US suppresses minimum wage in Haiti, and more

The release of 1,918 Haiti-related diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks this summer reveals details of US involvement in Haiti from 2003 to present. Unfortunately, the cables support the historical pattern, just adding in disturbing details. If there is any good news here, it’s of a rare example of responsible journalism. The Nation is collaborating with the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté on a series of groundbreaking articles about US and UN policy toward Haiti, which are based on those cables.

Revolution in Saint Domingue

Revolution in Saint Domingue

The pattern goes back at least to the earliest days of the 19th century, when President George Washington, a slave owner, had Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson grant the first significant foreign aid of the United States to the slave owners in Haiti in a failed effort to suppress the slave revolution there. Following the success of that revolution, the US enforced a diplomatic and trade embargo against Haiti until 1862. From 1915 to 1934 the U.S. imposed a military occupation ostensibly to stabilize the country and keep out Europeans, but also to shape Haiti into a profitable neo-colony.

As popular resistance to occupation grew, the U.S. withdrew and shifted its support from 1957 to 1986 to the fascist Duvaliers, father and son, and their Tonton Macoutes paramilitaries. After suffering from years of bloody military coups and massacres of protesters, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide by a landslide in 1990. Aristide called the mass movement that put him into power Lavalas (“torrent” in Kreyòl). His election succeeded despite the millions that the US gave to his opponent, Marc Bazin, a former World Bank Official. In 1991 a US-backed military coup deposed Aristide as president. René Préval replaced Aristide in 1996, but Aristide was re-elected later, replacing Préval in 2001.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

The newly released cables pick up the details from 2003 on. Because Aristide had disbanded the army in 1995, it was difficult for the U.S. and its allies to organize a coup. On Feb. 29, 2004,  U.S. Special Forces kidnapped Aristide and his spouse, Mildred Trouillot Aristide, taking them to the Central African Republic.

The cables also show how the US, the European Union, and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections, despite the exclusion of Lavalas, Haiti’s largest political party. They agonized a bit about sponsoring an election that would exclude the majority party from participating, about “emasculating” the country, but decided to push through the sham election because so much was invested already in the neocolonial relationship with Haiti.

The US embassy noted that Haiti would save $100 million a year under the terms of  the Caribbean oil alliance with Venezula, called PetroCaribe. The savings would be earmarked for development in schools, health care, and infrastructure. US Ambassador Janet Sanderson immediately set out to sabotage the deal. She noted that the embassy started to “pressure” Haitian leader Préval from joining PetroCaribe, saying that it would “cause problems with [the US.]” As major oil companies, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, threatened to cut off ties with Haiti, Sanderson met to assure them that she would pressure Haiti at the “highest levels of government.”

Haiti garment workers

Haiti garment workers

Meanwhile, contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked closely with the US Embassy to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian garment workers. In a June 10, 2009 cable to Washington, Ambassador Sanderson argued, “A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control.” After Préval negotiated a deal to create a two-tiered minimum wage—one for the textile workers at $3/day and one other industrial workers at about $5/day, the US Embassy was displeased. David E. Lindwall, deputy chief of mission, said the $5/day minimum “did not take economic reality into account.” It was just a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about this when you buy underwear or jeans. The artificially low price you pay, which killed the North American textile industry, goes to pay for shipping, marketing, high executive salaries, and industry profits, with practically nothing for the people who slave to make the clothes. But if you live in the EU or especially in the US, you can know that your government continues to work to maintain those low prices, and resists appealing to the “unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about the manipulations of the democratic process in Haiti when people ask why the rest of the world fails to see the wisdom and the glory of Western democracy.

Think also about how much of this has been covered in your local newspaper, or on television and radio news.

The ‘Invisible’ Forces of Haiti

Elizabeth Pierre-Louis

Elizabeth Pierre-Louis

I heard a very impressive lecture yesterday titled, “The ‘Invisible’ Forces of Haiti—How Can Books and Culture Help the Reconstruction Process,” from Elizabeth Pierre-Louis, library program coordinator at the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), Haiti. There should soon be links to a video recording and the text from the summary.

The talk reminded me of  the devastation of the Haiti earthquake. As bad as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California was, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan was many times worse than that in terms of deaths and homes destroyed. But the Haiti earthquake was many times worse than Japan’s with as many as 300,000 killed and 1.5-2 million homeless. The current cholera epidemic shows that even a terrible situation can become worse.

Haiti has neither the money nor the technical expertise to recover, and half of the people are under age 21 (some sources say half are under 18). It’s also one of our closest neighbors, and many of its problems are directly traceable to the US’s unquestioning support for the Duvaliers’ dictatorship that robbed the country of what little it had. Last year, the world pledged $5 billion in aid, which was not nearly enough, but then delivered on only a third of that.

It’s inspiring, and humbling, to see how Haitians continue to live, to create, and to work together in spite of challenges no one should have to face alone.

Immigration jails and the pretense of social justice

It’s great to learn that some Haitian earthquake survivors have now been released from jail, but why were they there in the first place, and why did it take so long to release them?

This leads to some larger questions: If there had been a similar disaster in Toronto, can you imagine that the Marines would have rounded up White survivors and stuck them in a jail in New York for two months? Why did it take so long to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to people from Haiti, following a series of hurricanes and the latest earthquake? Why is that even now TPS is stringently restricted to those in very recent continuous residence (CR) and continuous physical presence (CPP)?

More than three dozen Haitian earthquake survivors were released from Florida immigration jails on Thursday after more than two months in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

via Quake Survivors Freed From Immigration Jails – NYTimes.com.

Evangelicals attack Voudo practitioners in Haiti

As if people in Haiti haven’t faced enough problems already, Christians, many from outside Haiti, have begun attacking people there who are simply praying or singing.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Angry crowds in a seaside slum attacked a group of Voodoo practitioners Tuesday, pelting them with rocks and halting a ceremony meant to honour victims of last month’s deadly earthquake.

Voodooists gathered in Cite Soleil where thousands of quake survivors live in tents and depend on food aid. Praying and singing, the group was trying to conjure spirits to guide lost souls when a crowd of Evangelicals started shouting. Some threw rocks while others urinated on Voodoo symbols. When police left, the crowd destroyed the altars and Voodoo offerings of food and rum.

Some groups use an interesting method to convince Haitians to abandon their beliefs. Quoted in the same article, Pastor Frank Amedia of Miami-based Touch Heaven Ministries says:

“We would give food to the needy in the short term but if they refused to give up Voodoo, I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”

Does this mean that pelting worshipers with rocks, urinating on their sacred symbols, and withholding food from hungry people is the modern Christian way? Aren’t those acts themselves “contrary to the Gospel”? Why do outsiders, in this case mostly Americans, think that violence is the path to rebuilding a nation? When will we learn that acting responsibly in the world doesn’t mean insisting that we are always right and that our way is the only way?

See the photo in the Associated Press report at Voodooists attacked at ceremony for Haiti victims.

US halts airlift of Haiti quake victims

Many people have responded to the earthquake tragedy in Haiti with money, volunteer work, and basic sympathy and care. Nevertheless, it’s disturbing to see the ways in which we fall short. It’s hard for me to imagine that the recent suspension of medical evacuations would have occurred for a disaster in say, Canada or Europe.

The United States has suspended its medical evacuations of critically injured Haitian earthquake victims until a dispute over who will pay for their care is settled, military officials said Friday.

The military flights, usually C-130s carrying Haitians with spinal cord injuries, burns and other serious wounds, ended on Wednesday after Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida formally asked the federal government to shoulder some of the cost of the care.

Hospitals in Florida have treated more than 500 earthquake victims so far, the military said, including an infant who was pulled out of the rubble with a fractured skull and ribs…The suspension could be catastrophic for patients, said Dr. Barth A. Green, the co-founder of Project Medishare for Haiti…“People are dying in Haiti because they can’t get out.”

via In Cost Dispute, U.S. Halts Airlift of Haiti Quake Victims – NYTimes.com.

Who’s responsible for the fragility of Haiti?

In What You’re Not Hearing about Haiti (But Should Be) at CommonDreams.orgCarl Lindskoog presents an excellent account of why the disaster in Haiti is neither entirely a natural one nor the fault of the Haitian people and government:

[January 14, 2010] In the hours following Haiti’s devastating earthquake, CNN, the New York Times and other major news sources adopted a common interpretation for the severe destruction: the 7.0 earthquake was so devastating because it struck an urban area that was extremely over-populated and extremely poor.  Houses “built on top of each other” and constructed by the poor people themselves made for a fragile city.  And the country’s many years of underdevelopment and political turmoil made the Haitian government ill-prepared to respond to such a disaster…

It may startle news-hungry Americans to learn that these conditions the American media correctly attributes to magnifying the impact of this tremendous disaster were largely the product of American policies and an American-led development model.

Lindskoog shows how USAID policies led to structural changes in the countryside, which predictably forced Haitian peasants who could no longer survive to migrate to the cities, especially Port-au-Prince. Promised manufacturing jobs failed to materialize.  Port-au-Prince became overpopulated and slum areas expanded.  Poorly constructed housing followed and the eventual abandonment of the US-led development model. Haitians, with virtually no financial resources were left to address the problems they had not created.

Devastation in Haiti

Last April I wrote, Friends don’t let friends suffer: The US must step up for Haiti, about the responsibility of everyone, but especially those in the US, to do more for Haiti. The argument for doing so is compelling on many grounds. It calls for a long-term commitment to rebuilding the Haitian economy and to changing the relationship between Haiti and its wealthy neighbors.

Now, the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on Wednesday, with aftershocks continuing, needs immediate attention. In addition to making our government do more, we can work through NGO’s (see How to Help at NPR). Beyond that, Haitians should be immediately granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The Department of Homeland Security review and revise US policy towards Haiti.

If anything good can come from this disaster, it might be that we begin to act in a more humane and responsible way toward one of our closest neighbors. Beyond immediate needs there must be concerted action to address the underlying economic and political catastrophe that afflicted Haiti even before the earthquake.

In that earlier post, I listed six specific actions that the US and international agencies could do now.