By Raffique Shah
January 17, 2010
SO we cry for Haiti again. Yet another natural disaster, this time an earthquake of horrendous magnitude, has all but flattened what was left of that ‘cussed’ country. In the Caribbean, so full of heart are we, even those who survive barely above the poverty line give, be it cash or clothes or food. But will our generosity, will the US$1 billion or so in help that will flow over the next year make a difference to 4.5 million of seven million people who live on less than US$1 day?
I think not. All we can achieve is cosmetic relief of the flimsiest type: Some food and water to barely keep alive those who survived death only to end up in living hell. In the short term, the USA gives $100 million plus on-the-ground equipment and trained personnel. We applaud. The IMF matches the US and again we sing hosannas to this agency of death. As for our Prime Minister, he commits US$1 million-far, far less than it cost for the cultural show to open one of the international conferences held here last year. ‘Things tight, boy!’ he says.
I know, to use Bob Dylan’s undying lyrics of the 1960s, my appeal will be akin to ‘blowin’ in the wind’. But I feel compelled to raise the real issues that bedevil Haiti. If these historical injustices are not seriously addressed, we may give a little today, more tomorrow, but Haiti will remain mired in poverty.
Let me start from the end, in a manner of speaking-from last Tuesday evening when the monster quake struck. In the immediate aftermath news reports and reporters focused on millions of Haitians who lived in hovels on the hillsides around Port-au-Prince. Few journalists queried how those people ended up there, lambs waiting to be slaughtered following heavy rains and mudslides or an earthquake.
Not so long ago, and this after too many years of externally-imposed impoverishment, Haitian farmers grew more than enough rice, among other crops, to feed their nation. Under the brutal, not to add thieving, hands of the US-imposed Duvalier dynasty, the IMF intervened to ‘save’ Haiti. This agency of destruction determined that the part-island state could better serve as a source of cheap labour for manufacturing goods to be sold on the nearby US market.
Fair enough, any good capitalist might argue. But it was anything but fair. As a corollary to transforming the economy, the IMF dictated that growing rice and other foods that could be imported more cheaply from the US made no sense. In one blow, the IMF killed agriculture, forcing farmers to abandon rural, productive lands and seek elusive, low-paid jobs in the cities. That accounts for the huge number of hovels around the cities that crumbled when the earthquake struck. It also was partly responsible for denuding the countryside of everything green, hence exposing the soil to unimaginable erosion that sticks out like a sore thumb for those who have seen Haiti.
But I jumped the gun. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the leftist priest, was first elected to power by a huge majority in 1991. His platform was one of setting right the historical wrongs that had kept his country in chains even though it was the first nation of slaves to abolish slavery. He didn’t last long. Papa George Bush arranged for him to be overthrown. And when later, under US supervision, he was again elected in 2001 by an overwhelming majority, Baby George W arranged to have him deposed in 2004.
One of Aristide’s cardinal crimes was to formally raise the question of reparations, in 2003, I believe. ‘Reparations for what?’ you may ask. Haiti is the only country in world history-and here I can hark back to Neanderthal man-that won a war but was forced to compensate the vanquished. Following the successful American war of Independence (1775-83), and later the Jacobins-inspired French Revolution (1789-99), Haitian slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture waged a successful campaign to oust their French masters.
Between 1791 and 1803, Haiti’s slave-army defeated what was considered the finest war machine of the era, Napoleon Bonaparte’s. The ‘little general’ had conquered much of Europe and later set his sights on a chunk of southern US, where the French already had a foothold. But Toussaint, taking up the Jacobins cry of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, initiated a war that would apply these noble ideals to a country where slavery was most brutal.
Napoleon sent two separate, well-equipped forces to take on the rebel slaves. Both failed. By 1803, when Dessalines declared Haiti independent, Napoleon had lost more than 24,000 troops. What followed that first victory of an enslaved people was an injustice that doomed the victors to persistent poverty.
France demanded 90 million gold francs (more than US$20 billion in today’s currency). Newly-independent US paid Britain nothing. The victorious French paid the deposed monarchy not one franc. But poor Haiti was coerced into paying the victors the sum demanded. Aristide’s cardinal sin was to raise the issue of reparations-US$20 billion-in 2003. To seriously address Haiti’s dire poverty, Caribbean countries must join in the call for US$20 billion in reparations, from France and from the US.
-To be continued
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