U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is Going on in Haiti?

I’ve been receiving two incredibly different strains of news on Haiti. One, from NPR, the NY Times, and other American media sources tell me about the devastation, the corruption of the Haitian government, the attempts of Americans and ngos to help, and in particular about some stupid missionaries. I remember one NPR sign off talking about how the military presence would soon be reduced, but a promise that the US would not forget Haiti. It emphasizes Haitians who desire more control by international groups, giving voice to a few who even offer the country to the US or the UN to take over because the Haitian government is no longer functioning. Diane Sawyer reported on an American doctor desperate to get children out of Haiti and to his American hospital, but he was prevented by the Haitian government’s response to the Baptist missionaries trying to take children out of the country. It was presented in that “isn’t it obvious that everyone wants to come to the US” vein that is fairly common in US media.

The other stream is coming through listserves and is utterly different. It likens the US military presence an invasion, in the same vein as the repeated US military interventions throughout the twentieth century and again in 2004. It describes the US military preventing aid from reaching earthquake sufferers, letting food rot, and preventing the generosity of the world from being distributed. One email described this as a further attempt on the part of wealthy western nations to take over Haitian resources. Today there was an email about a huge protest in Port-au-Prince on February 17 greeting Nicola Sarkozy–the first French PM to ever visit Haiti. Surprisingly, it was not about immediate needs, but about politics. I’ll quote a bit:

Sarkozy’s visit came amid steps to transform Haiti into a military dictatorship jointly run with foreign occupation forces and aid agencies. Haiti?s legislative elections, previously scheduled for February 28-March 3, have been indefinitely postponed.

The US in particular is preparing to take over the Haitian government. On February 11 the Miami Herald reported that the US State Department had presented top Haitian officials with plans for an Interim Haiti Recovery Commission in early February. The Herald, which had seen a copy of the plan, noted the commission’s “top priority” is to “create a Haitian Development Authority to plan and coordinate billions in foreign assistance for at least 10 years.”

Sarkozy continued, “As for rivalries between the countries that are friends of Haiti … there will be none. The Americans have done good work. They have a million Haitian [immigrants] and they are 900 km away, and I will not reproach anyone for not doing enough. Afterwards, in any emergency situation one can do things more or less well, provoke small tensions. It’s not serious compared to the essential, which is that Americans, Englishmen, Brazilians, Canadians, and everyone else, we continue to work hand-in-hand to help you.”

This statement repudiates widespread criticism from aid officials of the US military occupation’s callous indifference towards Haitian lives. The US military seized the Port-au-Prince airport and blocked the arrival of humanitarian flights, costing the lives of thousands of Haitians dying from infected wounds and lack of antibiotics and other basic supplies. It also refused to admit wounded Haitians to the large sick bay of the USS Carl Vinson, a US aircraft carrier steaming off Haiti, and temporarily blocked rescue flights to Florida.

“Mass protests greet Sarkozy visit to Haiti”

By Alex Lantier
19 February 2010

World Socialist Web Site

I’ve read of so many different episodes in US history where the “average” American had no idea what was going on (US involvement in Latin America, the Scottsboro Case, Reconstruction). Is this happening again? Who do we believe?

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. A few paragraphs from the Amy Wilentz article”

    The Haitian tragedy has opened up a whole new industry for what I call the genteel racist point of view. A week into the crisis I heard an otherwise intelligent report on NPR in which the correspondent opened her piece from Port-au-Prince by declaring that it “is not falling into a…pit of violence,” thereby giving us an idea of what she had been anticipating, almost breathlessly. We heard this kind of thing frequently in the days after the earthquake, with scores of fresh reporters receiving their Haitian baptism amid the rubble. There are many problems in Haiti, but most of the negative pronouncements that have been circulating do not touch on them. The commentary has been psychopolitical rather than analytical.

    At least reporters, while their views may be wrongheaded, are giving us new information from the ground. Far more insidious are the armchair commentators who know nothing about Haiti–many never having set toe there–but enjoy rebuking suffering Haitians from the comfort of their white bastions in the United States and Europe. I’ve never seen victims so roundly blamed for their fate. David Brooks’s recent column in the New York Times–one of the paper’s most e-mailed articles the week it was published–blamed Haiti’s culture for the quake’s violence.
    “It is time,” Brooks writes sententiously, “to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well.”

    By all means, let’s turn to actual history, which Brooks has mangled. As has been mentioned repeatedly, the Haitian slaves rose up in 1791 and began what was to become the only successful slave revolution in modern history. That war ended, after much loss of life on both sides, with the establishment of the world’s first black republic, in 1804–just twenty-eight years after the American Declaration of Independence. The Haitians’ models were the American and French revolutions, and they based their ideas on the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But their revolution seems to have been a little premature for the tastes of the world in which they had to operate. Haiti was almost immediately saddled with a gargantuan and punitive reparations payment to France in exchange for recognition and the ability to engage in unhampered international trade. The wealthy, slaveholding United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, after the Southern states seceded. Haiti has been a pariah nation for its entire history.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. I, too, noted a complete mangling of Haitian history in a lot of mainstream journals and media outlets. Laurent DuBois, a professor I taught for and an expert on Haiti, has corrected some of these misconceptions.

    Given that there is this kind of genteel racism going on about Haiti in the US (I noticed it, too, in 2004 when mainstream media was fine with questioning the Iraqi invasion, but cheerfully reported on the military presence in Haiti):

    What is going on in Haiti now? What does it mean for our government to use the military for humanitarian means? Is this evidence of a takeover or evidence of the US getting involved in rescue efforts? Can we accept US media’s explanations for why aid was not distributed to Haitians in the immediate aftermath? Or, as historians, should we just continue to emphasize the parallels in this situation and past colonialism?

    [There was a decent overview of Haitian history in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/opinion/14kidder.html?scp=1&sq=Tracy%20Kidder&st=cse%5D

    The Tenured Radical wrote about the media disparities, qua history, in the early days after the earthquake. http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2010/01/colonialism-and-its-consequences-few.html

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