Dear Professor Hallward,
Your recent article on the US roles in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake came to my attention in an email from colleagues who also have an interest in Haiti. I commented to them that there were certain aspects that I would read with caution and they asked me to be more specific. Fair enough. So I did a more leisurely reading, thought it over and decided to give a long response. Now that the response is finished, I thought it only right to send it to you first in case you wished to comment, and then I would send it out to my colleagues.
I am supposing your experiences are very different from mine, since my interests are in the arts and education. In trying over many years to understand the art of Haiti with its “premises” so different from those I was familiar with from my studies in art and art history in the US, I needed to learn as much as possible about what is “Not Art,” i.e. geography and environment, history, religions, politics, and so forth. I see Haiti from a different vantage point, but come to many of the same positions you have described. I believe I am in agreement with you on many aspects of the present state of things but have some differences as well.
If you have the time I would be interested in your reply. I may have misread your article, or may be putting my own warp on the reading. In any case I would like to hear your opinion. You have gone far more deeply into political philosophy than I so your response would be especially valuable.
The long story of United States involvement with Hispaniola begins even before the Monroe Doctrine (2 December 1823) and its near-scriptural status in United States policy. Haitian national memory records that soldiers who would soon begin the struggle for their own liberty were at the Battle of Savannah (16 September1779) to help that cause for their neighbors to the north. An estimated 500 freedmen, among them probably Henry Christophe, participated in that attempt by combined American and French forces to send the redcoats packing.  The favor would not be returned. Christophe became an admirer of King Henry III and would see that the best interests of the Kingdom of Haiti lay with the British abolitionists. President Jefferson refused to recognize either the Republic of Haiti in the south or the Kingdom of Haiti in the north. The “infection” of presumed equality of slaves and hence their claim of liberty and independence could not be tolerated by a slave-holding president of a slave-dependent nation.
The subsequent history, and especially the United States Occupation of 1915-1934, demonstrated an official government policy and a general attitude toward Haiti that was at best insensitive and arrogant and at worst vicious. The abominable treatment of Charlemagne Peralt, leader of the Caco resistance, is a memorable example. What might be called “the invasion of the soul-snatchers” began in earnest during the period of this occupation, increased significantly during what many call a Second Occupation, the Operation to Uphold Democracy of 19 September 1994 continuing until the 31st of March 1995. The following year saw the Operation New Horizons from the UN with a contingent of US personnel, including the commander for the operation. Public reports show the United States forces leaving in 1996, but as late as January of 2000 a contingent landed at Cap Haitien where they did electrical, plumbing and roof repairs to a protestant school nearby.  A prominent part of the message of some of the Christian missionaries was that the Afro-Haitian culture, and especially the religion and world-view, Vodou, was “satanic”, that the Haitian Revolution had been a “pact with the devil,” and this pact was responsible for all the woes Haiti has endured since 1804. A broadcast immediately after the January 2010 earthquake brought this allegation to global attention. The latest catastrophe was God’s punishment for the Haitian’s pact with the devil.
With these memories active in Haiti and known to many observers of Haiti, it is easy to see how opposite points of view could view United States responses to the tragic humanitarian aftershocks as “securing disaster”. The title implies a willful exploitation of the disaster as a means of continuing US control over that nation. Only when private government documents are released to future historians or someone with access to high secret documents can we know if this is indeed official policy. The probability that it is the wish and hope of certain government quasi- and non-governmental interests is likely, given past behaviors. It may be the wish of certain independent religious or secular groups now on the ground in Haiti, and that possibly can be documented. However, it is also possible that rather than being official policy at the level of political principle, the militarization of security after the quake is yet another example of our history of beginning the solution of all problems with armed might. This attitude sends police into the streets before the mayor has had a chance to speak to protesters on the steps of city hall in our domestic life. The same mentality sends troops out to establish law and order overseas. This may be as execrable as utilizing a hurricane or earthquake to, in a sense, capture a country but it is not the same thing. The two must be kept separated, however they may be entwined in both the minds of the perpetrators and the critics. In making distinctions based upon observations and also upon histories both written and oral we have the materials to support the conversations that can lead to more stable ameliorations.
It has adopted military priorities and strategies. It has sidelined Haiti’s own leaders and government, and ignored the needs of the majority of its people. And it has proceeded in ways that reinforce the already harrowing gap between rich and poor.
It is clear that military strategies are in effect. It is not so clear that military priorities are. What would be the military priorities? The sidelining of Haiti’s leaders and government? Are they truly sidelined? This is an open question. The situation on the shaken ground was that nearly all the top officials had lost their offices and most had lost their homes. Top officials of the UN were dead or missing. Anyone who has been at the center of a natural disaster or war zone can recall the profoundly disorienting effects of the first shock. Trauma of that nature can endure for years, but is certainly active immediately and for hours after. Part of military training includes how to act to maximize survival and continued action. Another part has to do with training as first responders to such situations, and most fire and rescue and civilian police as well as medical responders receive instruction and mock practice in these military-style strategies. Had these not been implemented as soon as possible, then it is certain the United States as the geographically closest nation with sufficient appropriate reserves would have and should have been severely criticized. On the ground reports from Haitians and others indicate that Préval and other members of the cabinet were out into the city within minutes. They were not seen everywhere because they could not have been everywhere. They could have created a public communication system that would have gotten the word out immediately, but with most radio and telephone service and all the electricity down such service could be done most quickly and probably by the military. Haiti has no army, its central police station was down with loss of life and the US with their advanced communications capabilities had not arrived. When they did arrive they could have taken over communications and neatly sidelined the government. This did not happen.
Another dimension of the “sidelining” has to do with the Haitian government itself, not an outstanding example of vigorous and transparent action on behalf of the great part of the population, but demonstrably moving –even if at snail’s pace –in that direction. The charge that the military presence ignored the needs of the majority and conducted itself in ways that “reinforce the harrowing gap between rich and poor” needs to be examined more closely. It appears that guarding hospitals that may have been outside the danger zone was one of the actions that caused many to understand that the establishment (i.e. the rich) and its property were first priority. The critique does not see this as a tactical error of judgment based on need for medical facilities to be guarded. There are certainly other instances where property was guarded first and aid delivered second. In each instance one needs to review the situation to see if this was dictated from above as United States political policy or if it was decision made on the basis of a long-standing attitude that establishing order comes first and aid to the stricken second. This attitude of course needs to be examined and the situation in Haiti will provide first response planning and training for some time to come. If this type of response is viewed as simply a political policy, it will be all the harder to get at the specifics of the case in order for anyone responding to do better next time. And there will be a next time. Already in Bora Bora there has been a storm disaster, and Haiti itself is aware that the rains are on the way. The damage from the last tropical storms is even now still hampering evacuation of the wounded to hospitals in the north.
Hallward’s report avoids the error in many internet postings, tweets and blogs that only the poor suffered in the quake. The rich who lost spouses, children and parents, close friends and associates as well as their homes and businesses are as deeply wounded and grieving as the poor. However, the gap he cites is indeed harrowing and has been so since before the revolution. It was that harrowing gap –not a pact with Satan –that was a prime cause of the successful revolution. Tragically it is harrowed more deeply in every succeeding generation. It is essential to take that into account in any discussion of any aspect of Haitian life. It is the nature of the harrowing itself that needs to be dissected as though under a microscope. A class warfare approach in Haiti, however humanely and patriotically motivated by its participants has only led to deeper wounding of the earth and the Haitian people who live on it. Things must change. One of the first changes must be a cessation of hostilities and the external participation in promulgating the battle. The rich always win battles. Warfare metaphors lead us away from understanding how to build a just society.
These same [military] tendencies will continue to govern the imminent reconstruction effort as well, unless determined political action is taken to counteract them.
Yes, yes. That is what needs to be done. Transformation can take place right now in the language we use to make our way toward solutions.
Haiti is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also one of the most polarised and unequal in its disparities in wealth and access to political power.1 A small clique of rich and well-connected families continues to dominate the country and its economy while more than half the population, according to the IMF, survive on a household income of around 44 US pennies per day.2
Mass destitution has grown far more severe in recent decades. Starting in the 1970s, internationally imposed neo-liberal ‘adjustments’ and austerity measures finally succeeded in doing what no Haitian government had managed to do since winning independence in 1804: in order to set the country on the road towards ‘economic development’, they have driven large numbers of small farmers off their land and into densely crowded urban slums. A small minority of these internal refugees may be lucky enough to find sweatshop jobs that pay the lowest wages in the region. These wages currently average $2 or $3 a day; in real terms they are worth less than a quarter of their 1980 value.
We also need to compare this with what has happened in the United States over the last 12 or more years. We now have a greater percentage of the population that have full-time employment but whose income is below the poverty line that at any time in our history. We have an increasing number who have no health insurance. Ominously, the professional and middle class is diminishing, although the heavier job losses are among the blue- and pink- collar workers. Our national debt is huge and having a destabilizing effect not only at home but abroad. The stories are out there, no need to repeat here, except to see them as parallel to the problems cited for Haiti and generated out of the same, yes the same circumstances, beliefs and economic holdings. We can look at Haiti as exemplification, but we need to look beyond it to the underlying conditions that are affecting everybody on earth. Haiti is a heuristic case study and this present moment may afford us a means not only to ameliorate the situation there but also to see the global damage is a clearer light. We need to devise new ways of examination and new ways of thought to do this.
To suggest that the successive Haitian governments (or the United States government) have been trying to drive peasants off the land and into the cities since 1804 is to attribute a consistent policy over 200 years rather than to analyze more closely walks in a fruitless direction. It is more complex than that. The systems of land distribution and land holding after the revolution did indeed make a foundation for all that has happened since. The rewards to those who had fought often included land grants, but also took into consideration the documented holdings of the offspring of French landholders who fled, leaving their deeds in the hands of the mulatto children. Here exactly is the germ of the color and economic divisions that plague the country right up to this minute. The smaller grants that went to officers and soldiers have subsequently become divided into smaller and smaller parcels, based on Haitian law and custom of land divisions upon the death of the holder. Some holders of parcels have over the years been euchred out of their holdings. During the US Occupation Haitian officials handed over some crucial parcels to private interests. It is tedious to document all this, but certain scholars have done much of the groundwork. The notion that there was a concerted policy falls apart when the documents and all the intricate decision-making come to light. Anyone who has tried to get a clear deed to certain pieces of Haitian land can speak about this eloquently. In discussion in the US people respond with recourse to legal precedents and documents, but Haitian situations are much different from what countries based on English Common Law are used to.
What was policy was the concentration during the US Occupation of governmental and economic resources and operation in Port-au-Prince. This was a matter of convenience, as it is easier to command and control in a central site. Napoleon famously made use of this and until Charles DeGaulle reversed at least part of that policy, food from Marseilles or Brest or Lyon or anywhere, destined to be eaten in the locale where it was produced, first went to the wholesale markets in Paris. In 1914 there were 11 actively trading port cities in Haiti. There are still 11 ports but only Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien are fully active in international trade, Gonaïves is secondary, Jacmel is mostly a tourist port and the other 7 languish. Coastal domestic trade is slight, and as in Napoleon’s France, much of what is produced in the countryside goes to market in Port-au-Prince. Many believe this situation is a result of the command and control preferences of the US Occupation, but continued as convenient or hard to reverse by post-occupation leaders. The policy of export-oriented national production was one part of the blow to Haitian agriculture. The other blows came as a result of US agricultural subsidy policy. Subsidized rice from Miami after 1990 was cheaper than rice Haitian farmers could afford to grow and sell. Haiti can grow enough rice to feed its own population, but not in competition from subsidized product. Chicken raised by US firms such as Perdue in the Dominican Republic or sold as backs directly in Haiti under-priced Haitian poultry farmers. Sugar cane that subsidized Napoleon’s military adventures and was Haiti’s top money earner began to be imported as early as 1986. Now the Haitian cane workers are more and more the labor force in the bateys across their eastern border. The decisions leading to centralization and to the exodus of peasants and farm workers into the city are manifold and complex, and sometimes contradictory rather that coordinated, continuous and collaborative.
Haiti’s tiny elite owes its privileges to exclusion, exploitation and violence, and it is only violence that allows it to retain them.
It is essential in understanding Haiti to recognize what “the elite” refers to. It is as stated, a “tiny” percentage (some say as few as 6 families) of the whole population and its privileges surely in part are the consequence of “exclusion, exploitation and violence.” One could add “…and collusion with foreign interests”. Some of the highly privileged are Haitian and some are not. Some are Haitians by naturalization or government fiat in the past. Many bear the family names of French landowners departed in haste after 1791, expecting to return and reclaim their holdings. Some moved into the elite under Duvalier, and some were expunged. Some have used their substantial means to build hospitals, schools, religious centers and public facilities. Some have sent or spent their profits overseas to the benefit of anywhere but Haiti and others have reinvested in agriculture, business and industry in Haiti. Nearly all are educated, and have become the professional class as well as “elite”. Many of these are now in diaspora, having fled various governments that found them non grata. If the entire elite were to be exiled or incarcerated for their past and present sins of omission and commission a small place would suffice. They would have to leave land and goods and money behind but the country would also be without their knowledge, efforts and at least in some cases their dedicated patriotism. Attacks on an elite class historically lead to unanticipated losses of both material and immaterial essentials. Be careful what you wish for. There are among them many who have and would continue to contribute to the health, education, agriculture, business, and arts infrastructure of the country. There are those who actually live rather modestly by US standards –even perhaps a couple of folk over the years emulating St.Francis. They are much in favor of a democratic state and know that the poorly schooled of Haiti nevertheless not only should be respected but also listened to for their wisdom. Many of the people who have spoken out or written most eloquently on these matters are scions of the elite. If Haiti is to rebuild in a hopeful direction the stigmatization of the elite and the romanticization of the poor both need to be set aside in favor of widespread conversations that are all-inclusive.
More than anything else, what has happened in Haiti since 1990 should be understood as the progressive clarification of this basic dichotomy — democracy or the army.
A word about the army. In Haiti as in many countries, the army and often the police forces is the power enables what many overtly or tacitly claim is the necessity for state terrorism. This is a legitmate exercise in the eyes of some political philosophers, illegitimate but sometimes necessary for others, and deleterious to peace and harmony in the eyes of yet others. Whatever may be the case, the army is also often a route to personal dignity and economic stability. For some it is a route to power and economic gain. In Haiti it has been both. Under Duvalier it was terrorism that prevailed and most of the population, including those in the elite who helped finance Aristide’s first campaign, saw the Haitin army as both deleterious to the country and unnecessary for its defense. Aristide moved swiftly to abolish the army by decree. There were many unanticipated results from this, not the least of which was a general recognition that the new President had not developed management skills in his years as priest. Many Haitians from any sector of the population believe that there is no need for a Haitian army and that resources should be allocated elsewhere. Others believe that a standing army is necessary but do not see that as a choice of democracy or the army. Armies, like fire departments and emergency rescue teams, depend upon a chain of command and standard operating procedures together with a strict discipline and an essential camaraderie. Democratic procedures and the conversations over time that ensure them are devastatingly counter-productive in fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, massive toxic releases or war. Democracies can tolerate non-democratic inclusions if the democracy is the pervading norm. Haiti’s situation in a corridor where continual emergencies can be anticipated with certainty may require a democracy with hierarchically-organized emergency response units staffed with civilians moving in and out on the basis of training and will. There are a great many Haitians including very poor ones who would be reluctant to have majority deliberation and rule active all the time in all Haitian life. They do not see this a vote for an army.
In order to avoid this outcome, the main strategy of Haiti’s little ruling class has been to redefine political questions in terms of ‘stability’ and ‘security’, and in particular the security of property and investments. Mere numbers may well win an election or sustain a popular movement but as everyone knows, only an army is equipped to deal with insecurity. The well-armed ‘friend of Haiti’ that is the United States knows this better than anyone else.
Strong interest in stability and security seems to be widespread throughout humanity over our history. It is so pervasive that one might be able to see these motivations behind nearly every polity and politics we know of now and in the past. To see this in terms of property and investment is more than a politic: it has deeper roots in fears we have and in our formation of personal and nation identity. What is different with the elite anywhere is that they are able to take measures that will ensure this for themselves. Some of us would strongly assert that stability and security for a whole population exactly cannot rest on an army. A popular movement that remains steadfast in a desire to implement the measures that lead to security and stability for all might succeed. There never has been one yet that remained steadfast. Perhaps we could think of some other strategies?
As soon as Aristide was re-elected, a systematic international campaign to bankrupt and destabilise his second government set the stage for a paramilitary insurrection and a further coup d’état, and in 2004, thousands of US troops again invaded Haiti (just as they first did back in 1915) in order to ‘restore stability and security’ to their ‘troubled island neighbour.’ An expensive and long-term UN ‘stabilisation mission’ staffed by 9,000 heavily armed troops soon took over the job of helping to pacify the population and criminalise the resistance. By the end of 2006, thousands more Aristide supporters had been killed.
There can be wide agreement on this sequence of events. The criminalization of resistance is a usual ploy of any opponent groups, and in the melee that followed the insurrection people of all political parties and persuasions lost their lives. All sides had bloody hands in this time.
More than anything else, what has happened in Haiti since 1990 should be understood as the progressive clarification of this basic dichotomy — democracy or the army…. Many similar flights met a similar fate, right through to the end of the week. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) alone has so far had to watch at least five planeloads of its medical supplies be turned away.8 On Saturday 16 January, for instance, ‘despite guarantees given by the United Nations and the US Defense Department, an MSF cargo plane carrying an inflatable surgical hospital was blocked from landing in Port-au-Prince and was re-routed to Samana, in Dominican Republic’, delaying its arrival by an additional 24 hours.9 Late on Monday 18 January, MSF ‘complained that one of its cargo planes carrying 12 tonnes of medical equipment had been turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday,’ despite receiving ‘repeated assurances they could land.’ By that stage one group of MSF doctors in Port-au-Prince had been ‘forced to buy a saw in the market to continue the amputations’ upon which the lives of their patients depended.10… The US decision to privilege military over humanitarian traffic at the airport sealed the fate of many thousands of people abandoned in the rubble of lower Port-au-Prince and Léogane.
These paragraphs contain many items that one hopes are already under investigation. As presented here it does indeed look as though the US military actively prevented aid of any kind from getting to the people who most needed it. As presented here this would come close to constituting an act of war and should receive the closest possible attention from international observers. There are questions about how the Israeli team apparently ignored the US military instructions and was able to set up medical tents outside the secured area. There are stories and footage about doctors or other medical personnel crossing the road between supplies and emergency tents who simply took what was needed and hurriedly went back across the road with supplies. Those familiar with warfare and disaster management can tell similar stories. If the US military were actively and deliberately withholding personnel and supplies this must be brought to international light. If it is true then serious condemnations are in order.
Almost by definition, in post-quake Haiti it seems that anyone or anything that cannot be enclosed in a ‘secure perimeter’ isn’t worth saving.
If your understanding of your rescue mission is to secure the territory so that you can then save lives (there are other ways to do this, of course) it does not follow that those outside the security zone are not “worth saving”. Those who have had the experience or have spoken with those who have known about it may recognize the overwhelming terribleness such decisions entail. Post traumatic distress syndrome often results. It is hard to imagine that the people implementing the decision were unaffected but the thousands of worthy souls outside the perimeter they guarded. It is only a little easier to imagine experienced military officers who would be so lacking in human sensibilities that that would regard those outside a perimeter as worthless. This demonizes the military. Us pacifists will remain ineffective until we begin to avoid this understandable but unproductive way of speaking of the other side.
It is good to take up the matter of terminology applied to the people who went after whatever they could scavenge. There were some looters, among them apparently some of the gangs that the earthquake allowed to escape incarceration (Mr. Pat Robertson, was that an act of God too?) and they seem to have set up vending locales to resell. Some also preyed on orphanages where there was no security protection. One can ask why there wasn’t any. On the other hand people did what St. Thomas Aquinas adjured was not stealing. One of those shot for “looting” –you saw the photo –was carrying a carton of milk. One easily sees the picture out of the frame: a hungry child with no father. Despicable.
The immigration picture is as despicable. It needs to be reported in detail and widely. Will it? Will it become, as in the past, simply the property of ranters on what is curiously called “the left”? Will the nineteenth century language of class warfare further alienate those who might work to solve the problem from those who report on it from deep pain?
Hallward’s article with its several important messages seems to arise out of pain for a population that endures one nearly unimaginable distress after another. It should raise questions for anyone who reads it and deserves thoughtful responses.
From Hallward’s article 17 January in The Guardian (online)
Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti’s people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop trying to control Haiti’s government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we’ve already done.
YES, YES, YES.
Dear LeGrace Benson,
Thank you for your message, and for this long and thoughtful response.
I’m struggling to catch up with college work just now and regret I don’t have time to go into the specifics (which I’ve tried to do in ‘Damming the Flood’), but as you might imagine I think you underestimate the sort of class conflict at issue here.
Here’s how I see things, basically:
1. In Haiti like anywhere else, the only way to maintain such an unequal division of class power & privilege is by securing the docility of the people; strategies for achieving this in Haiti have evolved a good deal since the plantation days, but the problem is basically the same. The history as you know is long & not v. pretty. Once enough people had been pushed into destitute neighbourhoods in PAP to enable profitable sweatshop production to begin in the 1970s it took on a more urban inflection, as the factory owners needed in particular to maintain ‘order’ among their workers and in particular neighbourhoods close to the factory zone (e.g. Cite Soleil). The army & the attaches fulfilled this role well enough through the 1980s.
2. The key development in modern Haitian politics, I think, was the development of a popular mobilisation that was able to overcome the Duvalierist ‘security’ strategy: what happened in 1986-1990 is that the people almost succeeded in overcoming the army and the macoutes. This then raised the possibility of a genuinely political rather than a quasi-military solution to some of Haiti’s problems – in other words, it raised the prospect of popular empowerment, and of the loss or dilution of some elite privileges. Much of what’s happened since, I think, has involved the development of an alternative security strategy and in fact a whole mindset to protect the basic status quo, and to ensure that political problems (which might be solved by popular vote) are deflected onto the terrain of crime, insecurity, instability, etc. (where they can be solved by force, i.e. by an army – a paramilitary force a la Chamblain, the US army, MINUSTAH, private security forces, if necessary a return of the Haitian army…). This project has been helped by the fact that the US has adopted similar priorities since 2001.
JBA’s abolition of the army in 1995 creates an ironic situation: the pro-army, pro-security camp, now tries to portray Aristide’s people as the real menace, the real human rights disaster, a return to Duvalier, etc., in order to set up a scenario in which the forces of order (international & local) can step in to save the day (but certainly not to arrange another round of unpromising elections). Yes another BBC correspondent (Orin Gordon) repeated this line last week: Aristide was a new variation on Duvalier. JBA certainly wasn’t a perfect president, far from it, but I find this line of argument extraordinary. One of the minor problems with it is the fact that Duvalier’s militia killed, according to the best estimates I’m aware of, more than a thousand times more people than did those who can in some vague sense be described as ‘Aristide supporters’ — who themselves suffered vastly more violence than they inflicted. As usual Gordon didn’t have any actual information even to begin to back up his point — it seems to have been more an ‘impression’, picked up from the way things played out.
3. The key achievement since the coup of 2004, I think, has been to confirm this conversion of political into security questions on a whole range of fronts. This has clearly been the main function of the UN occupation from the start, and in the last 5 years there’s been no serious attempt to shift its purpose away from pacification towards something like poverty reduction, public investment, etc. The UN sent ‘peacekeepers’ to police (sometimes with overwhelming and outrageous force) the consequences of a coup that overthrew a government that had 90% of the seats in parliament! Is there any parallel for such a situation? This was an extraordinary violation of Haitian democracy and sovereignty, and it continues with hardly a whisper of criticism.
If you ask me the whole international approach to Haiti has been obsessed with ‘securing’ the place from the get-go, to preserve the basic class configuration & all that goes with it. So when the earthquake struck and military/security priorities immediately emerged as dominant it seems to me that the prevailing reflex kicked in as usual, albeit on a much more literal, intense and spectacular scale.
 The city of Savannah in October of 2009 dedicated a monument to the freedmen soldiers given by the Haitian American History Society. On January 13 2000 a handmade poster appeared stating “ They helped us then, let us help them now.”
 See his correspondence with Thomas Clarkson held at British Library.
 The author witnessed the landing and colleagues reported the repairs to the mission facility.