Haiti: The Broken Wing

It matters that the media have lavished so much attention on the aftermath of Haiti’s January 12 earthquake. The coverage has helped inspire people around the world to give of their time, energy and money in responding to the disaster. On the Democracy Now! website last week, filmmaker Michael Moore described how almost 12,000 members of the US National Nurses Union had signed up to leave for Haiti immediately. Moore explained:

… the executive director of the National Nurses Union. She contacted the [Obama] administration. She got put off. She had no response. Then they sent her to some low-level person that had no authority to do anything.

And then, finally, she’s contacting me. And she says, ‘Do you know any way to get a hold of President Obama?’ And I’m going, ‘Well, this is pretty pathetic if you’re having to call me. I mean, you are the largest nurses union… I don’t know what I can do for you. I mean, I’ll put my call in, too.’ But as we sit here today, not a whole heck of a lot has happened. And it’s distressing.

The courage and compassion of thousands of people willing to enter a chaotic disaster zone threatened with aftershocks are very real. Compassion arises out of a recognition that ‘their’ suffering is no different to ‘my’ suffering. The heart trembles and softens in response to this awareness. Such a subtle resonance and yet it has the power to relieve much of the world’s despair. It is the only counter force to the brutality and greed of human egotism willing to sacrifice everyone and everything for ‘me’.

But if compassion is to make a real difference, it must be allied to rational analysis. In the absence of this analysis, compassion is like a bird with a broken wing flapping in futile circles, never leaving the ground.

Joining compassion with reason means asking why over 80 per cent of Haiti’s population of 10 million people live in abject poverty. Why less than 45 per cent of all Haitians have access to potable water. Why the life expectancy rate in Haiti is only 53 years. Why seventy-six per cent of Haiti’s children under the age of five are underweight, or suffer from stunted growth, with 63 per cent of Haitians undernourished. Why 1 in every 10,000 Haitians has access to a doctor.

In September 2008, Dan Beeton of the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research told us:

Media coverage of floods and other natural disasters in Haiti consistently overlooks the human-made contribution to those disasters. In Haiti’s case, this is the endemic poverty, the lack of infrastructure, lack of adequate health care, and lack of social spending that has resulted in so many people living in shacks and make-shift housing, and most of the population in poverty. But Haiti’s poverty is a legacy of impoverishment, a result of centuries of economic looting of the country by France, the U.S., and of odious debt owed to creditors like the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank. Haiti has never been allowed to pursue an economic development strategy of its own choosing, and recent decades of IMF-mandated policies have left the country more impoverished than ever. ((Email to Media Lens, September 9, 2008.))

John Pilger has witnessed the reality on the ground that explains Western interest in the country:

When I was last in Haiti, I watched very young girls stooped in front of whirring, hissing, binding machines at the Port-au-Prince Superior Baseball Plant. Many had swollen eyes and lacerated arms. I produced a camera and was thrown out. Haiti is where America makes the equipment for its hallowed national game, for next to nothing. Haiti is where Walt Disney contractors make Mickey Mouse pyjamas, for next to nothing. The US controls Haiti’s sugar, bauxite and sisal. Rice-growing was replaced by imported American rice, driving people into the cities and towns and jerry-built housing. Years after year, Haiti was invaded by US marines, infamous for atrocities that have been their specialty from the Philippines to Afghanistan. ((Pilger, ‘The kidnapping of Haiti.’))

Peter Hallward examined recent US policy in Haiti in the Guardian:

Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’ has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies. ((Hallward, ‘Our role in Haiti’s plight,’ The Guardian, January 13, 2010.))

The US Double Game

Aristide took office in February 1991 and was briefly the first democratically elected President in Haiti’s history before being overthrown by a US-backed military coup on September 30, 1991. The Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs observed after the coup:

Under Aristide, for the first time in the republic’s tortured history, Haiti seemed to be on the verge of tearing free from the fabric of despotism and tyranny which had smothered all previous attempts at democratic expression and self-determination.” His victory “represented more than a decade of civic engagement and education on his part,” in “a textbook example of participatory, ‘bottom-up’ and democratic political development.” ((Quoted, Chomsky, Year 501 — The Conquest Continues, Verso, 1993, p.209.))

Aristide’s balancing of the budget and “trimming of a bloated bureaucracy” led to a “stunning success” that made White House planners “extremely uncomfortable”. The view of a US official “with extensive experience of Haiti” summed up the reality beneath US rhetoric. Aristide, slum priest, grass-roots activist, exponent of Liberation Theology, “represents everything that CIA, DOD and FBI think they have been trying to protect this country against for the past 50 years.” ((Quoted, Paul Quinn-Judge, ‘US reported to intercept Aristide calls,’ Boston Globe, September 8, 1994.))

Following the fall of Aristide, also with US support, at least 1,000 people were killed in the first two weeks of the coup and hundreds more by December. The paramilitary forces were led by former CIA employees Emmanuel Constant and Raoul Cedras. Aristide was forced into exile from 1991-94. Noam Chomsky summarised the situation:

Well, as this was going on, the Haitian generals in effect were being told [by Washington]: ‘Look, murder the leaders of the popular organisations, intimidate the whole population, destroy anyone who looks like they might get in the way after you’re gone.’… And that’s exactly what Cedras and those guys did, that’s precisely what happened — and of course they were given total amnesty when they finally did agree to step down. ((Chomsky, Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, p.157.))

In 1994, the US returned Aristide in the company of 20,000 troops. This was presented as a noble defence of democracy, but in fact the US was playing a double game. As Chomsky noted, Aristide was allowed to return only after the coup leaders had slaughtered much of the popular movement that had brought him to power. His return was also conditional on acceptance of both the US military occupation and Washington’s harsh neoliberal agenda. The plans for the economy were set out in a document submitted to the Paris Club of international donors at the World Bank in August 1994. The Haiti desk officer of the World Bank, Axel Peuker, described the plan as beneficial to the “more open, enlightened, business class” and foreign investors. ((Quoted Noam Chomsky, ‘Democracy Restored,’ Z Magazine, November 1994.))

In 2004, the US engineered a further coup by cutting off almost all international aid over the previous four years, making the government’s collapse inevitable. Aristide was forced to leave Haiti by US military forces. US Congresswoman, Barbara Lee, challenged the US government:

“It appears that the US is aiding and abetting the attempt to violently topple the Aristide government. With all due respect, this looks like ‘regime change’.” ((Quoted Anthony Fenton, ‘Media vs. reality in Haiti,’ February 13, 2004.))

In our search of the Lexis Nexis media database (February 3) we checked for articles containing the word ‘Haiti’ over the last month. This gave 2,256 results (some online press articles are not captured by Lexis Nexis). Our search for articles containing ‘Aristide’ gave 47 results. The words ‘Haiti’ and ‘Voodoo’ gave 53 results. The words ‘Haiti’ and ‘looting’ gave 136 results.

These numbers give an idea of how the broken wing of media analysis keeps public compassion grounded in an endless circling that is powerless to end the suffering of the people of Haiti.

Media Performance

The 47 mentions of Aristide in 2,256 articles discussing Haiti contained around nine articles that discussed US responsibility for his overthrow. We found several more online articles — notably two excellent pieces by Mark Weisbrot and one by Hugh O’Shaugnessey in the Guardian — that were not picked up by Lexis Nexis.

Hallward made a brief reference in his Guardian article, cited above. Seumas Milne wrote in the Guardian that Aristide’s challenge to Haiti’s oligarchy and its international sponsors “led to two foreign-backed coups and US invasions, a suspension of aid and loans, and eventual exile in 2004.”

Isabel Hilton wrote in the Independent:

“President Clinton negotiated his [Aristide’s] return in 1994, reportedly on condition that he accept a US blueprint for Haiti’s economic development. When Aristide won a second election in 2001, he was again deposed, in 2004, this time forcibly flown by George W Bush’s administration to exile in Africa, where he remains.”

Mark Steel, Patrick Cockburn and Andrew Buncombe made similar comments in the Independent. To his credit, Buncombe published two pieces mentioning the US role in Aristide’s overthrow. This handful of brief references to the US role in destroying Aristide, restricted to two national newspapers — the Guardian and the Independent — represents most of the honest commentary on this issue available to the public. Meanwhile, a flood of mainstream broadcast and print coverage has depicted the US as the high-tech saviour of Haiti.

Even more shocking, not one of the above national media journalists made any mention of the role of the +media+ in suppressing the truth of the US role in Haiti. Journalists apparently do not find this silence problematic.

If it is important for journalists to hold governments to account, then why not their own industry? Public awareness and outrage +do+ have the power to obstruct government criminality. But the public cannot know enough to be outraged, to resist, if the media does not tell them what is happening and why.

Nevertheless, it seems clear to us that there has been a marked improvement in current media performance on Haiti compared to the output we analysed in 2004. Then, the US role was almost completely buried out of sight.

It could be that Aristide’s fate simply matters less now. Alternatively, it could be, as we believe, that this is evidence that the mainstream is beginning to improve its performance in response to pressure from alternative, web-based media. With all mainstream trend lines pointing down, notably advertising revenues, and with readers turning in droves to non-corporate websites, it could be that the mainstream liberal media are being forced to compete by publishing more honest, radical material. If so, this is an extremely hopeful sign for everyone who cares about working for a more peaceful, rational world.

Of Devils And Dignity Lost

The rest of recent media performance is consistent with earlier coverage. In 2004, as democracy was being crushed, The Times observed:

“Mr Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, won Haiti’s first free elections in 1990, promising to end the country’s relentless cycle of corruption, poverty and demagoguery. Ousted in a coup the following year, he was restored to power with the help of 20,000 US troops in 1994.” (( ‘Barricades go up as city braces for attack’, Tim Reid, The Times, February 26, 2004.))

There was no mention of the history of US support for mass murderers attacking a democratic government and killing its supporters.

The Guardian also believed the US had “restored” Aristide:

To a degree, history repeated itself when the US intervened again in 1994 to restore Mr Aristide. Bill Clinton halted the influx of Haitian boat people that had become politically awkward in Florida. Then he moved on. Although the US has pumped in about $900m in the past decade, consistency and vision have been lacking. (( ‘From bad to worse’, Leader, The Guardian, February 14, 2004.))

The BBC, Channel 4 News and other media followed the same themes ((See our media alerts ‘Bringing Hell To Haiti’ and Part 2.))

Following the January 12 earthquake, Charles Bremner wrote in the Times: “Bankrupt, barren, misruled and ravaged by nature and human violence, the country on the western end of Hispaniola island serves as a text-book example of a dysfunctional nation.

“While the rest of the Americas have been pulling out of poverty in recent decades, Haiti has sunk deeper into destitution, dependent on foreign charity and a United Nations force to keep its eight million people from starving and fighting.”

And the explanation for this? Bremner quoted Joel Dreyfuss, a Haitian journalist, who observed sagely: “Some countries just have no luck. Haiti is one of those places where disaster follows on disaster.”

The photo caption to Vanessa Buschschluter‘s piece on the BBC website read: “The Clinton Administration intervened to restore President Aristide to power.” She added: “US troops left after two years — too soon, some experts argue, to ensure the stability of Haiti’s democratic institutions.”

In the Observer, Regine Chassagne could only lament “the west’s centuries of disregard.” ((Chassagne, ‘Think of Haiti and imagine all that you love has gone,’ The Observer, January 17, 2010.))

Tragicomically, the media has preferred to focus on the colonial past 200 years ago rather than on the destruction of democracy in the last decade. Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times: “But for many Haitians, the fault lies earlier — with Haiti’s colonial experience, the slavers and extortionists of empire who crippled it with debt and permanently stunted the economy. The fault line runs back 200 years, directly to France.”

As for the role of the US: “When the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, pledged a US presence in Haiti for today, tomorrow and the time ahead, she was addressing a central concern of a relationship that has swung wildly from intervention to neglect.”

In the Guardian, Jon Henley wrote a piece entitled, ‘Haiti: a long descent to hell.’

We wrote to Henley on January 26:

Hi Jon

In your January 14 Guardian article, ‘Haiti: a long descent to hell,’ you discussed Haiti’s history without once mentioning the role of the United States. Also in the Guardian, Peter Hallward wrote on January 13:

“Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’ has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/13/our-role-in-haitis-plight)

In 2004, Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University, wrote in The Nation:

“Haiti, again, is ablaze. Almost nobody, however, understands that today’s chaos was made in Washington – deliberately, cynically, and steadfastly. History will bear this out.” (Sachs, ‘Fanning the flames of political chaos in Haiti’, The Nation, February 28, 2004)

Why did you make no mention of these issues?

Best wishes

David Edwards

Henley replied on January 27:

hi david
obviously i “did not once mention the role of the united states” (which is untrue, in fact: i did mention the occupation) because i am a fervent believer in the longterm benefits of US cultural and commercial imperialism.
no seriously: the article was about haiti’s colonial and post-colonial inheritance, the impossible reparations it was still paying until 1947, and the impact of its own corrupt and despotic rulers. i had five hours to write the piece and i ran out of time nd space to discuss the aristide era, about which many readers know something already and which in any event only compounded the country’s pre-existing problems.
i’m sorry this meant the article did not meet your high quality criteria. many other people have expressed their appreciation for throwing some light on an earlier period in haiti’s troubled history about which they knew nothing.
best wishes
ps i assume you have chapter and verse to substantiate rofessor achs’s comment. unfortunately, at time of writing, didn’t.

If the media has had little time or space to consider the recent demolition of Haitian democracy, there has been room aplenty for speculation on the mysterious causes of Haitian suffering: “Why does God allow natural disasters?”, asked philosopher David Bain on the BBC website.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu wisely declared that he had “nothing to say to make sense of this horror”, while Canon Giles Fraser preferred to respond “not with clever argument but with prayer.” American Christian televangelist Pat Robertson said of Haitians: “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil… ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

For others the problem with Haiti appears to be the innate lawlessness of Haitians – “looting” has been a constant, shameful theme in media reporting of survivors’ efforts simply to stay alive. The BBC’s well-fed Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, opined from the stricken country that “looting is the only industry” and “the dignity of Haiti’s past is long forgotten”.

Other commentators have been awestruck by the fortitude and dignity of a people tragically accustomed to struggling against impossible odds.

Talk of colonial betrayals, deals with the devil, and a loss of dignity are fine. They are embarrassing, certainly, but not to the vested interests with the power to reward and punish. Expressions of sympathy in response to heartbreaking pictures on the evening news are also fine — they are important and admirable but ultimately unthreatening to the political and economic forces crushing the Haitian people.

More even than water, medicine, food and petrol, the people of Haiti need truth. They need donations of honesty from journalist whistleblowers willing to defy the self-imposed super-injunction on the complicity of their industry. They need journalists willing to break the silence, to defy the lie that only governments are to blame for the misery in our world.

Donate to Haiti.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on February 3rd, 2010 at 6:16pm #

    In praise – let us not forget those who could be behind this disaster.


  2. lichen said on February 3rd, 2010 at 9:54pm #

    “But if compassion is to make a real difference, it must be allied to rational analysis. In the absence of this analysis, compassion is like a bird with a broken wing flapping in futile circles, never leaving the ground.”

    This is a very powerful insight, and I think one which was sorely needed many times. The supposed “compassion” and “coming together” of americans after 9/11, for instance, was bereft of reasoned analysis and so quickly turned into the multi-billion dollar war on terror industry that killed millions of people; I will never forget that while many of us were out on the streets protesting the war on Iraq, many were screaming for it to start.

    Likewise it is true now that a lot of people feel for them and have given some money to this or that foreign charity, they don’t realize that perhaps the situation is different from how the media describes and the corporate/US imperial crimes really need to be righted in order for Haiti to get back on track. And the way to do that is NOT to flood the country with US soldiers and machine guns waiting to be used.