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How US imperialism has devastated Haiti

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
Peter Hallward, one of the foremost experts on Haiti’s history, spoke to Socialist Worker
Issue 2185
Damage after the earthquake
Damage after the earthquake (Pic: Marco Dormino/ United Nations Development Programme)

The earthquake in Haiti caused, and continues to cause, such terrible destruction and loss of life because the country is so poor. There are three main reasons for that.

Firstly, it is the only place where slavery was overthrown solely by slaves. But it meant a war that lasted 12 years, killed a third of the population, destroyed virtually every city and town, and gutted every plantation.

The second reason that Haiti is poor is that Haitian people paid a price for resisting “primitive accumulation”.

 In Britain, across Europe and much of the rest of the world, peasants were driven off the land, and a rural and urban proletariat was created.

That didn’t begin to happen in Haiti until the 1970s, when aggressive neoliberal measures (backed up by local paramilitary pressure) forced many small farmers to abandon ship.

Tariffs that allowed Haitian agriculture to compete with imports were removed, public spending slashed and publicly owned assets sold off.

Haitians call this the “American plan” – or the “death plan”.


It was designed to shift labour away from subsistence farming into more “profitable” industries like light assembly or garment manufacture.

Dispossessed farmers began to move en masse into increasingly crowded slums, like Cité Soleil, located next to the factory zone.

Unemployment ensured that wages remained the lowest in the hemisphere, at around $2 a day (roughly a quarter of the level paid in the neighbouring Dominican Republic).

The army and paramilitary “Macoutes”, meanwhile, took steps to discourage people from forming trade unions or fighting back. But in the 1980s the army began to lose.

Popular protest grew too powerful for the army to control, and in 1990 Haiti elected a president (Jean-Bertrand Aristide) who opposed the army and the American plan.

The backlash this resistance provoked is the third reason why Haiti remains poor – poorer now than it was 20 years ago.

Ever since 1990, the Haitian elite and its international backers have waged an unrelenting campaign to crush this popular movement and discredit its leaders.

This struggle between the people on the one hand and the elite plus the army on the other has defined Haitian politics for the last 20 years – and it’s a struggle that’s still going on.

Ever since 1990, Haiti’s little ruling class has been looking for ways to force the Haitian people to accept the neoliberal “development” plan, and to find new military means of protecting the “stability” of the status quo.

At first it seemed as if the popular movement might gain the upper hand. In the late 1980s it grew rapidly. It drew on the inspiration of liberation theology, and from the anti-imperialist tradition in Latin America.

Aristide and others around him, in addition to pushing for social justice, talked openly about class and the disparity of wealth. They also talked about the need for popular self-defence against the army and the Macoutes – and members of the elite began to panic.

The first time Aristide was elected, with 67 percent of the vote, the army dealt with the popular threat in the usual way – with a violent coup. Thousands were killed when the army regained direct control, from 1991 to 1994.

Aristide was obliged to remain in exile in the US until the relentless violence induced him to accept some of the neo-liberal measures he had opposed in his election campaign.

The US and its local Haitian clients put a gun to Aristide’s head and said you have a choice – this will go on until the popular movement is decimated or you accept compromise versions of the policies we want you to adopt.


Aristide resisted for a long time before deciding he had no real alternative. Once he was satisfied that Aristide no longer posed a threat, Bill Clinton agreed to send US troops on a “humanitarian” mission to “restore democracy” in Haiti in September 1994.

In fact, US troops remained in Haiti for six years, and tried to turn the country into a docile US protectorate.

Aristide, however, managed to accomplish two important things. Once back in Haiti, he used the cover of the US army to disband Haiti’s own army. He thus eliminated the traditional bulwark of the ruling class. This was a huge step forward.

At the same time, Aristide helped to create a more disciplined political organisation, one that can win and retain political power. It became known as Fanmi Lavalas.

It emerged from the wreckage of the popular movement repressed during the first coup. Given the extreme levels of poverty in Haiti it was immediately beset by opportunists.

It wasn’t a perfect organisation. But it was by far the most progressive experiment in parliamentary democracy in Haiti’s history.

In 2000 Aristide won the presidential election and Fanmi Lavalas won legislative elections by a huge majority – it had 90 percent of the seats in parliament. So you now had a popular leader, no army and the real prospect of social change.

And at this point, as you might expect, the Haitian ruling class launched a campaign to discredit Aristide and overthrow his government.

They tried to discredit the 2000 elections, the most credible legislative elections in Haiti’s history. They tried to bankrupt the government, by suspending all international aid.

The US even blocked loans from the Intra-American Development Bank that had already been agreed.

The effect was to cut the budget in half, and GDP plummeted. The economy was absolutely hammered and that’s a big reason why the government remains so weak.

Since 1990 it’s been impossible to have any meaningful investment in government institutions that would make it possible to regulate the economy – or intervene in a disaster.

Most of the aid that does get through to Haiti has gone overwhelmingly to NGOs – which have their own agendas. They’re not interested in building a strong Haitian state. A lot of them have reactionary religious agendas.

There’s been a huge growth of evangelical churches that sprang up from virtually nowhere in late 1970s, largely to counteract liberation theology.

A lot of the NGO funding comes through them. Some may do useful things but on a very small scale and there’s no coordination.

A lot of people in Haiti think, with good reason, that these NGOs are parasitic. They’ve been there for a long time and had no real discernible impact on the levels of poverty or development. They feed on Haiti’s problems.

Haiti needs massive national investment and mobilisation of its own people and resources.

The pressure against Aristide that began in 2000 soon developed into a destabilisation campaign with clear international support. A paramilitary force joined the assault, and launched an insurgency.

On 28 February 2004 the US kidnapped Aristide in the middle of the night and flew him into exile.

The US managed to topple one of the most popular governments in Latin America in a manner that wasn’t widely criticised or even recognised as a coup at all.

The democratic government was replaced by a US puppet, Gérard Latortue. US troops were quickly replaced by a massive UN “stabilisation” force. The UN’s main role was to pacify people – and to get them to accept the coup.

This involved a low-level war against Aristide’s supporters, particularly in poor neighbourhoods.

The popular movement has been criminalised. Supporters are essentially portrayed as criminals and gang members – people who threaten property, and law and order – and politics gets written out of the equation.

You get media reports that Haiti is a violent place but that’s really not true. Crime levels are extremely low.

Haiti’s rulers tell us that the country faces a semi-permanent “security” crisis. This justifies decisions to delay elections – they say it’s too much of a security risk.

They say that to restore “democracy” you first need security. It justifies UN occupation and US interference.

Of course there are gangs in a city as poor as Port-au-Prince, and the UN has broken up some. But they haven’t dealt with the reasons why such gangs form in the first place.


And there are crimes that the UN itself is implicated including many cases of rape. The UN acted very aggressively to “pacify” neighbourhoods.

In both 2005 and 2006 the UN went into Cité Soleil, a politicised neighbourhood that has strong Lavalas support.

Hundreds of troops opened fire in a densely packed slum where buildings are made of tin or cardboard and bullets keep going until they hit something. Both times they killed around 20 to 25 people.

The UN also presides over an electoral process which has blocked Lavalas from standing in the legislative elections originally planned for next month. This makes a mockery of the democratic process.

The UN has had 9,000 troops and police in Haiti, around 1,000 to 1,500 civilian advisers and a budget of $600 million a year, the vast bulk of it spent on military activities.

They spend most of their time patrolling the city in armoured vehicles as if was “hostile territory”.

They’ve done virtually nothing to improve basic infrastructure, to provide running water, invest in hospitals, or do anything about sanitation or rubbish removal.

In the aftermath of the earthquake they’ve guarded their headquarters and sat on their hands. The fact that they’ve failed to develop basic water infrastructure will now have a catastrophic effect.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like this, any country would need all the help it can get. The US was supposed to offer unrivalled logistic resources. In fact, the relief effort quickly started to resemble a military invasion.

When the US gained control of the airport, it repeatedly turned humanitarian flights aside in favour of military flights. It wanted to get its own soldiers in place first before they would conduct search and rescue operations or distribute water, food and medicines.

They’ve been building up a force of 10,000 troops, while untold numbers of people die in the rubble.

No doubt the US military is glad of this opportunity to rebrand the army as a sort of Florence Nightingale, after the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The massive US military presence will have a big impact on the reconstruction process. Naomi Klein is probably right to say that Haitians should watch out for the “disaster capitalists” who have exploited disasters in other parts of the world.  

I imagine that privatisation will accelerate and that there will be a lot of ugly wrangling about land ownership. There’s already more emphasis on “security” and “stability”, and I imagine we’ll soon start to see yet more pressure to re-establish a Haitian army.

Most credible journalists have emphasised the remarkable levels of calm and solidarity in the midst of this catastrophe, but the UN and the US emphasise the dangers of looting and rioting. They talk about the need to avoid another “Somalia”.

Very soon this starts to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the more desperate things get, the more likely it is that the whole reconstruction effort will unfold as a military operation, with UN officials and American commanders – rather than the Haitian people – in charge. 

I imagine that as the reconstruction proceeds there’ll be more pressure for increased international supervision and a consolidation of power around the industrial zones.

Former US president Bill Clinton’s main job since he was appointed UN envoy has been to emphasise the need for further investment in the garment industry – basically more sweatshops.

The real priority should be to facilitate meaningful Haitian self-determination as soon as possible.

The priority should be to remobilise the popular movement, and to limit rather than deepen Haiti’s current dependence on countries like the US and France.

Unfortunately I think the reconstruction process will more resemble what’s happened in Iraq.

Haiti’s national government budget is very small. A few years ago it was around $300 million, and last year foreign aid pushed it up to around $900 million. If billions of dollars is raised that would be a massive amount of money for Haiti.

But will it be spent in a way to empower the Haitian people, or will it go into the pockets of the families and corporations that rule Haiti in alliance with their commercial backers in the US and elsewhere?

I think that’s what will happen – unless some kind of popular political mobilisation happens to prevent it.

Peter Hallward is a professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University and the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment


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