By Raffique Shah
January 24, 2010
WHAT surprised me about my column last week was the number of people, mostly local, who knew little or nothing about Haiti’s history. But what should I have expected in a country and an education system in which history has been deemed irrelevant? Or when students study the subject, the focus is on lands and civilisations afar? Let’s face it: we know more about America and Europe than we do of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean.
Teachers and students alike were emailing or telephoning me to seek wider knowledge of the devastated country, to explain why slaves who fought for and won their freedom were made to pay huge indemnities to their defeated French masters. I pointed them to an incisive article written by UWI pro-vice-chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles, to an in-depth analysis of Haiti by Noam Chomsky, and asked that they read Black Jacobins by our own CLR James.
Of course many argued that ‘Black people cannot govern themselves’, citing the many failed states in Africa that, coincidentally, have similar colonial histories to Haiti. One friend who is involved in a billion-dollar project, and whose business partners are all black, had the audacity to tell me: ‘Raf, you know black people can’t run business!’ I almost asked him why, then, was he (of mixed race) involved in that particular project. But I held my tongue.
But this column is not about black or white or brown people. It’s about a Caribbean country that has long borne the dubious title of the ‘poorest nation in the Western hemisphere’. Last week I showed where, after 200-odd years of ‘freedom’, with which went ostracism from the developed world and a death-dealing trade and recognition embargo, Haiti’s government was forced to sign an ‘IOU’ to France for 90 million gold francs.
That amounted to some 70 per cent of the value of its exports, and it took Haiti almost 125 years to clear that dubious debt! The money was paid in tranches to France. But the US was complicit in its capitulation-in-victory because the US’s revered ‘founding fathers’, all slave owners, did not want the ‘bad example’ set by Toussaint and Dessalines to spread to its territory. Indeed, in exchange for the revered Thomas Jefferson’s assistance in securing this humongous reparation, France sold two American states that it owned-New Orleans and Louisiana-to the newly independent US. That secured for the US all territories west of the Mississippi that Napoleon coveted.
According the Eduardo Galeano (author of Open Veins of Latin America), the first country to abolish African slavery became a ‘new country born with a rope wrapped tightly around its neck: the equivalent of US$21.7 billion in today’s dollars, or forty-four times Haiti’s current yearly budget.’ And whereas France licked its wounds and took its money, the last tranche paid in 1947, America also imposed its will and its might on the hapless nation, repeatedly invading it, raping it, stealing its wealth and up to this day imposing its leader-of-choice on the Haitian people.
Here I quote from Galeano again: ‘In 1915, the Marines landed in Haiti. They stayed nineteen years. The first thing they did was occupy the customs house and duty collection facilities. The occupying army suspended the salary of the Haitian president until he agreed to sign off on the liquidation of the Bank of the Nation, which became a branch of City Bank of New York. The president and other blacks were barred entry into the private hotels, restaurants, and clubs of the foreign occupying power. The occupiers didn’t dare re-establish slavery, but they did impose forced labour for the building of public works. And they killed a lot of people. It wasn’t easy to quell the fires of resistance.’
I have already stated that the US and its ‘agencies of death’ (the World Bank and the IMF) must be made to share in reparations to Haiti, which, if we add interest and subtract what they have already loaned or given to that country, would amount to around US$40 billion-not the $20 billion that I mentioned last week. I heard Prime Minister Patrick Manning say it would take around US$2 billion a year to rebuild that broken country.
Manning has to be joking. Little wonder Caricom has so little influence in one of its member-states where its delegation was disallowed landing rights-by the occupying Americans.
I agree that only the US has the manpower and other resources to deal with the kind of catastrophe that has struck Haiti. But does that give them the right to deny entry to CARICOM leaders, to Cuban doctors, to disaster-trained medical personnel from Médecins Sans Frontières?
We saw the mess the Americans made after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. It took days for drinking water to reach victims, weeks for them to be fed and years later some victims still live in temporary shelters. Will Haitians fare any better with American troops instead of American humanitarian help? Already we see the additional pain that victims have borne. Amputations are done with rusted hacksaws. Field hospitals are few, medicines are in short supply and medical personnel even fewer.
-To be concluded: Plan for recovery