Published On: Thu, Jan 24th, 2013

Haiti – Open for Exploitation?

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By Sokari Ekine from Pambazuka News (Edited by Dean Walsh)

Disclaimer: Articles by guest authors may not be unbiased

The three year anniversary of the 12 January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was marked yet again by a flood gate of new reports, opinions, fact and figures. We have seen another repetition of the past two years commentary on the lack of progress in reconstruction, the use and abuse of Haitian people by NGOs, the failure to provide housing and other basic amenities for hundreds of thousands who remain in the camps, and the exploitation of workers in the new now ‘open for business Haiti’ as hailed by the overseer President Martelly. To try to understand the logic of the present western [imperial] relationship with Haiti it is necessary to look back to 1804, and the founding of the Republic. Readers might well say, yes but that was 208 years go; but a close examination will show a surprising consistency in the subjugation and exploitation of Haitian people underpinned by a blatant and paternalistic racism and overall fear of the power of the black masses.

SETTING THE HISTORICAL RECORD STRAIGHT

We should begin in 1825 with France’s demand of an indemnity of 150 gold francs as payment for loss of their plantation economy including slaves, in exchange for diplomatic recognition and thereby the ability to trade. The repayment of the debt which ended in 1947 cost Haiti as much as 80 per cent of its national revenue. But debts continued to pile up. Borrowing to pay back the French debt, resulted in new debts incurred during the US occupation from 1915 to 1934, a period which consolidated the US imperial domination over the country. A new constitution abolished a law prohibiting foreign land ownership and thereby allowed US companies to purchase huge tracts of land, displacing an estimated 50,000 peasants. [1] In addition, a $40 million loan was provided along with the takeover of the national bank and treasury. The cycle of new debt for old has continued through to the post earthquake period. In 1934 the US ended it’s occupation but not before creating two militarized forces , the National Guard and ‘gendarmerie’, which would be used to keep the population under tight control by successive dictatorships up until the brief presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. [2] Further loans of $250 million were provided to the Duvalier regime, and $158 million to the US backed government of Henry Namphy by the World Bank. The Inter American Development [IDB] bank also lent $110 million to the Haitian government prior to Aristide’s presidency, yet only agreed to lend his government a mere $12 million. [3] This clear distinction between democratically elected leaders and US backed unelected leaders continued in 2003 when the IDB agreed a loan of $200 million, the majority of which was only disbursed after the kidnapping of President Aristide on 29 February 2004. Aristide put it like this:

‘The reason is very clear: when it’s people who are serious (who are in power), who will spend money for the country? These foreign banks hold on to the money. When it’s thieves who will misuse the money, with their acolytes, no problem’. [4]

US INTERVENTION IN THE CARIBBEAN

Haiti was not the only Caribbean island subjected to US intervention and imperial power. Nearby Cuba was briefly under direct US control, who only agreed to Cuban independence on condition that the US retained rights to operate a military base at Guantanamo Bay. In fact, from the end of the 1898 Spanish American war, US policies towards Cuba and Haiti have been intertwined with a mix of human subjugation, material exploitation, and vagrant disregard for international law. [5] Much of this has been couched in the language of humanitarian intervention, similar to the language used in the post earthquake period. And who can forget the audacious US invasion of Grenada in October 1983, which was preceded by various attempts at economic strangulation. Again the justification was a ‘rescue’ mission as well as a pre-emptive strike against Americans being taken hostage even though there was no evidence to suggest this might happen. [6] The three Caribbean nations who have either attempted to, or successfully established, autonomous governments for and by the people have been victims of US terror.

A. Naomi Paik, also makes the point that the ‘simultaneous renewal of the Guantanamo lease and the end of the Haitian occupation [in 1934] are not isolated events’. On the one hand the US required a permanent naval base in the eastern Caribbean and on the other an assembly line of cheap resistance free labour, and for this a pact was made with Jean Claude Duvalier and subsequently his son ‘Baby Doc.’ The result of the violent regime of Duvalier was thousands of refugees fleeing to the US. Again Paik explains the logic behind the US hostility towards Haitian refugees, which was a double edged sword. Thousands of black bodies on the shores of the US, and the fact of its own ‘friendly’ self-interested relationship with a brutal dictatorship, form the double edge. The US attempted to shy away from this fact by claiming the refugees were ‘economic’ rather than political – in reality this is an inseparable distinction.

FEAR OF HAITIAN REFUGEES ON AMERICAN SHORES

‘This distinction, no matter how specious, never less legally justified US non-recognition of Haitian refugees, a non-recognition that essentially made the Haitian refugee into a political impossibility. The United States could not sustain its relationship with the regimes that fostered political and economic violence and simultaneously acknowledge the fact that thousands of Haitians feared for their lives in their own country. Its action in dealing with Haitians in Haiti and in its own territory, and in the waters between the two countries was rooted in logic of self-interested violence that disregarded Haitian lives.’ [7]

The specific policy towards Haitian refugees was known as the Haitian Program which entailed ‘multiple state agencies collaborating’ to deport Haitians already in Florida and discourage others from leaving Haiti. In her essay, Paik cites a number of legal petitions by the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami which expose the blatant disregard for international and humanitarian laws and the biased decisions by US courts. Haitians refugees were singularly excluded and described as a threat to ‘community’s [US] well-being. Eventually, during the Reagan presidency, the Haiti Program was extended to include “interdiction” of refugees by the US coastal guard in international waters, which is illegal, and later detention without due process at Fort Allen in Puerto Rico. The justification for the illegal interception of Haitian boats in international waters was configured as a humanitarian intervention that would save Haitian lives.

‘Interdiction exemplifies how human rights advanced US nationalist and imperialist interests. A Janus faced policy, it utterly denied Haitians the possibility of finding refuge from violence while simultaneously casting its mission as humanitarian investment in saving Haitians from the dangers of open waters.’ [8]

Though the US made plain its 1915 invasion was to protect its financial interests, such as the Haitian American sugar company HASCO, subsequent interference, occupation and policies towards Haitian refugees have been under the guise of ‘humanitarian’ intervention. [9] Saving Haitians from the open seas, from disease [HIV/AIDS], and from themselves, all have hidden the truths lurking behind them -  on one hand the fear of thousands of Haitians ‘invading’ US shores and on the other, the opportunity for a cheap labour force just a few hundred miles away. It was only during the democratically elected presidency of Bertrand Aristide that the number of Haitian refugees significantly decreased only to begin again after the September 1991 coup which forced him into exile in the US. It was at this time that thousands fleeing Haiti were sent to Guantanamo Bay and again Haitian boats were intercepted in international waters and forced to return. Those who refused were hosed down and forced off the boats. [10]

Working in parallel with the Haitian Program, the US was also busy supporting the military junta of coup maker General Cédras and inventing and facilitating ways to suppress Lavalas, the party of Aristide, and prevent his return. The suppression was brutal from the start.

‘…to steady their nerves, ordinary soldiers received up to $5000 a piece. As crowds gathered in defense of the government [of Aristide] the army opened fire, and kept firing…..the soldiers shot everything in sight. They ran out of ammunition so fast that it seems the US had to re-supply them with night-time helicopter flights from Guantanamo. At least 300 people were killed in the first night of the coup, probably many more.’ [11]

Again the strategic importance of Guantanamo is displayed both as a detention center and a launching pad to terrorize Haiti and no doubt any other Caribbean nation that would dare to create an autonomous government.

US RACIST DISCOURSE TOWARDS HAITIANS

But it was with the detention of HIV and suspected HIV sufferers that the ‘Haitian Program’ really came into being. Paik points out the detentions of HIV-positive Haitians, by the US at Guantanamo, are not just part of the historical ‘[neo] imperialism in Haiti’ but also a continuation of a racist discourse which sees migrant and in particular migrant black bodies as ‘carriers of contagion.’ [12] The marking of Haitians as carriers of AIDS goes back to the early 1980s when the Center for Disease Control [CDC], identified 4 high risk groups, known as the pejoratively named ‘4-H club’ – ‘homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians’ – the first time a disease was tied to a nationality but not the first time black bodies have been tied to racist notions of deviance and contagion and of being a threat to whiteness. [13]

Again the justification for imprisonment of HIV-Positive Haitians was humanitarian – to provide them with ‘shelter, food and medical care.’ In reality they were being detained in dehumanizing conditions such as given maggot ridden food, forced to take blood tests and birth control injections. In fact one US official, on hearing complaints about the appalling conditions, responded that they were going to die anyway.

PLUNDER BY US COMPANIES OF HAITIAN LABOUR

The immediate reaction of the US following the 2010 earthquake and the subsequent ‘restoration policies’ need to be seen in the above historical context of exploitation, subjugation and US domestic immigration policy. There was a decision to prioritize security over real humanitarian need, such as: the deployment of troops throughout Port-au-Prince in the immediate days after the earthquake, the consolidation of NGO rule [they provide 80 per cent of basic public services] [14]; the consolidation of the Free Trade Zone, and the January 2011 creation of a mega assembly line in Caracol [PIRN]; This deal signed by the ‘Haitian government’, the US Secretary of State [on behalf of US tax payers], and Korean textile manufacturer Sae-A Trading converted 300 locally owned plots of land into an industrial park. A report by Haiti Grassroots Watch provides some of the reasons behind PIRN.

‘Ultimately, in the case of the PIRN at least, US taxpayers are making it easier and cheaper for foreign and local clothing and textile companies firms to set up (sweat)shops in Haiti, lay off better paid workers in the US and other countries, and increase their profits. If Levis and the GAP can get their clothes stitched in a place that pays US$5.00 a day rather than US$9.00 an hour (approximately the lowest wage paid in US-based clothing factories), with new infrastructure, electricity, UN peacekeepers to provide security, and tax-free revenues and other benefits, why not?’

So what’s in it for the main investor , Sae-A Trading? Massive profits from the HELP Act which allows textiles to enter the US from Haite tax free, and a US-Korea Free Trade Agreement giving new meaning to the manufacturing methods of JIT [just in time]. But the location of the industrial zone at Caracol has serious environmental impacts as explained in this report by Alter Presse. Apart from the loss of farming livelihood to some 1000 farmers, turning them into cheap production labour, archaeological sites will be destroyed. Water will be ‘appropriated polluted and made more expensive’ by destroying the farmland, and the workers will be forced to ‘buy subsidized US food.’

Most recently, there is the signing of mining leases. In Haiti’s Gold Rush [Guernica Magazine] Jacob Kushner writes that ‘mineral explorers have long suspected Haiti could be sitting on a large gold deposits’. But speaking to a number of Haitians they say the local people in the northern mountains and elsewhere have always known there was gold in the ground, and both US and Canadian mining exploration companies have been testing the region on and off since the 1970s. Permits have been given to two Canadian companies, Majescor to explore 450 sq kilometers, and Eurasian 1,770 sq kilometers. Whilst US companies, VCS Mining have rights over 700 sq kilometers with Newmont Ventures having the largest share. As of December last year mining permits were given to Majescor and VCS Mining. The deal for the mining corporations is a gift from Haiti to multinational capital.

ENVIRONMENTAL DECAY FOLLOWS CAPITALIST EXPLOITATION

Since 2009, Haiti’s government ministers have been considering a new convention. This would allow Eurasian, Newmont’s business partner, to explore an additional 1300 square kilometers of land in Haiti’s north. But according to Dieuseul Anglade (Haiti’s mining chief of two decades) unlike previous agreements, this one doesn’t include a limit—standard among mining contracts worldwide—on how much of a mine’s revenue the company can write off as costs. Without any cap, a mining company can claim that a mine has an unusually low profit margin, allowing it to pay fewer taxes to the Haitian state; Anglade opposed these terms, and was fired in May.

Kushner also points out the poor environmental record of Newmont. For example, in 2010 a cyanide spill in Ghana killed fish and destroyed drinking water. There are also questions surrounding the number of possible employees and the conditions under which they would work. Going by the environmental and social devastation of other resource rich regions such as in the Niger Delta, DRC and Ecuador, and the weakness of the Haitian government, rule by NGOs and an overall carpet bagger mentality, its hard to imagine mining bodes well for local people. An investigation by Haiti Grassroots Watch found that behind the mining contracts were ‘backroom deals, players with widely diverging objectives, legally questionable “memorandums, “and a playing field that is far from level.’

The hills in the Cap Haitian region are the hills of the revolution. They are also the hills where the indigenous people of Haiti, the Taino, were slaughtered by Christopher Columbus. These are now the hills owned by foreign multinational mining corporations. President Martelly’s song that ‘Haiti is open for business’ should include the line – ‘going for a song.’ Humanitarian aid in Haiti has always been aid in the interest of the donor country, whether it be to keep out Haitians from US soil or to exploit their labour on Haitian soil and make even more money for companies in donor countries. It has never been about the Haitian people.

I have very briefly attempted to outline a few complex historical events in the hope that those interested will seek out further reading such as the following sources used in compiling this piece:

1. Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, The Earthquake and the UN by Justin Podhur
2. Haiti – Haitii? Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization by Jean-Bertrand Aristide
3. Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti by Jeb Sprague
4. Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward

ENDNOTES:

1. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo: Legacies of US Imprisonment of Haitian Refugees, 1991-1994 published in Radical History Review Issue 15 /Winter 2013]
2. Justin Podur [2012] Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, the Earthquake and the UN Occupation, Pluto Press, 2012
3. Jean-Bertrand Aristide [2011]Haiti-Haitii! Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization”, Paradigm
4. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti-Haitii!
5. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo
6. Terry Nardin and Kathleen D Pritchard Ethics and Intervention: The United States in Grenada, 1983 [http://bit.ly/W7MrKo]
7. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo
8. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo
9. Justin Podur [2012] Haiti’s New Dictatorship
10. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo
11. Peter Hallward Damming the Flood: Aristide and the Politics of Containment
12. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo
13. A Naomi Paik Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo
14. Justin Podur [2012] Haiti’s New Dictatorship

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About the Author

- Dean Walsh is the owner and editor of World News Curator. He also owns and runs Ourly News and a range of other online publications.

Displaying 3 Comments
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  1. Dean Walsh says:

    I don’t agree with the bit about the HIV policy – the disease is prevalent in Haiti and you can’t expect the US government to willfully deny facts simply because they are unpalatable.

    But the article does make some interesting points; especially the bit at the beginning about the transfer of old debt in a continual cycle to the present day, but also about the recent contracts and the concerns over environmental damage.

  2. Dady Chery says:

    The contortions that writers go through to avoid citing my articles on Haiti, including the one on gold mining, which was the first article on the subject and is still the only one to focus on the ecological devastation, never cease to amaze me.

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