimed this invasion was necessary for strategic military purposes given that North America and other leaders of Europe were in the midst of a “Great” War. That war ended in 1919, the US occupation of Haiti ended in 1934. After 1934, Haiti rightfully became of less interest to global powers, as the world’s interest most appropriately turned towards crushing Hitler and the Nazis.
The purpose of recounting this history is to demonstrate how deeply problematic it is to think that the US and France should play any role in the governance and internal policy-making of Haiti through the establishment of a UN Protectorate or any other meaningful form.
More recent history also speaks to why France and the US should most certainly not be called on to play such a role in Haiti. In particular, let us recall the support the US and France tacitly and actively gave to the aforementioned Duvalier dictatorships:
The US offered financial and military support for the Duvalier dictatorships because of their communist paranoia, which gripped the world during the Cold War (the Duvaliers were radically anti-communist, which at the time translated into Haiti enjoying the support of the US because of US fears of communism and another Cuba emerging in the Caribbean). The US also gave this support to protect the immense profits of American apparel and textile companies operating in Haiti. France similarly supported these dictatorships by colluding with the US to ensure that properties and businesses owned by French citizens and corporations in Haiti were protected. The Duvaliers, their cronies, family members and the Haitian elite that supported them actually frequented back and forth between Haiti and France, quite often holding much of the wealth they plundered from the Haitian people in France in the form of property and bank accounts. Further, it is now in France that Baby Doc Duvalier resides and lives comfortably. Moreover, in further consideration of the US and France’s relationship to Haiti, it is interesting to note that when Baby Doc was forced from power in 1986 he was brought to France in an American Air Force aircraft.
Given this long history that the US and France have in destabilizing a the Republic of Haiti, and their active and passive participation in ravaging of the Haitian people from at least 1825 to 1986, it is hard to give any credibility to suggestions that Haiti should come under the grips of the US and France as a UN Protectorate. Further, one need not spend too much time reading about Haiti’s recent history to see overwhelming evidence concerning how the US-led and French co-signed embargoes and sanctions imposed against Haiti during the 1990s, as well as the removal (both in 1991 and 2004) of Haiti’s only freely and fairly elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, are directly linked to the punishing poverty and ‘failed-state’ status of the Republic of Haiti.
There are also extensive publications and reports concerning neo-liberal policies that the US imposed on Haiti, the partial result of which caused Haiti, once totally self sufficient in terms of rice production, to become dependent on the rice of American farmers. American farmers have enjoyed massive subsidies from the US government and thus have been dumping their rice into Haiti since the 1990s. This has totally undercut Haitian-produced rice, as well as decimated the Haitian rice production industry along with the country’s overall food security and food sovereignty. Bill Clinton who was behind the introduction of these policies, has recently publicly admitted his total wrong-doing in this regard and also regarding the crushing sanctions he imposed on Haiti during his administration. Sadly though, a very recent article by the Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa showed that not much has changed as it reported that a recently released US official report reveals that as late as 2008, the US provided $13 billion dollars in subsidies to its farmers.
Except for the underlying question of “where was the UN when France and the US were doing all of this to Haiti?”, all that has been written so far speaks only to why the US and France should play no kind of serious governance and administration role in Haiti, and does not address the UN. Thus , let us now consider why a UN Protectorate should not be made of Haiti, with reference to the UN in particular:
The popular masses of Haiti are vehemently opposed to the presence of the UN as it has manifested itself since 2005. Haitians are currently in the streets, beating down, stoning and road-blocking UN vehicles throughout the country in protest of their UN’s ‘over-presence’ in the country. Further, despite incessant attempts to deny and suppress the truth about the origins of the recent cholera outbreak in Haiti, the Swedish Ambassador to Haiti, Claes Hammer, just last week publicly stated that a US official informed him that it has been confirmed that UN soldiers from Nepal are the ones who brought cholera to Haiti. Haitians have responded by protesting en mass, sometimes violently, to express their opposition to the UN presence in Haiti.
The Haitian masses are also opposed to the UN’s MINUSTAH soldiers, which have been in the country since 2005. These soldiers have been known to engage in recurrent air and land arsenal attacks against Haitian citizens in slums such as Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince.
All of this is to say that the popular masses of Haiti deeply distrust the UN, and that recent history and current events demonstrate that they have more than ample reason for this disaffection. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the UN abandon Haiti totally, for there are many health and well-being services that the UN is providing that would likely be unavailable otherwise. Indeed, it is also clear that some military presence is needed at present. However, given the forceful opposition of the Haitian people to the UN since 2005 to present, it would be a flagrant assault on the principles of democracy to go as far as to make Haiti a UN Protectorate. Other forms of assistance may be welcome, but UN Protectorate status would not be.
Further, it must also be noted that the UN’s legitimacy and credibility concerning Haiti strongly come into question by the mere fact that they named Bill Clinton the UN Special Envoy to Haiti. This is the very same man who is largely responsible for Haiti’s more recent economic underdevelopment woes; namely, through the severe sanctions, embargoes, economic and agricultural policies he forced Haiti to accept (as discussed above). Regardless of his recent mea culpa, Clinton had ample time to admit and remedy his wrongs during and after his presidency. It reeks of the vilest form of opportunism for him to come out now as a “friend of Haiti”. It behooves us to ask, what is behind his about-face? Mr. Clinton, why Haiti and why now and not before?
Everything that has been outlined in this present commentary speaks not to an attempt to intellectualize anything, but, quite the opposite. The aim is to do nothing more than draw attention to the cold hard facts of history and current affairs to demonstrate why the idea of making Haiti a UN Protectorate is a misguided idea, no matter who is voicing. There is still more to be said, however.
Contrary to what Mr. Munnings states, Haiti needs no external “guidance” or to be “taken care of” by “parents”. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape”. Considering this, the UN, US, Clinton and France should be regarded with, at the very least, significant suspicion when it comes to Haiti and decisions about how it will, and should, be governed.
Moreover, despite what Mr. Munnings writes, it is offensive to the history and spirit of the Haitian people to seriously state that, “this is not the time to talk of Haiti’s autonomy as a sovereign entity”, and that Haiti’s “survival” should instead be our focus. From 1804 to present, Haitians have shown the world time and time again that if there is one thing they have absolutely no need for it is lessons from others on “survival”. In fact, they should probably be paid to give the people of the Western world lessons on just that considering how up in arms they are about current austerity measures (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Lithuania, France, UK) and bailouts (Greece, US, Ireland) being used by their governments to safeguard their fragile economies.
If we want to seriously serve Haiti’s “industrious and hardworking people who deserve, like other peoples, the opportunity to live and to be recognized and treated as human beings”, the UN, US and France should immediately begin with the following:
Ensuring the return, in full and without conditions of:
1. The $40 Billion dollars France stole from Haiti in 1825;
2. The tens of millions Haiti paid to City Bank between the late 19th century up until 1947, after this bank re-financed the illegally extracted debt Haiti was forced to pay France;
3. The tens of millions of dollars in revenue and profits that the US apparel and textile companies have pocketed from their exploitation of Haitians in their factories since the late 1950s;
4. The tens of millions of dollars in revenue and profits gained by US farmers through the dumping of their rice and other agricultural products into the Haitian market since the 1990s.
A critical assessment of Haiti’s history and current affairs reveals that the one thing Haiti has never enjoyed is the right to govern itself and develop on its own terms without significant foreign intervention of all forms, economic, political, social. Thus, it is difficult to see how a UN Protectorate being made of Haiti would mean anything other than a re-packaging of more of the same that would result in furthering the underdevelopment of Haiti.
Indeed, there are many other ways the UN, US and France can be involved in partnering with Haitian people. One such way is public-private partnership initiatives geared towards capacity building of Haitians in areas of farming, agriculture, construction, medical, health, education services and infrastructure development. These should be led and informed by Haitians legitimately selected by the popular masses. Business loans should also be made more accessible. The Haitian Diaspora also needs to play an active role in this process, being deeply engaged in it and not just consulted after decisions have already been made.
Finally, It would be absolutely wrong, absurd and offensive to disregard the agency of Haitians and claim that they have played no part in creating a situation where, before the quake, 80% of the population was living under the poverty line and 54% of its people lived in abject poverty. However, the point of this commentary is to show that there is a long and relatively unknown history of the US, France and the UNs’ action and omissions that have resulted in the effects of the earthquake, hurricane Tomas and cholera being exponentially greater than they ever should have been. In light of the history and current affairs outlined in this commentary, it becomes clear that a UN Protectorate is not the way for Haiti.
The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey is known for openly championing the statement, “Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad!”, in a time when even the thought of such a thing seemed absolutely absurd to European and African descendants alike. Today it is most important to update and particularize this clarion call by asserting, “Haiti for the Haitians, at home and abroad!” Such is the only way to fully and rightfully recognize the dignity, humanity and history of the Haitian people.