The land that wouldn't lie: Foreign intervention in Haiti

The Haitian people overthrew slavery, uprooted dictators and foreign military rule, and elected a liberation theologian as president. The West has made them pay for their audacity.

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared as 'The Land that Wouldn't Lie' in the New Statesman, 28 January 2010.

After a couple of weeks of intense media attention, some causes of Haiti's glaring poverty have become familiar: chronic under-investment, disadvantageous terms of trade, deforestation, soil erosion, and so on. What's less well understood is that the fundamental reasons for Haiti's current destitution originate as responses to Haitian strength, rather than as results of alleged Haitian weakness, corruption or incompetence. Four such factors have shaped the country's modern history.

First of all - and it remains impossible to overstate the importance of this point - Haiti is the one and only place in the world where colonial slavery was abolished by the slaves themselves, in the face of implacable violence. By the 1770s, an exceptionally brutal plantation economy generated more revenue for Haiti's French colonial masters than did all of Britain's thirteen north-American colonies combined. As the end of the ancien régime approached, notes Eric Williams, for most of its inhabitants this 'pearl of the Caribbean' had become 'the worst hell on earth.' But the 1789 revolution in France deepened a long-standing split between sectors of the colonial elite, and a couple of years after a massive and well-organised slave insurgency erupted in the summer of 1791, its leaders were able to force the Jacobin government to accept immediate and universal emancipation [June 21, 1793].

As historians of the revolution that began in 1791 have often pointed out, there is good reason to consider it as the most radically subversive event in the whole of modern history. Independent Haiti was surrounded by slave colonies in the Caribbean, and flanked by slave-owning economies in northern, central and southern America. The three great imperial powers of the day, France, Spain and Britain, sent all the troops at their disposal to try to crush the uprising; incredibly, Haitian armies led by Toussaint L'Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated them one after the other. By late 1803, to the universal astonishment of contemporary observers, Haitian armies had managed to break the chains of colonial slavery at not their weakest but their strongest link.

Here, then, lies the first reason for Haiti's exceptional poverty: an extraordinary victory provoked an extraordinary backlash. The war killed a third of Haiti's people and left its cities and plantations in ruins. When it was finally over, the imperial powers closed ranks and, appalled by what the French foreign minister called a 'horrible spectacle for all white nations', imposed a blockade designed to isolate and stifle this most troubling 'threat of a good example'. France only re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country's survival when Haiti agreed, twenty years after winning its independence, to pay its old colonial master colossal amounts of 'compensation' for the loss of its slaves and colonial property - an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time.

With its economy still shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could only begin to repay this debt by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, massive sums from French banks. By the end of the nineteenth century Haiti's payments to France still consumed around 80% of the national budget. French banks received the last instalment in 1947. This was the single most important factor in establishing Haiti as a systematically indebted country, a condition which in turn served as a pretext for a long and debilitating series of international raids on the Haitian treasury. (It may not require much imagination to guess at the consequences of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's subsequent decision, in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration of Haitian independence in 2004, to ask France to pay some of this money back...).

The second major factorin Haiti's structural destitution stems directly from the first. The slaves who won the war against the French were determined above all to avoid any return to a plantation economy or its industrial equivalent. Over the course of the nineteenth-century large parts of Latin America, as well as much of Europe and Europe's colonies, were ravaged by the process Marx famously dubbed 'primitive accumulation' (the systematic expropriation of peasant farms, and of collectively- or indigenously-owned land and resources), but in Haiti resistance to such trends, nourished by exceptionally resilient forms of communal solidarity, popular culture, and religious affiliation, proved a powerful obstacle to this essential stage in the consolidation of a 'properly functioning' capitalist economy. This resistance in turn solicited powerful counter-measures, including, from 1915-1934, the first and most damaging of an apparently unstoppable series of US military occupations.

Direct US rule imposed a poverty-enhancing 'structural adjustment' programme avant la lettre. The Americans abolished an irritating clause in the Haiti's constitution that had barred foreigners from owning Haitian property, took over the National Bank, reorganised the economy to ensure more regular payments of foreign debt, imposed forced labour on the peasantry, and expropriated large swathes of land for the benefit of new plantations like those operated by the US-owned Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO). Some 50,000 peasants were dispossessed in northern Haiti alone. Most importantly, the Americans transformed Haiti's army into an instrument capable of overcoming popular opposition to these developments. By 1918, peasant resistance gave rise to a full-scale insurgency, led by Charlemagne Péralte; US troops responded with what one worried commander (General Barnett) described as the 'practically indiscriminate killing of natives', 'the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps'. Some 15,000 people died in this first phase of the 'modernisation' of the Haitian economy.

The next phase of this operation was temporarily contracted out to the noiriste dictator François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, who came to power in 1957 via a rigged election in which he won only a quarter of the votes garnered by his main rival. Four years later Duvalier ripped up the last shreds of the constitution when he arranged for his re-election, winning 1,320,748 votes to zero. Duvalier's determination to gain complete control over the country encountered resistance not only among the rural poor but also among more cosmopolitan sections of the elite. He overcame both problems by supplementing the army he inherited from its US patrons with a more home-grown paramilitary force, the 'Tontons Macoutes.' The paranoid ferocity of Duvalier's regime has long been the stuff of legend; after a dozen young men from Jérémie launched a reckless insurgency in August 1964, for instance, Duvalier's militia publicly slaughtered hundreds of their kin. By the mid-1960s, perhaps 80% of Haiti's professionals had fled to safety abroad, and most never returned. Estimates of total number of people killed under Duvalier vary between 30,000 and 50,000 - 'terror has surely never had so bare and ignoble an object', reflected Graham Greene. The CIA itself was impressed with the result, noting that by the 1970s 'most Haitians [were] so completely downtrodden as to be politically inert.'

Complete downtreading was the immediate and necessary precondition for our third factor, international imposition of the neoliberal policies that began to reshape Haiti's economy when in 1971 Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited his father's office as 'president for life'.  Spurred on by the example of post-Allende Chile, these policies aimed to 'open up' Haiti to far-reaching foreign penetration and manipulation. They were designed to turn the country into the sort of place that international investors tend to like: a place where people are prepared to work for starvation wages without making a political fuss, a place where private property and profits receive well-armed protection but where domestic markets, local farmers, state assets and public services do not. Locals soon started to refer to these policies as the 'death plan.'

The death plan has stifled public spending and forced the privatisation of Haiti's (often highly lucrative) public assets while accelerating the reorientation of Haiti's economy away from agrarian autonomy and towards urban hyper-exploitation. The case of rice production - the staple food for most of the population - is especially significant. In the mid 1980s, local farmers were still able to produce almost all the rice Haitians consumed, but the last tariffs protecting Haitian farmers were removed in the mid 1990s and the country is now swamped by heavily subsidised American rice that trades at around 70% of the price of its indigenous competition. Domestic production is undercut still more by the vast amounts of additional 'free' rice that are dumped on Haiti every year through the ministry of USAID grantees, in particular the Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist and other like-minded churches. In 1985, imports accounted for only 2% of Haitian rice consumption; by 2002 this proportion had soared to 62%. A tiny handful of well-connected families now reap huge profits from importing rice, while thousands of desperate ex-rice farmers and their dependents have joined the ranks of the urban unemployed.

According to a 2006 IMF study, 55% of Haitian households survive on a daily income equal to 44 American pennies. When the global food crisis hit Haiti in 2008, whole communities were pushed to the brink of starvation.

Structural adjustment was supposed to compensate for agrarian collapse with increases in the garment and light manufacturing sector. For a little while, the lowest wages in the hemisphere encouraged mainly American companies or contractors to employ around 80,000 people in this sector, while military and paramilitary coercion kept the threat of organised labour safely at bay. By the end of the millennium, however, a combination of international competition and local 'instability' had reduced sweatshop employment to just 20,000 people whose wages, averaging $2/day, had in real terms fallen to less than a quarter of 1980 levels.

The real source of this so-called instability brings us to the fourth and most immediate reason for Haitian poverty. Once again it stems from popular resilience and strength. Bitter experience has forced the Haitian poor to improvise robust ways of defending themselves against their oppressors. Over the course of the 1980s, opposition to the twin forces of Duvalierist oppression and neo-liberal adjustment inspired a powerful and courageous popular mobilisation. This mobilisation was able first to 'uproot' Duvalier and his Macoutes (in 1986) and then, after an army crackdown that killed another thousand people or so, to overcome direct military rule (in 1990). It forced the army's international backers reluctantly to sanction Haiti's first ever round of genuine democratic elections, which in early 1991 brought the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power on an anti-neo-liberal and anti-army agenda.

Haiti was the only country in Latin America that had the temerity to choose a liberation theologian as its president, and this is a crucial but often neglected aspect of its recent history. The Catholic church had long been a solid pillar of the status quo, and its partial conversion over the 1970s into a well-organised instrument calling for 'the self-emancipation of the oppressed' sent shock waves throughout Latin America. Pentagon officials were quick to realise (as military intelligence officer Captain Lawrence Rockwood later put it) that 'the most serious threat to US interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organised labour but liberation theology.' Pope Jean-Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger reached a similar conclusion with respect to their own interests, and the backlash against liberation theology was complemented in the US by the rise of the religious right. In Haiti itself, thirty years ago there were only a tiny handful of small (and often US-funded) evangelical churches preaching political resignation and passive reliance on God's grace; today there are more than 500.

Aristide's election in 1990 changed the balance of power in Haiti forever. Political violence came to an abrupt and exceptional stop. 'We have become the subjects of our own history', Aristide said a couple of years before his election, and 'we refuse from now on to be the objects of that history.'

Their refusal remains the key to understanding the course of Haitian politics ever since. Haiti isn't only the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere, it's now also and more importantly the most unequal in terms of its division of wealth and power. A tiny minority lives in paranoid luxury, surrounded by millions of the poorest people on earth. From the perspective of its elite, Haiti's main political problem is very simple: how, once the democratic door has been prised open, might it be possible to preserve such a grotesquely inequitable distribution of property and privilege?

When Aristide was first elected it was still possible to solve the problem in the usual way - by slamming the door shut. In September 1991, another US-backed military coup cut short Haiti's 'transition to democracy.' Three years of repression decimated the popular movement and left some 4,000 Aristide supporters dead.

When the US eventually allowed a hamstrung Aristide to return in late 1994, he still managed to transform Haitian politics overnight, by abolishing the army that had deposed him. A central priority for the businessmen and sweatshop owners whose interests were previously protected by the army, understandably, has been to restore or replace it. The need for such restoration became still more acute when Aristide was re-elected in 2000 with an even bigger share of the vote, backed up for the first time by a political organisation, Fanmi Lavalas, that won some 90% of the seats in parliament.

The subsequent ten years of struggle in Haiti are best understood in terms of this basic alternative: Lavalas or the army. As any number of post-9/11 initiatives confirm, there is no better way of deflecting political questions that might otherwise be 'unprofitably' answered by the will of the majority than by redefining them in terms of crime, security, and stability - terms, in other words, that allow soldiers rather than people to resolve them.

Ruthless application of this strategy after the Lavalas election victory in 2000 led to another internationally-sponsored coup in early 2004, just in time to squash any untimely celebration of the bicentenary of Haitian independence. Since they could no longer rely on Haiti's own army, in order to overthrow a duly elected government for the second time US troops were obliged to lever Aristide out of Port-au-Prince themselves. In mid-2004, a large UN 'stabilisation' force took over the job of pacifying a resentful population from soldiers sent by the US, France and Canada, and by the end of 2006 another several thousand Aristide supporters were dead. Around 9,000 heavily armed UN troops occupy the country to this day.

Last year, the president (René Préval) who ostensibly governs this UN protectorate agreed to renew its stabilisation mandate, to persevere with the privatisation of Haiti's remaining public assets, to veto a proposal to increase minimum wages to $5 a day, and to bar Fanmi Lavalas, along with several other political parties, from participating in the next round of legislative elections.

This is the context in which we need to understand the most salient characteristic of the disaster relief effort so far - the decision, taken by US and UN commanders, explicitly to prioritise military and security objectives over civilian-humanitarian ones.

This inexcusable decision has already caused thousands of preventable deaths. Plane after plane packed with essential emergency supplies was diverted away from the disaster zone, so as to allow for the build-up of a massive and entirely unnecessary US military force. Many thousands of people were left to die in the ruins of lower Port-au-Prince, while international rescue teams concentrated their efforts on a few locations (like the Montana Hotel or the UN headquarters) that were not simply frequented by foreigners but that could also be enclosed within a 'secure perimeter.'

For exactly the same reason, all through the first week of the disaster desperately needed medical supplies were reserved for field hospitals set up near the US-controlled airport and other 'secure zones': hospitals in 'insecure' Port-au-Prince itself, overwhelmed with dying patients, have had to perform untold numbers of amputations without anaesthetic or medication. Still more 'insecure' neighbourhoods like Carrefour and Léogane - the places closest to the earthquake's epicentre - received no significant aid for at least ten days after disaster struck.

Unless prevented by renewed popular mobilisation in both Haiti and beyond, the perverse international emphasis on security will continue to distort the reconstruction effort, and with it the configuration of Haitian politics for some time to come. As reconstruction funds accumulate, pressure to expropriate what remains of Haiti's public services and collectively-owned land is sure to be accompanied by pressure to accelerate the growth of Haiti's booming security industry, and perhaps to restore - no doubt in close cooperation with the current occupying power - the army that Aristide managed to demobilise in 1995.

One thing is already certain: if further militarisation proceeds unchecked then the victims of the January earthquake won't be the only avoidable causalities of 2010.

Peter Hallward is the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment.