Truth Amidst the Rubble in Haiti: The U.S. Is the Problem, Not the Solution
Revolution #191, February 7, 2010
Hearts around the world continue to ache for the Haitian people. So many dead and dying. Most buildings in Port-au-Prince completely flattened. The rest uninhabitable. Hundreds of thousands living in the streets, coming together to help the sick and injured, sharing what little they have. Tent cities amidst the indescribable stench of death.
Revolution sent a correspondent to Haiti who has told me stories of the incredible spirit of the people—struggling to not only stay alive but to keep their dignity and humanity toward each other. People trying to go on with life, even as they bury the dead. “It is quite something,” he says, “to see people living in unbelievably unlivable conditions and then to hear the sound of children still playing in the street... It is incredible to see how generous and caring people can be in the most utterly miserable conditions.”
Some of the people now living in the streets of Port-au-Prince are angry that the U.S. has sent more soldiers with guns than doctors with medicine. At the same time people argue the situation in Haiti is now so desperate that the only way to rebuild the country is to bring in and completely rely on the United States.
In fact, this moment in Haiti—where the whole future of the country and the people hangs in the balance—poses sharp questions. How did Haiti come to be so poor? Why was there no infrastructure in the country? Why were 2-3 million people out of a population of 9 million living in the capital city of Port-au-Prince? And will the aid and economic development that the U.S. is offering really help the people and rebuild the country?
One way to begin getting at these questions is to look at the history of Haiti.
Isolation and Enforced Underdevelopment: The very birth of Haiti set into motion a long period in which it was isolated by the U.S., France and other imperialist countries.
In 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a heroic slave rebellion, which over 13 years defeated the slave owners of Haiti, armies from Spain and Britain, and finally the French. This was the only successful slave revolution in history and the U.S. ruling class feared the spread of such a contagion—especially to its own slave population. The U.S. and the European powers refused to recognize the new Haitian Republic. The French navy imposed an embargo on Haiti that remained in effect until 1825 and the U.S. refused to trade with Haiti. The French demanded Haiti pay a massive price for its independence, reparations to compensate France for its loss of slaves! And because of this Haiti immediately became immersed in foreign debt. By the end of the 1800s Haiti was using 80 percent of its national revenue to pay this outrageous debt.
In these conditions of economic and political isolation, Haiti remained severely underdeveloped and poor. What developed in this context was an oppressive sharecropping system in which the peasants became increasingly exploited by powerful forces in the countryside who had economic relations with elite classes in the cities.
U.S. Invasion, Occupation and Domination: Going into the 20th century, U.S. imperialism continued to keep Haiti politically isolated—and backward. The world was on the brink of World War 1 and the U.S. was increasingly worried about the threat of German imperialism making inroads in Haiti. Inside Haiti, the U.S. faced an increasingly unstable situation—where different sections of the ruling classes were clashing and the impoverished were waging a growing liberation struggle. It was in this context that in 1915, the U.S. invaded Haiti and the Marines occupied the country for almost 20 years until 1934.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. was expanding and integrating its empire and had big concerns about the spread of revolution in the world, including in Latin America and the Caribbean—what the U.S. considers its “own backyard.”
It was in this context that starting in 1957, the U.S. propped up the dictatorial government of Papa Doc (Francois) Duvalier—an utterly corrupt and brutal regime that used its military, along with Tonton Macoute gangs, to terrorize and murder people.
In this whole period, the U.S. continued its policy of keeping Haiti politically isolated and backward—cooperating with and using both light-skinned elites in the cities as well as reactionary black nationalists. The U.S. tried—mostly unsuccessfully—in economically penetrating and profiting from the development of agricultural production and the development of small industry in the cities.
From Destruction and Distortion of Haiti’s Economy to Sweatshop Dreams: After Papa Doc died in 1971, his son Baby Doc (Jean Claude) Duvalier followed in his father’s bloody footsteps, with the continued support and backing of the United States. U.S. imperialism continued to try and extract profits from Haiti. But by the beginning of the 1980s there were only about 200 mostly U.S.-owned or subsidiary companies employing only 60,000 Haitian workers.
The government of Baby Doc served U.S. interests, but it was also widely hated by the people and he was forced to leave the country after a massive and ongoing rebellion. Following this was a series of military governments known to Haitians as “Duvalierism without Duvalier.” Then in 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical priest and a leader of the anti-Duvalierist movement, was elected president. Aristide did not seek to break with U.S. imperialism, but he did try to bring about certain economic and social reforms that conflicted with what the U.S. wanted to do in Haiti. And the mass, popular movement that arose in support of Aristide threatened political stability. The Haitian reactionaries hated Aristide, and from the viewpoint of protecting their interests, the U.S. saw him as undesirable and unreliable. After just nine months in office, the CIA collaborated with local military forces to stage a bloody coup d’état that overthrew Aristide—thousands of his supporters were killed.
But this did not quell resistance or accomplish a “stable environment” for the U.S. So in 1994 the U.S. brokered a deal to restore Aristide to office, returning him accompanied by 20,000 U.S. troops who remained in Haiti for over a year. The U.S. demanded that in return, Aristide end his resistance to the Haitian army and ruling class and the U.S. plan for Haiti. But mass struggle against the brutality of the Haitian army and Tonton Macoute thugs continued. In 2004 the U.S. military literally kidnapped Aristide and his family and put him on a plane to the Central African Republic, as a new regime consolidated and hundreds of U.S. Marines once again controlled the capital.
Over the last several years the U.S. has been advancing new plans for attempting what it has as yet been unable to do—to develop Haiti as a base for highly profitable cheap assembly sweatshops. And this is a big factor in how the U.S. is now discussing its plans for “rebuilding” Haiti in the wake of the earthquake.
What Determines What is Possible?
Some people might be thinking: Now is a real chance for the U.S. and its military to do something good for a change. Instead of going around the world shooting people and dropping bombs—maybe they can actually help people in Haiti. And looking back at the history of all the harm the U.S. has done in Haiti (which includes military invasions and “regime changes”)—the argument could certainly, morally, be made that it’s about time for the U.S. to repay the Haitian people back by helping them rebuild their country in the wake of this tremendous disaster.
But to understand whether or not this is actually possible requires going beyond the good intentions of individuals—whether it’s compassionate doctors or even a U.S. Marine who feels good about handing out food to hungry people or Obama who has said he cares about Haiti.
Bigger things determine what the U.S. will and can do in Haiti. Bigger things set the terms for what kind of aid will be distributed to the Haitian people and in what ways the U.S. will “rebuild” Haiti.
The truth is this: What is possible for the U.S. to do in Haiti has nothing to do with wishes and intentions. It has everything to do with the system of imperialism in which the United States is a powerful imperialist power and Haiti exists as an oppressed Third World country.
There are rules to this system—and like in a game, each of the players that is part of this system has to play by these rules. And for anyone to actually work outside of the rules would require upending the whole game.
So what are the rules of the system of imperialism—that govern the relationship between Haiti and the United States?
Profit and Exploitation
Rule Number One is that the whole point of everything is for someone to make a profit. And where does that profit come from?The capitalist class—the relative handful which owns or controls the means of production (the land, resources, factories, etc.)—extracts that profit from the proletariat—the worldwide class of people which owns nothing but its ability to work, and therefore must work for others to survive.
What does this rule mean in Haiti?
It means workers are paid $3-$5 a day. It means they work in horribly unsafe and unsanitary conditions. It means they have no rights to organize. It means women workers face constant sexual harassment. It means workers end up suddenly unemployed when factories pick up and move to another Third World country where workers are paid even less. It meant that when the earthquake hit, 500 workers—perhaps 1,000—in the poor area of Carrefour were crushed to death next to their sewing machines.
In fact, to imperialism Haiti’s biggest “asset” is the fact that people impoverished and desperate—and even more so now after the earthquake—can be forced to work for the lowest wages and in the worst working conditions.
Bill Clinton—who together with George W. Bush has now been put in charge of U.S. aid to Haiti—has been the point man for a whole plan to expand the Haitian economy by pushing policies that give U.S. capital greater access to different sectors of the Haitian economy and developing “free trade zones” for garment sweatshops and tourism. This plan came out of a report prepared for the UN in 2009 that openly discussed Haiti’s poverty as its number one asset in the global capitalist economy. Haiti occupies a certain place in the global imperialist division of labor. Investments are geared to light assembly (sweatshops), and the production of agricultural goods for export, not the development of large industry.
Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier, who prepared the report, wrote: “Due to its poverty and relatively unregulated labor market, Haiti has labor costs that are fully competitive with China, which is the global benchmark.” Translation: Haiti can match or better the lowest wages and the most horrific working conditions in the world—and generate very high profits for foreign capital.
Distortion and Dependency
Rule Number One, carried out by an imperialist country like the U.S. in a poor country like Haiti, has particular, extreme and grotesque expressions. It subordinates the economy of the whole country to the needs of imperialism.
A very sharp example of this is how Haiti went from being basically self sufficient in food to becoming totally dependent on imports. Due to the workings of imperialism and conscious policies by the U.S. and U.S.-dominated financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, domestic agricultural production in Haiti has basically been ruined and thousands of peasants have seen their livelihood destroyed.
Thirty years ago most of the food eaten by the Haitian people was domestically grown. Then in 1986 the IMF loaned Haiti $24.6 million. One of the conditions of this loan was that Haiti reduce tariff protections on Haitian rice, other agricultural products and some industries. This made it possible for other countries, especially the U.S., to compete in Haiti’s markets. But the Haitian farmers could not compete with U.S. rice growers who were being subsidized by the U.S. government. And some of the cheap rice that flooded into Haiti came in the form of “food aid.” Before long the local rice market in Haiti collapsed and thousands of farmers were forced to move to the cities to look for work. As a result, Haiti is the fourth largest market for U.S. rice exports.
Subordinate to the needs of U.S. imperialism, Haiti’s agricultural economy was dramatically changed—and in a way that deepened the country’s dependency, disarticulation and misery among the people. In 1970 agricultural production still accounted for about half of Haiti’s gross domestic product. By the beginning of the 1990s it had dropped to less than a third. Haiti is now dependent on imports for more than half of its food consumption.
Around this same time, the U.S. insisted that the Haitian peasantry do away with its huge and valuable domestic pig population—supposedly due to fears that the swine flu would infect the U.S. pig population. And this had a devastating impact on many peasants.
Rivalry, Geo-Strategic Concerns, and Brutal Regimes
Rule Number Two is that individual capitalists (or “blocs of capital”) must battle each other for survival.Those capitalists who do not constantly expand run the risk of being driven under by others.
One way this expresses itself is that everything the U.S. does in Haiti must take into account the geo-strategic concerns of the United States in the whole region and the world. The U.S., while it is top dog, confronts rivals in this region—such as France and China. And this means that a BIG concern of the U.S. is the need to keep Haiti under control and maintain stability. This is because instability in Haiti or in the region could provide openings for other countries to take—and gain an—economic and/or political advantage.
Rule Number Three is that anything that gets in the way of America being the number one empire in the world must be brought to heel, or crushed.
Go back to the beginning of this article and look at how Rule Number 3 has been applied throughout Haiti’s history. U.S. domination, exploitation and dependency in Haiti have all been facilitated by a long history of brutal U.S.-backed regimes and U.S. invasions and occupations. And in particular, the suppression of the resistance of the Haitian people has been central to both maintaining and managing this oppressive relationship.
Anti-U.S. sentiments have fueled a whole history of resistance and rebellion among the Haitian people. And this is a big reason U.S. imperialism has needed to develop and prop up a whole class of collaborators who enforce and serve U.S. domination—and at the same time have their own exploitative class interests.
Our reporter in Haiti tells me that there is a lot of anger, hatred and mistrust of the government. And people point to the brutality, corruption, and long history of a small elite and privileged class looting the economy and government treasury and living in luxury while the masses of people suffer.
At the same time, this is sometimes given as a reason for why now, after the earthquake, it is only the U.S., not the Haitian government, which can rebuild the country. But a hugely important truth is being missed in this argument. And that is that the Haitian government has been and remains totally subservient to the United States. It, too, has and must march and act to the heartbeat of imperialism. The corruption, the brutality, the elitism is real enough. But this doesn’t get to the heart of the problem—which is that the ruling class in Haiti maintains power in order to—and only so long as it is able to—serve and maintain the economic and social relations that serve U.S. imperialism.
A Way Out of
the Long Darkness
It is not enough to look at the situation in Haiti and come to the conclusion that what Haiti really needs is infrastructure, food, medicine, doctors, schools, etc. Yes, Haiti needs all these things. But, imperialism must play by the rules. And this not only is the reason Haiti is so poor—but why the U.S. can do no good in Haiti.
Yes, Bill Clinton may come in and build some schools and orphanages along with the sweatshops. And maybe Haiti will be able to get foreign loans to rebuild its infrastructure. But none of this will fundamentally change the system that keeps Haiti impoverished. And none of this will even begin to address the deep economic and social problems the Haitian people confront. For THIS to happen, it will take a REVOLUTION. A revolution that kicks out imperialism and overthrows the Haitian ruling class that’s tied to and serves imperialism. A revolution that sets out to build a socialist society with the aim of a communist world (of which I will have more to say in Part 2).
The situation in Haiti right now underscores—with such great urgency and profound truth—the opening paragraph of the Manifesto of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, “Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage”:
“Despite what is constantly preached at us, this capitalist system we live under, this way of life that constantly drains away—or in an instant blows away—life for the great majority of humanity, does not represent the best possible world—nor the only possible world. The ways in which the daily train of life has, for centuries and millennia, caused the great majority of humanity to be weighed down, broken in body and spirit, by oppression, agony, degradation, violence and destruction, and the dark veil of ignorance and superstition, is not the fault of this suffering humanity—nor is this the ‘will’ of some non-existent god or gods, or the result of some unchanging and unchangeable ‘human nature.’ All this is the expression, and the result, of the way human society has developed up to this point under the domination of exploiters and oppressors...but that very development has brought humanity to the point where what has been, for thousands of years, no longer has to be—where a whole different way of life is possible in which human beings, individually and above all in their mutual interaction with each other, in all parts of the world, can throw off the heavy chains of tradition and rise to their full height and thrive in ways never before experienced, or even fully imagined.”
Every sentence here speaks so profoundly to the whole history of Haiti as a neo-colony of the United States and to the terrible situation faced by the Haitian people right now. It speaks to the fact that the Haitian people need revolution that breaks the chains of imperialist domination—NOT more of the same system they have been suffering under for so many years.