Grappling With What Happened in Haiti

200,000 Dead

I notice that Haitian authorities (what passes for “the Haitian government”) have, repeatedly in the last week, cited the figure of 200,000 as the death toll from the January 12 earthquake. On the day following the quake, the prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, said the government thought “well over 100,000” had died” while Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé told Reuters on the 15th that the quake could eventually claim 100,000 to 200,000 lives. The European Commission using Haitian government data estimated 200,000 dead on January 19, noting that 70,000 bodies had been collected, most trucked off to mass graves.

You wonder how many died immediately, suffocated by rubble, and how many over many hours through neglect. There is no infrastructure in Haiti. Unlike nearby Cuba, which is organizationally well-equipped to handle natural disasters, Haiti has no emergency aid network. There’s not even a military; that was disbanded during the last invasion, the one that followed the US-abetted uprising of thugs in 2004, the kidnapping of President Aristide (sent into exile in Africa), his replacement with Boniface Alexandre as a provisional president, and the subsequent election of Rene Preval. There’s no way of knowing what’s going on in that country, poorest in the hemisphere to begin with, now without power or water or meaningful news coverage.

Frankly, I don’t have much stomach for TV infortainment-news. I get physically ill hearing Bill O’Reilly’s screech, or watching Sean Hannity’s smirking choirboy face. CNN doesn’t appeal to me much more than Fox, which it emulates by constantly dumbing down every presentation and scrupulously avoiding questions of substance or historical perspective. The point is not to inform viewers but to make them feel, to stimulate, to sell the personalities of the anchors and compete with American Idol.

Don’t expect to hear Betty Nguyen on CNN affect a serious expression and say something like the following from the next few days: “Multiple authorities have now confirmed that the death toll in the January 12 earthquake in Haiti has now reached 200,000. Since population figures on Haiti range from 9.8 (World Bank) to 9.1 (CIA) that means over 2% (1 out of every 50 Haitians) has died. That would be like 6 million Americans (the whole population of the Bay Area) dying from one massive earthquake. This was a terrible disaster the country was completely unprepared for. Now let’s discuss why…”

No, that’s not going to happen. It’s easier not to discuss it and just bemoan the terrible poverty which is that country — as though it were somehow its mysterious fate as the only majority black, one-time majority slave state in the hemisphere — with appropriate clips, still visuals and soundtrack. There are awards waiting to be won here.

Although I rarely watch TV news, I saw a lot of the Haiti earthquake reports because I happened to be staying at my boyhood home in Honolulu on January 12 and for the following several days. My parents and other family members were there, all watching different TV stations, so I took in the range of coverage while keeping an eye on the internet. I was pleased that my father, who had a glioblastoma tumor removed from his brain over the summer and has been having some very difficult days, was able to understand what was going on and to empathize. For my part I thought the reportage extremely shallow. Why, I kept thinking, is there no analysis about why the country’s so messed up? But then of course, Rev. Pat Robertson provided an asinine answer, which became a news story in itself, of particular interest to people who believe in the existence of a devil. Robertson comes out looking like an ass (again) to people who already know what he is, while maintaining his power-base. Meanwhile no light’s been shed whatsoever on the history of Haiti and its unique degree of victimhood in this hemisphere.

In the long layover in the San Francisco airport the following Friday, I had little to do but watch T.J. Holmes and Nguyen on CNN handling the Haiti coverage. First they interviewed a fairly prominent Haitian-American man whose daughter had been missing but finally located in Haiti. The anchors offered congratulations on that. The father thanked everyone prolifically but said his daughter lacked food, water, clothing, and much had to be done, all of which is of course true. The father’s words were cut off when he appeared to want to thank a religious congregation by name too prolifically. Nguyen handled the situation deftly.

Then there was a segue from the living to the dead. Holmes interviewed the family of a 60 year old woman confirmed dead in Port-au-Prince. First Holmes posed the question frankly: with all these decomposing bodies piling up, and loved ones wanting to give them a proper burial, what can we do? And then he brought on the family to share photos and offer their personal story and implicit appeal for help in retrieving their mother’s remains within a day of so from the morgue and transporting them to the U.S.

The whole concept was bizarre. I wondered to myself, “Does T.J. realize what he’s talking about?”

I mean, here I am in the in San Francisco Airport, en route from Honolulu to Boston, my dad’s parents and grandparents buried in North Dakota, this very question current in my mind. Does Holmes, and do these good folks, have any idea what kind of money this requires, in the best of times? On top of that, absent any ground transport or infrastructure in Haiti, you’d have to hire a commando unit to go in, get the remains, and ship them back on a special flight…

T.J. shouldn’t have agreed to this cruel hope-stoking interview days before tens of thousands were bulldozed by necessity into mass graves. It was the worst sort of tabloid journalism. And again — no historical background, no reference to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his movement, the coup against him in 1991, his restoration to power 1994 by the Clinton administration, his removal from power by the Bush administration in 2004. No analysis of the suffering and its causes, just a maudlin indulgence in the feeling, with an eye to the competition and its shameless exploitation of emotions.

I’m not a specialist on the history of Haiti, but I do think it important to look at things in perspective. This the mainstream media seems unable to do. Attractive young people with nice hair and attractive smiles increasingly deliver the copy. They are poised and can engage in pleasant light banter, their little quirks endearing them to specific market demographics and enhancing their contract extension prospects. These valuable products don’t need to be all that well-informed or even inquisitive about the recent past. If the story is “devastating earthquake in Haiti” they instinctively enter a “Let’s see, who can we interview that will bring out the human dimension of this tragedy?” mode. It doesn’t occur to them to ask, “Why does Haiti have no infrastructure to address natural disasters, after repeated invasions that were supposed to be for the Haitian people’s own good?”

I don’t blame them of course. It’s the editors who roll their eyes at such queries as “ideological.” And of course there are certain things television anchors can’t do, like say “U.S. imperialism” as though it were something real. (This is because they are employed by U.S. imperialists who prefer to see themselves as mere defenders of liberal capitalism and who when supporting wars against Iraq and other countries based on lies insist that their own investments have nothing to do with their journalistic viewpoint.) But current reportage could outline Haiti’s history just a bit better, from a dispassionate apolitical point of view.

African slaves rose up against French colonialists from 1791 to 1803 and established the only black republic in the hemisphere (the Haitian gene pool is about 95% African). That republic was subjected to the equivalent of contemporary sanctions by the world’s leading nations. (U.S. leaders feared that to recognize Haiti would encourage slave revolts and only recognized it — that is, the Union recognized it — in 1862.) French capital dominated throughout the nineteenth century; in exchange for diplomatic recognition, Haiti had to pay France 150 million gold francs in compensation for “lost property” (that is, the citizens of the hemisphere’s second republic, who had once been slaves and had won their freedom through violent struggle, subsequently had to compensate their former masters for the cost of their freedom — up until 1947.) In the early twentieth century German families intermarried into the Haitian mulatto elite and in the period leading up to the First World War the putative German threat and political instability in Haiti produced excuses for an invasion and U.S. occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934. Since then the U.S. has ultimately called the shots.

I’d like to hear a CNN anchor mention in passing, “Of course you know the U.S. occupied Haiti for two decades in the 20th century.” Or hear him or her add casually, “Maybe 3000 rebels were killed in the uprising against forced labor imposed by Gendarmerie commandant Smedley Butler.” Wouldn’t this moment, with attention focused on Haiti, be the ideal moment to visit some of that history?

Maybe it’s a good time to introduce the term, to those who haven’t heard it, Tonton Macoutes, the name of the vicious paramilitary police who killed about 30,000 people under the regimes of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier (1957-86), who ruled with U.S. support. Or explain how a mass movement led by former Roman Catholic parish priest Aristide could win 67% of the vote in the internationally monitored 1990 elections, only to fall in a military coup against him the following year. (Following this a CIA contact formed the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti or FRAPH, an anti-Lavalas death-squad.) I’ve heard no discussion in the mainstream media of why Bill Clinton restored Aristide to power in 1994, despite reservations about his “left” politics (or perhaps because of some political deal) or why George W. Bush toppled him in 2004.

Aristide, reelected with an overwhelming majority in 2001 when his Lavalas movement won 80% of local and parliamentary seats, was confronted by a rebellion of U.S.-backed thugs in 2004 after (as he tells it) he refused to agree to the privatization of the state-owned telephone and electricity enterprises. On Feb. 29, he was forced by U.S. soldiers to board a plane into exile not knowing the destination (Central African Republic), finally settling in South Africa. In repeated phone calls to prominent U.S. citizens, including legislators, he declared he’d been the victim of a kidnapping. The Bush administration via Colin Powell (who told us about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction) assured us that, no, Aristide resigned voluntarily. (We were expected at the time to suppose Aristide confused rather than Powell outright duplicitous.)

Following the removal of Aristide the U.S., which had had a strained relationship with France due to French opposition to the attack on Iraq, persuaded Haiti’s former colonial master to join in a re-invasion of the country together to restore order. (The French have a naval presence in the Caribbean — Martinique and Guyene — and were happy to use the occasion to make up with the U.S. as of Feb. 2004. The U.S. paid them back by condoning their attack on the Ivory Coast, another former French colony, that November.) Now there’s a UN-validated “peacekeeping” force which, having disbanded the former military, which was accused of engaging in summary executions, is itself accused of engaging in summary executions. President Preval, a former Aristide ally, seems not so much unpopular as powerless.

In the generally vapid commentary on Haiti I’ve seen, the topic of the Revolution has come up, most prominently in connection with Robertson’s remark that the devil made them do it. That event, occurring incrementally from 1791 to 1803, culminated with a revolt against Napoleon Bonaparte’s effort re-introduce slavery into the colony. (Robertson with characteristic ignorance mentions “Napoleon the Third or whatever” confusing the nephew with the uncle.) It’s sad that that revolutionary upheaval isn’t being discussed more positively. It shows how the power of the ideas of the French Revolution of 1789, that mother of modern revolutions for which the American Revolution was a mere prelude, could resonate around the world.

In May 1791, the National Assembly in Paris voted to grant French citizenship to free men of color. White leaders in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) refused to accept the decision, occasioning not just indignation from the mostly mulatto freemen but a general slave revolt. (Vodou priests played some leading roles; this might explain the Christian vilification of the revolution as somehow demonic.) When the Spanish and British, in league with white planters, invaded the colony in 1793, the French were obliged to declare an end to slavery. Thereafter Toussaint L’Ouverture, a general and self-educated former slave, consolidated power as governor, his demands for autonomy resulting in arrest and imprisonment in France where he died in 1802.

Restoration of direct French rule meant moves towards the reintroduction of slavery. A rebellion headed by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had been an officer in the French army, met with victory over the French at the Battle of Vertières in 1803. The next year Dessalines proclaimed the Republic of Haiti (from the indigenous Arawak name). But taking his cue from Napoleon, he soon had himself crowned Emperor. A wide range of leaders bridged the period to Papa Doc.

Why does Haiti occupy a place of almost unique humiliation within the world-system? I can’t believe it’s cultural or religious in the main. Surely the exploitation of religiosity has kept people down — as it has everywhere in the Americas, from square one. But issues of ownership, labor and capital, position of the nation in the world system, are key to understanding.

Mainstream television news doesn’t ask any key questions because the answers, clear and honest, would just be too painful to those in power, to whom the news editors must defer because they buy the ads that make it possible for you to read the news. (They “bring you the news.” So since they bring it to you, why shouldn’t they interpret, sanitize and explain it for you all along the way?)

We have here two percent of the people of a neighboring island nation dead from a natural disaster. Our corporate media tease us with the suggestion that it might be due to the people’s voodoo-satanic tendencies. Or maybe it’s just tectonic plate interactions. (Hey it’s a big country, room for LOTS of opinions). Meanwhile they steer away from anything resembling real discussion of Haitian history.

Anderson Cooper rescues a boy, Sanjay Gupta a girl. Both join together to “help a young child in danger” in Haiti.” That’s great when the headline can combine promotion for these well-loved CNN figures and for the general project of Haiti earthquake relief. But it also looks a little contrived, frankly. Or is that just cynical me?

Can’t we do better than this? If people are moved to donate to earthquake relief, shouldn’t they know why things are so messed up in Haiti? Aren’t they owed some journalism?

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.