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Cover Story: How Quickly Will Haiti Be Forgotten? - The African World By Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive Ed


Do we need another column about the Haiti catastrophe?  Probably not, but here it goes anyway.

While watching the Haitian state collapse along with the buildings of Port-au-Prince; while watching the utter despair on the faces of thousands; while seeing the impact of being in Haiti in the expressions of US-based journalists covering the story; I found myself wondering how quickly it will take this time for Haiti to be forgotten.

Forgive me.  I am not trying to be cynical.  It is just that while this is the worst catastrophe I can remember hitting Haiti, it is far from the only catastrophe.  Whether hurricanes, mudslides, deforestation, coups, or vicious repression, Haiti has faced more than its share of horrors.  There is a recurring pattern.  The disaster hits; Haiti is in the news for a few days; and then it vanishes from sight, as if Haiti existed only temporarily in our dimension.  Each time, by the way, there are generally promises, whether from the US government, international financial institutions or foundations, that significant assistance to Haiti will be forthcoming, but there is never enough to get Haiti out of the critical victims unit.

Then comes along Pat Robertson who hopes to educate us to understand that the horrors that the Haitians have faced for two hundred years are horrors of their own making because of an alleged pact with the devil.  I cannot put into writing what I wanted to do with Pat Robertson when I heard this, but let’s just say, I was not going to propose that he and I go on a double-date.

click here to buy & benefit BC click here to buy & benefit BC click here to buy & benefit BC Yet the two things are linked:  ignoring Haiti, on the one hand, and placing the blame for Haiti’s horrors on the Haitians, being the other.  The Haitian American and Haitian émigré population in the USA is badly divided and has been unable to consistently keep Haiti in front of the US public.  African Americans, more often than not, seem to ignore Haiti out of embarrassment, in large part because of our own failures to understand Haitian history and the actual reasons for Haiti’s underdevelopment, reasons that come straight to the door of the US empire.  And the larger US society simply wants to not think about Haiti, including how and why it found itself in the mess that it has inherited.  To that extent, and probably because many people have a sense that Haiti’s tragedy is not entirely of its own making, it is often easier to blame the Haitians—with Pat Robertson’s idiocy being a more extreme example—than to investigate the actual nature of Haiti’s plight.

There are other columns on the Web or in the printed media that detail the history of the US and French role in under-developing Haiti far better than can I in this commentary.  Suffice it to say that Haiti’s main crime is that it is geographically located so close to the USA and has been under the thumb of the USA, in one way or another, virtually from the moment that it achieved independence in 1804.

So, right now, something has to change, and I would suggest that African Americans need to be at the center of this change.  Haiti needs more than emergency assistance, though clearly at the moment it desperately needs emergency assistance.  It needs reconstruction assistance, but on a scale that goes well beyond the immediate disaster and its aftermath.  Economist Jeffrey Sachs, in an article in the January 17th issue of the Washington Post , for instance, suggests a “Haiti Recovery Fund.”  While I frequently disagree with Professor Sachs, I think that he on to something here.  There needs to be a reconstruction and development initiative that is largely funded by the USA and France that not only takes Haiti beyond the immediate stabilization and recovery efforts, but works to plan and implement the renewal of Haiti.

Why the USA and France, you ask?  Haiti paid France reparations from the 1820s through 1947 due to the fact that the Haitian rebels liberated the slaves which, of course, the French considered property.  Is there any other reason that France should contribute?  The USA should be the other “partner” because it has largely been responsible for Haiti’s destabilization, whether through its 1915-1934 military occupation, or through its support for various coup regimes (including the overthrow, twice, of President Jean Bertrand Aristide).

None change in policy happens in the absence of a constituency here in the USA.  This was one of the biggest challenges that we faced at TransAfrica Forum in 2004 in the aftermath of the anti-Aristide coup.  The Haitian community in the USA was very divided over the coup and there were few organized forces that were able to mount credible pressure on the US government.  While there were eloquent voices, e.g., Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the pressure was dispersed.

This must change today, particularly in light of forces on the political Right who are already thinking about rebuilding Haiti along fully neo-liberal lines, probably as a theme park.  Forces which support democracy and sovereignty for Haiti must unite and put the pressure on France and the USA.  Haiti helped enrich France through the slavery suffered by its people, followed by millions in “reparations” to France.  The USA gained the entire “Louisiana Purchase” territory because Napoleon gave up the idea of a North American empire after losing Haiti.  The time has come for France and the USA to repay the debt. Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.


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Issue 359
January 21, 2010

is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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