Haiti’s centuries-long battle against imperialism

Photo: Haitians set up impromtu tent cities thorough the capital after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, January 12, 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi United Nations Development Programme

The earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12 has left the Haitian people struggling valiantly, despite terribly suffering, as the casualties mount.  Although numbers aren’t fully known yet, countless thousands are dead; thousands more are still trapped alive under rubble.

The capital, Port-au-Prince, is leveled. At least 3 million people have been affected. Time is of the essence, and massive aid is urgently needed as rescue teams come in from abroad. The anger of the Haitian people is growing as bodies pile up, loved ones are lost and aid is slowed by the lack of an organized and systematic relief effort.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation extends its deepest solidarity and sympathy with the Haitian people. We are busy organizing fundraising events, along with many other organizations, to help in the people’s aid efforts. Clearly, much more is needed by as many people and countries as possible.

A common thread running through the media commentaries on the Haitian devastation is how poor the island nation is. It is indeed the poorest in the western hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living in poverty. Average life expectancy is only 53.

The Western media and governments consistently describe Haiti’s situation as if it were the fate of the Haitian people to be so poor, obscuring the history and ongoing reasons for its under-development. But until the root causes of Haiti’s suffering are eliminated, the people will continue to die unnecessarily from hunger, poverty and lack of protection from natural disasters.

Today, immediate measures can and must be undertaken to help set Haiti on the road to real recovery. Among these urgent issues are the cancellation of Haiti’s foreign debt to the banks, the end of foreign occupation, reversal of the onerous “free-trade” policies and no more deportations of Haitians back to the island.

A history ignored

Although Haiti is portrayed as a helpless and poor country, the Haitian people have a rich legacy of struggle against imperialism, as exemplified by Jean Jacques Dessalines, an ex-slave who led the victorious struggle against the French.

The real roots of Haiti’s poverty are Spanish and French colonialism, U.S. imperialism and their super-exploitation of the Haitian people, and theft of resources. These forces have left Haiti with an enormous debt to imperialist banks.

Haiti won its independence in the first successful slave revolution, when the enslaved Black masses overthrew the French—and fought off the British and Spanish colonizers —culminating in victory in 1804. The country was saddled almost immediately with threats and debt, an extortion demanded by France for losing “its” slave colony, or face embargo. France imposed a debt of 150 million francs on the new republic, equivalent to $21 billion today.

In the 20th century, the U.S.-backed Duvalier regimes sacked the country while maintaining power with extremely brutal repression. Dictator Francois Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) ruled from 1957 to 1971. Besides enriching himself, his policies served the interests of the U.S. government and corporations. His power was assured by the feared Ton Ton Macoutes rural militia. The military armaments were “Made in the U.S.A.” An estimated 30,000 people were killed during his reign. Upon his death, his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude succeeded him.

Imperialist banks lent the Duvaliers hundreds of millions of dollars, while the Haitian people became saddled with the resulting debt. When “Baby Doc” finally fled due to a mass uprising in 1986, it is estimated that the Duvalier family had transferred up to $500 million abroad.

Every time the Haitian people have taken destiny into their own hands and reclaimed justice on a mass scale, U.S. imperialism has intervened to prevent or reverse it.

U.S. troops invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

Following the Duvalier dictatorship, in the first elections that the people freely decided, Jean Bertrand Aristide was elected. He was the leader of a popular movement called Lavalas and had a program of progressive reforms.

The U.S. government worked hard to destabilize the Aristide government, kidnapping him in not one but two coups in 1991 and 2004. Because of imperialist efforts to strangle the government, rampant inflation and poverty skyrocketed. Beginning in 1994, thousands of people fled in rafts and boats for survival to the United States. Many perished in the seas. During Aristide’s second aborted term, the first Bush administration pressured the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to cut off all economic payments of aid to Haiti, to asphyxiate the new government.

Year after year Haiti has been ground down by the impossible demands of the Western banks for continued debt payments of an estimated $50 to $60 million in interest payments per year.

Despite demands by many humanitarian and human rights organizations that Haiti’s debt be cancelled by the banks, Haiti is forced to keep paying, with resources that it cannot spare. Funds for health care services, education, jobs and housing are almost nonexistent.

In 2008, when three major hurricanes swept through Haiti, causing over 800 deaths due to poor infrastructure and lack of warning, the IMF and World Bank refused to cancel Haiti’s $1.7 billion-dollar debt. That meant that for that year alone, Haiti had to come up with $55 million in “service” payments.

Compounding Haiti’s economic woes are the “free-trade” conditions imposed on Haiti. Although much of Haiti’s population is suffering from malnutrition, it would astound one to know that as late as the 1980s, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production.

Rice is the most important staple in the Haitian diet and its domestic production provided income and employment for a large number of small farmers. But in recent years, tragic images have emerged of people eating mud cakes, because of lack of food.

What happened? U.S. imports have overtaken Haitian agriculture.

Acting on behalf of U.S. agribusiness, in the 1990s, the U.S. government forced the elimination of Haitian import tariffs which were a protective barrier to Haitian agriculture.

U.S. agribusiness, like its industry counterpart, is always seeking expansion of markets abroad to sell the glut of food produced for profit in the United States. And oppressed countries like Haiti or Mexico have historically charged tariffs for imported goods that otherwise would overwhelm the native economy.

But after Aristide’s overthrow in 1994, the Clinton administration successfully forced Haiti to reduce its tariff on imported rice from 35% to 3%. Within a short space of time, U.S. rice overcame Haitian rice. In 1985, U.S. rice imports to Haiti were only 7,300 metric tons. By 2000, it was 219,590 tons. Inversely, Haitian local production dropped from 163,296 tons in 1985 to 130,000 in 2000. Today, according to Rupa Chinai of InfoChange India, 82 percent of Haiti’s rice is imported.

The result: A blow to Haitian food self-sufficiency and rampant hunger and malnutrition. From 1990 to 2007, real wages dropped by an astounding 73%.

Moreover, Haiti has been under UN occupation since 2004. There are 9,000 UN troops who have helped keep the Haitian people down.

There is no doubt that the earthquake that hit Haiti carried enormous destructive power in and of itself. But the great magnitude of the humanitarian disaster can be blamed not on the earthquake alone but on the destruction of Haiti’s infrastructure, economy and government carried out by imperialism.

Worldwide response

The scenes of the devastation have evoked a response from around the world, with rescue and recovery teams, emergency assistance. Millions of people need food and water. They are in desperate need of medical treatment and shelter.

On the ground there, the people mobilized instantly to rescue people, digging victims out with their bare hands, in a race for time. In Miami, Houston, New York City and other cities with large populations of Haitians, there are major community relief efforts underway.

Neighboring countries have moved quickly to contribute aid.

When the earthquake hit, Cuba already had hundreds of medical doctors operating in Haiti, providing permanent health care for free for several years now. Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez announced in the wake of the earthquake that the 413 Cuban doctors currently there had already set up make-shift hospitals amidst the rubble, and in the first complete day they treated 800 patients. This is in addition to roughly 400 Haitian doctors who received their training in Cuba. More Cuban aid is coming. Venezuela has already sent doctors, firefighters and rescue workers and has pledged more aid.

The United States and European governments—with far more resources than developing countries that have already sent aid—are promising hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Between the historical exploitation of the European imperialists and the current domination of U.S. imperialism, these nations owe reparations to Haiti that numbers in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The United States government has made a big show of responding to the crisis.  The platitudes issued about aid are meant to cover Washington’s principal role in perpetrating Haiti’s plight.  The U.S. ruling class bears a great responsibility for the lack of infrastructure in Haiti that has slowed the rescue process and enabled this crisis to grow to such proportions.  While speaking words of sympathy and support, the U.S. capitalist politicians are cynically scheming their own continued domination of the Haitian people.

The United States—instead of sending hundreds or thousands of medical personnel and relief workers—has sent 3,500 soldiers and 2,200 marines. While these forces will ostensibly help with some of the heavy lifting of the rescue effort, they are really there to enforce the protection of U.S. interests in Haiti and the region.

As of this writing, the United States has announced that 10,000 troops will be in Haiti by Monday. The U.S. military currently controls the main airport—which is the entry point for aid. This can only be seen as a threat to Haitian sovereignty.

Forces within the U.S. ruling class are openly discussing how to use this crisis to their benefit. The Heritage Foundation, a major right-wing think tank for the ruling class, published a statement on Jan. 13 outlining the ways in which the U.S. government could expand its economic and military presence in the region. In addition to detailing the expansion of intervention within Haiti, the statement suggests using the Haitian crisis to “jockey” for power with Cuba and Venezuela.

In an absurd show of cynicism, the IMF—which holds a large portion of Haiti’s debt—has pledged $100 million in aid but said nothing of cancelling the debt.

Not just immediate aid but reparations, debt cancellation too

The progressive movement in the United States has mobilized to support the Haitian people, raising funds to aid in the relief effort.

There are two urgent demands that are being raised by progressive activists and Haitian-American community organizations: cancel the debt and stop all deportations of Haitians who are in the United States while granting them legal status.

Juan José Gutiérrez of Latino Movement USA said, “It is outrageous that there have been detentions and deportations of Haitians before this tragedy, but it is imperative that Haitian refugees be granted immediately the status of Temporary Protected Status. TPS has been granted by the U.S. government to people from designated countries in cases of natural disaster, war crises, and for political refugees. The president has the executive power to act.”

Although President Obama temporarily ordered an end to deportations the day after the earthquake hit, he will not comment on the TPS issue. At press time, the Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano announced that TPS would be granted to Haitians who are already in the U.S. as of Jan. 12, 2010. This is a cynical and only a half-measure since it clearly means that Haitians fleeing because of the catastrophe will be deported.

Among those who have been granted TPS status are many Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. They are allowed to live and work for a certain period of time, which is often extended.

The Haitian people have endured enough disasters—natural, economic and political, to qualify for refugee status in the United States, time and again. Thousands have had to flee political repression or the effects of major hurricanes, floods and famine.

The catastrophic destruction wreaked by the earthquake and the horrific toll on the Haitian people have been exacerbated by the already-desperate conditions imposed by the imperialists. If Haiti is to survive this disaster, a massive, systematic and humanitarian response is necessary—one that establishes the conditions for real recovery and reconstruction to meet the needs of the Haitian people, not the interests of imperialism.


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