America's sick Love Haiti relationship

2010-01-19 00:00

AS grim accounts of the earthquake in Haiti came in, the accounts in United States-controlled state media all carried the same descriptive sentence: “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere ...”

Gee, I wonder how that happened?

You’d think Haiti would be loaded. After all, it made a lot of people rich. How did Haiti get so poor, despite a century of American colonialism, occupation, and propping up corrupt dictators? Even though the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) staged coups d’état against every democratically elected president it has had?

It’s an important question. An earthquake isn’t just an earthquake. The same 7,0 tremor hitting San Francisco wouldn’t kill nearly as many people as it did in Port- au-Prince.

“Looking at the pictures, essentially it looks as if [the buildings are of] breezeblock or cinderblock construction, and what you need in an earthquake zone is metal bars that connect the blocks so that they stay together when they get shaken,” notes Sandy Steacey, director of the Environmental Science Research Institute at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. “In a wealthy country with good seismic building codes that are enforced, you would have some damage, but not very much.”

When a pile of cinderblocks falls on you, your odds of survival are poor. Even if you miraculously survive, a poor country like Haiti doesn’t have the equipment, communications infrastructure or emergency service personnel to pull you out of the rubble in time. And if your neighbours get you out, there’s no ambulance to take you to the hospital or doctor to treat you once you get there.

Earthquakes are random events. How many people they kill is predetermined. In Haiti, don’t blame tectonic plates. Ninety- nine percent of the death toll is attributable to poverty.

So the question is relevant. How did Haiti become so poor?

The story begins in 1910, when a U.S. State Department-National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) consortium bought the Banque National d’Haïti — Haiti’s only commercial bank and its national treasury — in effect transferring Haiti’s debts to the Americans. Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy the country in order to keep tabs on “our” investment.

From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines imposed harsh military occupation, murdered Haitian patriots and diverted 40% of Haiti’s gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs. Ambitious Haitians were shunted into the puppet military, setting the stage for a half-century of U.S.-backed military dictatorship.

The U.S. kept control of Haiti’s finances until 1947.

Still — why should Haitians complain? Sure, the U.S. stole 40% of Haiti’s national wealth for 32 years. But it let them keep 60%.


Despite having been bled dry by American bankers and generals, civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed president-for-life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Duvalier’s brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30 000 Haitians and drove educated people to flee into exile. But think of the cup as half full: fewer people in the population means fewer people competing for the same jobs.

Upon Papa Doc’s death in 1971, the torch passed to his even more dissolute 19-year- old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The U.S., cool to Papa Doc in his later years, quickly warmed back up to his kleptomaniacal playboy heir. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 million to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International. The money was placed in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash with predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.

The Duvalier era, 29 years in all, came to an end in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France, saving him from a popular uprising. Once again, Haitians should thank Americans. Duvalierism was “tough love”. Forcing Haitians to make do without their national treasury was a nice way or encouraging them to work harder, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, in this case, flip-flops. Anyway.

The U.S. has been all about tough love ever since. It twice deposed the populist and popular democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The second time, in 2004, we even gave him a free flight to the Central African Republic. (He says the CIA kidnapped him, but whatever.) Hey, he needed a rest. And it was kind of the U.S. to support a new government formed by former Tonton Macoutes.

Yet, despite everything the U.S. has done for Haiti, it is still a fourth-world failed state on a fault line.

And still, the U.S. hasn’t given up. American companies like Disney generously pay wages to their sweatshop workers of 28 cents an hour.

What more do these ingrates want?


• Ted Rall’s most recent book is Wake Up, You’re Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right (Soft Skull Press).

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