As grim accounts of the earthquake in Haiti came in, the accounts in U.S.-controlled state media all carried the same descriptive sentence: "Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere..."
Gee, I wonder how that happened?
You'd think Haiti would be loaded. After all, it made a lot of people rich.
How did Haiti get so poor? Despite a century of American colonialism, occupation, and propping up corrupt dictators? Even though the CIA staged coups d'état against every democratically elected president they ever had?
It's an important question. An earthquake isn't just an earthquake. The same 7.0 tremor hitting San Francisco wouldn't kill nearly as many people as in Port-au-Prince.
"Looking at the pictures, essentially it looks as if (the buildings are of) breezeblock or cinderblock construction, and what you need in an earthquake zone is metal bars that connect the blocks so that they stay together when they get shaken," notes Sandy Steacey, director of the Environmental Science Research Institute at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. "In a wealthy country with good seismic building codes that are enforced, you would have some damage, but not very much."
When a pile of cinderblocks falls on you, your odds of survival are long. Even if you miraculously survive, a poor country like Haiti doesn't have the equipment, communications infrastructure or emergency service personnel to pull you out of the rubble in time. And if your neighbors get you out, there's no ambulance to take you to the hospital--or doctor to treat you once you get there.
Earthquakes are random events. How many people they kill is predetermined. In Haiti this week, don't blame tectonic plates. Ninety-nine percent of the death toll is attributable to poverty.
So the question is relevant. How'd Haiti become so poor?
The story begins in 1910, when a U.S. State Department-National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) consortium bought the Banque Nationale d'Haïti--Haiti's only commercial bank and its national treasury--in effect transferring Haiti's debts to the Americans. Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy the country in order to keep tabs on "our" investment.
From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines imposed harsh military occupation, murdered Haitians patriots and diverted 40 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs. Ambitious Haitians were shunted into the puppet military, setting the stage for a half-century of U.S.-backed military dictatorship.
The U.S. kept control of Haiti's finances until 1947.
Still--why should Haitians complain? Sure, we stole 40 percent of Haiti's national wealth for 32 years. But we let them keep 60 percent.
Despite having been bled dry by American bankers and generals, civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed President-for-Life François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30,000 Haitians and drove educated people to flee into exile. But think of the cup as half-full: fewer people in the population means fewer people competing for the same jobs!
Upon Papa Doc's death in 1971, the torch passed to his even more dissolute 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The U.S., cool to Papa Doc in his later years, quickly warmed back up to his kleptomaniacal playboy heir. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Castro's Cuba, Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International. The money was placed in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.
Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.
The Duvalier era, 29 years in all, came to an end in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France, saving him from a popular uprising.
Once again, Haitians should thank Americans. Duvalierism was "tough love." Forcing Haitians to make do without their national treasury was our nice way or encouraging them to work harder, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, in this case, flipflops.
The U.S. has been all about tough love ever since. We twice deposed the populist and popular democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The second time, in 2004, we even gave him a free flight to the Central African Republic! (He says the CIA kidnapped him, but whatever.) Hey, he needed a rest. And it was kind of us to support a new government formed by former Tonton Macoutes.
Yet, despite everything we've done for Haiti, they're still a fourth-world failed state on a fault line.
And still, we haven't given up. American companies like Disney generously pay wages to their sweatshop workers of 28 cents an hour.
What more do these ingrates want?
Note on the US Occupation of 1915-1934, added by Tlaxcala
In 1919 the US murdered him and put the body on display
The insurrection of 1916 was led by a former Haitian officer (dubbed a simple "bandit" by the American military and some historians who should know better), one Charlemagne Peralte. He had been demoted for his fierce anti-Occupation views shortly after the invasion, and later resigned his commission. Peralte had already been arrested once and put to forced labour on the roads. He escaped from captivity and formed a provisional government while calling for a
popular uprising from the mountains. Thousands of Haitians flocked to his standard.
It's true that Peralte might have started as an outlaw (by special order, the traditional Haitian term for rebels, cacos, was prohibited in military paperwork, and American forces were instructed to call enemy combatants "bandits" instead). But Peralte would soon become the premier Haitian martyr of the 20th century, and they were American guns slung over American shoulders that created his legend.
In a special operation, a squadron of twenty-two American Marines put on Al Jolson-style blackface (probably without as much white around the lips) and crept into Peralte's camp. Peralte was alerted and ran, but the Marines shot him before he could escape into the bush. The leader of the squadron, Sgt. Herman Hanneken, was given a Medal of Honor for what was tantamount to assassination, and instructors in the military today still point to the murder of Peralte as a textbook case of liquidating an enemy's leader in order to disperse his forces.
Peralte was just one of what the Marine Corps itself estimated as 3,250 Haitian "bandits" killed between March 1919 and November. Most of them were armed with knives and clubs, like the maroons, the runaway slaves who escaped imprisonment and formed their own communities up in the mountains. But Peralte would become Haiti's iconic Che Guevara thanks to an egregious error that today's military instructors are careful not to mention.
Not satisfied with being Pontius Pilate, the American authorities took the role of St. Paul, too. They carried the dead guerrilla leader's body to his hometown of Hinche, tied it upright to a door and photographed him. Copies were circulated throughout Haiti as an illustrated lesson in what would happen to those who rebelled against
the Occupation and the "best interests" of the Haitian people. The scarecrow became an inspiration as Peralte's body in the photograph was a dead ringer for Christ at the Crucifixion. The image was burned into the Haitian consciousness, and Peralte is still considered one of Haiti's greatest heroes today.
The American public might bristle that someone who wanted to kill them - in this case, a Haitian guerrilla - is lionized as a friendly nation's ultimate patriot. In the Third World, it's incomprehensible that someone like Sgt. Hanneken was not only decorated with a high award, but is still celebrated today by the self-appointed custodians of American prestige for what he did in the service of crass imperialism. Nobody disputes the facts of Hanneken's operation, but the reluctance to call it what it was - and it was an assassination - suggests a reluctance to face reality, as does the continued reference to Peralte as a kind of African bandit king, sans loincloth - the prototypical savage standing in the way of American Progress.
BUT THE TRUE agony of the Haitian Occupation was experienced afterward, in its shadow. America left behind an infrastructure still in tatters, an economy wholly dependent upon absentee foreign landowners, and a powerful native Gendarmerie deliberately cultivated in their own image - as arrogant occupiers quick to the draw. (The same was true on the opposite end of Hispaniola, where Rafael Trujillo assumed command of the reinforced Dominican Guardia a year after America's departure and
used it as the basis of his 31 year dictatorship.)
In the twenty years following the Occupation, the Haitian army emptied more clips into Haitian bodies than they fired at foreign interlopers. (The death toll would be far greater if it weren't for Papa Doc Duvalier's subordination of the raucous Gendarmerie in favour his own private militia, the rapacious Tonton Macoutes.) Oddly enough, the State Department fought hard to thwart Haitian President Jean Bertrand
Aristide's plans to dismantle the Haitian army, riddled with graduates from the School of the Americas, former CIA assets and ordinary, run-of-the-mill psychopaths. They only dropped their opposition when Aristide agreed to form a new national police corps - and accepted a special American mission to help train them.
Source: America, Iraq and the Legend of Charlemagne Peralte (Excerpt), by Cali Ruchala, February 20, 2003
Original article published on Jan.14, 2010
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