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If you got your education in an American or European school, you haven't thought about Haiti much, especially if you're white. In fact, if you're white, and you haven't done a lot of reading on the colonial history of the western hemisphere, I'd offer 9 to 1 odds that within a couple of weeks, you'll go back to not thinking about Haiti again for a longish time. For a moment, though, I'd like you to think about that history, remember (or learn) a couple of things about it. Here's why: the immediate disaster will be over by the end of the day, for all practical purposes. Disaster recovery teams are deploying throughout Port au Prince, and frankly, at this point, just about everybody who is going to die from the earthquake is already dead. It has stopped getting worse. So now, while a few people still care, is the time to think about what happens next. (The odds are, what happens next is "nothing," and Haiti goes back to being "the land where children eat mud.")

The observation has been widely made that ordinary cities don't collapse from an earthquake the size of the one that just hit Port au Prince, and ordinary countries have better and more widely dispersed disaster recovery teams of their own. Haiti, though, is special, and there's a reason for that: From 1804 to the present, during all but a few years, it has been the official policy of Washington DC and of every European capital that Haiti must fail.

A capsule summary of colonial history is essential at this point. Basically everywhere south of US Interstate highway 70, that is to say basically everywhere south of the 40th parallel north, the European colonial pattern was the same, and still shows. The intent of the European powers was to use their military superiority to carve the agriculturally viable and mineral-valuable parts of the New World into estates, haciendas, plantations for white nobility. To that end, everywhere south of I-70, what they sent were:
  • a very tiny number of white families of noble birth, or who were owed favors by royalty and elevated to nobility,
  • a not much bigger number of white technical specialists, such as doctors and clerks, who understood that their whole reason for being there was to provide services to the nobility, and ...
  • a substantial white army, whose job was to subjugate the natives and make them the slaves of the nobility.
This didn't work as well as they would have liked, because part of Europe's military superiority came from the fact that anywhere from 1/3rd to 9/10ths of the natives were dying off of smallpox and tuberculosis. So the surviving native slaves were supplemented in numbers by, and encouraged to interbreed with, African pagans who had been sold into slavery to the white people, mostly by African Muslims. When "decolonization" happened and these former colonies achieved their independence, basically nothing changed almost anywhere in the hemisphere. The same few white families who had been granted ownership of everyone and everything continued to own everyone and everything. The same slightly less few upper middle class white families continued to send their kids to college to be the white professionals and bureaucrats who ran those countries for the white owners of the countries, and to be the military officers who ruled over the mixed poor-white and brown/black foot soldiers who keep the brown/black poor, the descendants of the slaves, in thinly disguised slavery.

But Hispaniola, the island of which Haiti is the western half, started out special. By the time it was safe enough for the nobles to move in, there were exactly zero inhabitants left to enslave. When the native population of Hispaniola realized that they were going to lose, they fought to the death, and the last surviving women, children, and the elderly committed mass suicide rather than have their children grow up under European rule, and if I were a praying Christian, I would pray for their heroic, martyred souls every Sunday. So even before the island got divided up between the French and the Spanish, the slave caste of Hispaniola was 100% black, not the mestizo brown/black mix that most Americans think of when they think of "Hispanics."

But Haiti got even weirder, by western hemisphere standards, because it didn't get its independence from France by having its white population rebel against European rule and enlisting their slaves to fight "for freedom." No, Haiti is the only country in the western hemisphere to win its independence from Europe against the wishes of its white minority, to win its independence in a slave revolt. And that is why, unlike every other country and state south of the 40th north line of latitude, when Haiti got its independence, the entire white population of Haiti fled, taking everything they could pry loose with them. And, even more to the point, that is why it became official US policy all the way back during the Jefferson administration that Haiti must fail, a policy that has remained to this very day under every US president but two, Carter and Clinton, and under every British prime minister since then until now, and under every French president until the current administration: the world must never see, the world's poor must never see, the world's former and current slaves must never, never see a slave rebellion that works. Period.

To that end, the US and all European nations declared war on Haiti as soon as it won its independence, and stayed that war upon the promise of a terrifyingly high danegeld: the Haitian people had to pay back France the full market value of every acre of property in Haiti and the full slave market value of every Haitian citizen, or else be the victims of a threatened genocidal war by the armed, mechanized might of the white world. They paid it. It took them until 1948, it took them working their fingers to the bone every single one of them and shipping every penny they earned by exporting all but starvation-level food overseas to do it, but they bought themselves. And were poised to succeed.

And, well, we couldn't have that. What if black Americans were to see a thriving, prosperous black country, just 70 miles off the Florida coast, doing just fine without any white rulers? The result could be unthinkable levels of violence, maybe even armed revolution. So in 1957, just as Haiti was starting to recover from centuries of deprivation, the US backed the private army of would-be dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and gave him clear marching orders: he was to sink Haiti back into debt that it couldn't pay. The Duvaliers, and their successors from within his private murderous army, have consistently used weapons sent to them for free by the US government, and backed by invasion by the US Marine Corps whenever that wasn't enough and democracy threatened to break out, to force the Haitian government to take out hundreds of billions of dollars in loans in the name of the Haitian people, and give at least 80% of that money to the Duvalier family and their followers. And every time they get close to paying it off, every time it even starts to look like some day they might pay it off, the Duvalierists (still!) take out more loans, and steal that money, too. Less than 20% of that money was used to build the roads and bridges and railroads and factories and food processing plants and schools and firehouses and other infrastructure that a modern economy needs. It was, quite intentionally, nowhere near enough: the Haitian people were told, on pain of re-invasion by the US and its allies, that they could not have any of those things until they paid off the Duvaliers' loans, loans that they will never be allowed to pay off.

So when the earthquake hit, they had almost none of those things, and the few that they had were shoddily built because that was all they were allowed to spend, and they died by the tens of thousands: murdered by America's fierce determination to kill them rather than let them succeed.

Nor will they be allowed to succeed after this, if our political class, yes, including Barack Obama, are not challenged: almost all of the "aid" we're sending to Haiti is in the form of more IMF loans. And as anybody who's studied the history of the International Monetary Fund and its "emergency stabilization loan" program will tell you, those loans come with murderous strings attached: none of that money can be used to build any of the public infrastructure or train or hire any of the government workers that would be needed to raise Haiti out of desperation and anarchy. It can't be used to hire teachers to teach the Haitians to compete in a global economy. It can't be used to build roads for them to get their goods to the port, it can't be used to improve the port so that more countries can buy their exports, it can't be used to hire and supervise truly professional police or the independent oversight boards and judges it would take to make it safe for Haitians to invest in and run their own businesses, that loan money can't be used for any of the things. It can only be used to fund the expropriation of more food from Haitians' own mouths, more assets from the island if any can be found, plus every dollar of those loans, back into the hands of the American and European governments and banks that lent it in the first place.

What can you do about it, what can I do about it? Probably not much. Withdraw your consent; it's probably not enough, but it's better than nothing. Just about every year, one or more members of the US's Black Congressional Caucus introduces a Haiti debt relief bill, a bill to cancel all of Haiti's foreign debts and to require that all future aid to Haiti be in the form of grants, not loans. But since this idea is "radical" and "out of the mainstream" (that is to say, unacceptable to America's wealthy elite and to the graduates of the universities, funded by that wealthy elite, who run the country on behalf of the wealthy elite, since as Dr. Chomsky pointed out back when he was still sane, that is what the word "radical" means in politics), calling your congressman and your senator and asking them to support debt relief for Haiti probably won't do any good, not so long as our political class consists almost entirely of people who were taught oh-so-carefully that loans are better than grants.

You can argue to them that since none of the Haitian people were allowed to benefit from those loans, and since any further loans will be stolen before the benefits get to the Haitian people, that it's morally wrong to expect the Haitian people to pay them back. Maybe that argument will carry water, now that there are piles of corpses to show your congressman and your senator. But probably not. Any bills to enact this are unlikely to come to a vote in the next three weeks. And within three weeks, everybody not actively engaged in keeping the Haitian people down will have, once again, forgotten all about Haiti.

Comments

( 123 comments — Leave a comment )
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lassiter
Jan. 17th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)

From 1804 to the present, during all but a few years, it has been the official policy of Washington DC and of every European capital that Haiti must fail.

It became clear during Katrina, at least to me, that certain parts of the political power structure felt the same way about New Orleans.
bradhicks
Jan. 17th, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
... and as Greg Palast just pointed out this morning, Barack Obama is repeating almost all of George W. Bush's mistakes. To which I'll belabor the obvious and point out the one exception, he's doing a much better job than Bush did of pretending to care. To paraphrase and update Kanye West's famous observation, Barack Obama doesn't care about black people.
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Jan. 17th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - l33tminion - Jan. 17th, 2010 10:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
you're in denial - tahkhleet - Jan. 17th, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
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ankh_f_n_khonsu
Jan. 17th, 2010 06:20 pm (UTC)
Agreed - I've been rather disgusted with all the shallow sympathy and historical ignorance. Have you been following the coverage they've given to this on Democracy Now!?
bradhicks
Jan. 17th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
No, the signal to noise ratio is too high there, it's too time consuming a way to get news for me. I get my news from the wire services, supplemented by Glenn Greenwald's, Paul Krugman's, and Greg Palast's columns. And of course I watch Rachel Maddow for the sheer raw entertainment of watching someone do such a great job of covering the news I'd already read hours before, just because it's so much fun to watch her have so much fun with it.
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Jan. 17th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
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radiumhead
Jan. 17th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
In my fantasy world, the US would be totally isolationist.

We wouldnt help anybody, but at the same time, we'd stay out of their fucking business and stop fucking with people. I think it'd even out.

Of course, this shit would never happen, theres too much money to be made out there.
bradhicks
Jan. 17th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC)
On the list of ideas that terrify the political establishment of the US is their fear of a temporary coalition between the nativist, isolationist, and/or racist far-right and the anti-imperialist far-left, between the anti-coastal, anti-elite far right and the anti-establishment far-left, under the banner of Populism.

I'm not a populist myself, in no small part because I fear that a populist revolution in America would turn out pretty much exactly like the theocrat/communist alliance did after the Iranian revolution, that the far right would seize the upper hand and have the anti-imperialist, anti-establishment liberals like myself put to death. So I'm an anti-corruption, good-government, Reform Democrat -- an all-but-dead caucus, I'm afraid.
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btw.... - tahkhleet - Jan. 18th, 2010 03:49 am (UTC) - Expand
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phillipalden
Jan. 17th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
I am so glad "The Infamous Brad" is back! I've missed your insightful commentaries.

And you hit another bull's-eye with this one. What a terrible situation for the poor people of Haiti, even before this earthquake hit them.

It's appalling that we have not only allowed this to go on, we are the direct cause of much of the misery. The French, the British and all of us should be ashamed. Not knowing is no excuse. We are responsible for the actions of our government, whether we stick our head in the sand or not.
bradhicks
Jan. 17th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
Reliable rule of thumb: the world produces about 1400 calories of food per person per day. Anywhere outside of a war zone that you see people starving, it is because powerful people want them to starve.
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Ah Ha! - ff00ff - Jan. 18th, 2010 12:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - phillipalden - Jan. 18th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC) - Expand
dirkcjelli
Jan. 17th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
A fine post, but I don't understand what you mean about Chomsky being crazy.

Also, my impression was that Clinton wasn't an exception to the above, and I'm curious why you feel he was.
bradhicks
Jan. 17th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
Under Clinton, when the Duvalierists rose up to overthrow Aristide, the US intervened on behalf of democracy over military rule, for the first time since Haitian independence. Clinton also tried to get lower tariffs on US imports from Haiti, and tried to reduce the dumping of subsidized US food in Haiti to the detriment of local farmers, although not very hard in either case.
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dd_b
Jan. 17th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
The observation has been widely made that ordinary cities don't collapse from an earthquake the size of the one that just hit Port au Prince

My observation has been that third-world cities routinely DO collapse from an earthquake of this size, with comparable death tolls. Sichuan 2008, or Kashmir 2005, or Southeastern Iran in 2002, or Gujarat in India in 2001.
pathia
Jan. 17th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
It's also because the buildings were built to withstand hurricanes, not earthquakes. The building techniques for the two are completely opposite more or less. They crumbled because they were meant to stand against high winds and rain, not shifting ground.
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veedub
Jan. 17th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
it took sixty years after the slave revolt for the US to even recognize Haiti as a country.
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bradhicks
Jan. 17th, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)
You know, the Haitian people have consistently, when fair elections have been allowed, voted for leaders who would use foreign aid grants and loans to improve the country rather than to line their own pockets. Every time that has happened, the Duvalierist Tonton Macouts veterans have come running to the US Congress screaming "communism!" and "buying votes among the rural poor!" And right wing Congressmen, within both parties, have always responded by supporting right-wing coup d'etat to overthrow those governments.

To the US government, it's only "corruption" when it improves the lives of the Haitian people, not when it goes into the Swiss bank accounts of Duvalierists. To the US government, it's only "violent coercion" and "mob violence" when a death squad member or supporter is killed; when anyone who opposes kleptocracy by former Duvalier death squad members is killed, it's called "asserting order."

Are you seriously and sincerely suggesting that this has nothing to do with Haiti's colonial and post-colonial history? That it's merely a coincidence?
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Listen to Pat Robertson - tahkhleet - Jan. 17th, 2010 11:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Re: Listen to Pat Robertson - tahkhleet - Jan. 17th, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
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On being rich - tahkhleet - Jan. 17th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
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john cleese out a window - krinndnz - Jan. 19th, 2010 03:58 am (UTC) - Expand
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Put another way.... - tahkhleet - Jan. 17th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
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xodiac
Jan. 17th, 2010 11:09 pm (UTC)
Every time there's a natural disaster, they ask people to donate food, blankets, medicines, and so on. This time, people in charge are asking strictly for cash. I've actually seen statements from officials asking people NOT to donate actual materials, saying people should just give cash. I thought it very puzzling.

Now I know at least some of why.
kathrynt
Jan. 18th, 2010 05:45 am (UTC)
Also because coordinating in-kind donations is expensive and a logistical nightmare. Cash allows them to buy what they need by the pallet-load and have it drop-shipped, not to try and sort out fifty thousand grocery bags each containing two bottles of water, some old Neosporin, and four cans of tuna fish. That lesson was learned first in the tsunami of 04, and second in Katrina; cash is fungible, packable, and useful in a way that in-kind goods aren't.
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hugh_mannity
Jan. 17th, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
One of my co-workers is Haitian (fortunately, all his immediate family are accounted for and safe). We share an office he was very surprised that I knew anything about Haiti's history until I pointed out that I'm English, so was educated under a very different system.

"I didn't think anyone outside Haiti knew anything about us" was his comment. I find that very sad.
ff00ff
Jan. 18th, 2010 02:09 am (UTC)
Well, there won't be piles of corpses to show in Port Au Prince, at least. Did you read they were digging mass graves? I find your view of Haitian history to be a little hard to swallow. Racist elements in the government holding Haiti to an unreasonable standard as late as the fifties might be possible, but what motivation, after that ransom had been paid, would we have had to continue piling debt on them? You suggest that the international motivation is to not let the downtrodden see a slave revolt that worked, but America has very strong myths about and national stories about our rejection of and triumph over slavery. American economy may rely heavily on south east Asian slaves, for instance, but other people are taking care of their oppression. What does America gain by constantly and transparently meddling, with malicious intent, in a near carribian neighbor when that region is already so hostile to the US? What does America have to loose from a prosperous stable Haiti?

Of course my most recent memory of Haiti, because I don't pay attention to the nation, was the kidnapping of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which seemed ridiculously peculiar. Why were American soldiers kidnapping a twice hugely popularly elected president?

While international meddling in that case seems indisputable, and that event does seem to imply much deeper and longer roots of some sort of anti Haitian faction in the US, I don't buy the reasoning you've given for their actions.

Either way, death to Pat Robertson.
krinndnz
Jan. 18th, 2010 05:35 am (UTC)
"Racist elements in the government" are/were around a lot later than the 1950s, sadly. It's been repeatedly demonstrated that one of the basic racism things is the ability to hold double standards in one's head - and it's particularly easy to do so about Them Foreigners.
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subnumine
Jan. 18th, 2010 05:02 am (UTC)
Make that "the policy of most American and European governments is that Haiti fail" and I'll agree. But Haiti has occasionally served the interest of a white power - as she did of Britain between 1791 and 1815; and some governments have had no interest in the desires of those south of the 40th parallel - for example, the United States recognized Haiti in 1862.
l33tminion
Jan. 18th, 2010 08:06 am (UTC)
See, that is the kind of stuff you don't see in the totally-not-fictional "liberal media".

Wrote my representatives about the above and this. Will be interesting to see how (and if) they respond.
fatpie42
Jan. 18th, 2010 10:02 am (UTC)
a policy that has remained to this very day under every US president but two, Carter and Clinton, and under every British prime minister since then until now

Did you actually do the research necessary to condemn every single prime minister or are you simply presuming this? (After all, you are prepared to allow for two exceptions in the case of presidents.)
cannibal_x
Jan. 18th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting. well written..
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