The Hapless and Wretched of the Earth
By John Maxwell
So Kofi Annan has at last discovered that the Anglo-American-Australian attack on Iraq was illegal and against the basic premises of the United Nations. Some of us knew it then, and said so. Some of us wondered why Annan withdrew his UN inspectors from Iraq, giving the U.S. carte-blanche to launch its bombers against an innocent people.
But courage was in short supply those days, as it is now, and cowards abound and proliferate. If the war on Iraq was a crime against humanity, what description do we use for the decapitation of the Haitian democracy? The world Press, those brave gladiators for justice and truth, speak about “hapless Haiti” and the “hapless Haitians”; they hide their prejudice and deceit behind euphemisms, behind circumlocution, obfuscations and outright lies to conceal foul crimes. They say President Aristide fled “amid a popular revolt” of about 500 bandits in a population of eight million.
But the Haitians are “hapless.” Our leaders, like the leaders of the United States, France and Canada, the triad behind the criminal enterprise in Haiti, are all full of hap: hatred, arrogance and prejudice.
While we, the hap-filled, are cleaning up and burying the few unfortunates killed by Category Five hurricanes, hapless Haiti is burying, in mass graves, thousands of the hapless killed by extremely heavy rain from a storm whose winds affected Haiti only minimally. It is the second time in less than a year that thousands of hapless Haitians are dying because of rain.
History in Haiti has a habit of repeating itself. And history, in Haiti, consists largely of the United States and its assaults on Haitian freedom, all well meant, of course, and obviously intended to reduce Haiti’s Haplessness index to manageable levels.
Who do they think they are?
Haiti’s history of haplessness began more than 200 years ago when a Jamaican runaway slave called Bouckman lit the spark that fired the Haitian revolution. Bouckman, despite being a giant of a man, a born leader and probably a Muslim (think terrorist) did not survive to see the fruits of the revolution. He was betrayed, captured and his head stuck on a pike to discourage the others—perhaps a primitive attempt at exorcising demonic ideas of freedom and liberty from the revolutionaries.
It didn’t work. The Haitians went on to defeat the French colonial forces, then defeated a British expeditionary force and then defeated a French expeditionary army under Napoleon’s brother-in-law, killing some 60,000 Frenchmen in the process.
Before that, the Haitians had fought alongside the American revolutionaries to help them throw the British out of the American colonies. Haitian help was crucial in at least two battles in which British power was broken—at Savannah, Georgia and at Yorktown.
In addition to all that, the Haitian revolution made another massive contribution to the new American nation: in defeating France, the Haitians exhausted the French treasury to the point where Napoleon had to sell Louisiana to the U.S. or risk losing it to the British. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the U.S.
So, if the Haitians contributed so much to American independence and development, why is it that in their extremity of grief and suffering, the United States treats the Haitians so meanly?
Originally, when the scale of the current disaster became known, the United States, the richest country in the world, offered about US $60,000 for Haitian relief. Venezuela offered $1 million, Trinidad and Tobago earmarked US$5 million while the European Union pledged US$1.8 million. Somewhat abashed, the U.S. raised its pledge to US$2 million. In the U.S. itself, where the damage has been far less severe, the federal government alone is contributing more than $6 billion in hurricane relief.
Charity, of course, begins at home or perhaps, it is simply another case of Haitian haplessness. But it must be said, however discreetly, that the United States has had a great deal to do with the current Haitian propensity to catastrophe, by destroying Haitian governments, Haitian infrastructure—economic and social, and by policies which have reduced Haiti almost to a desert.
The United States and Britain refused to recognize Haiti after it declared independence. The U.S. made recognition conditional on the former colonial power, France, recognizing Haiti’s autonomy. At that time, of course, the United States was busy titrating the humanity of blacks and came to the conclusion that a black was 60-percent human and therefore not entitled to all the rights of Man. And Liberty was as dangerous then as socialism was in the twentieth century.
Oddly, the French, the Americans and the Haitians had all been inspired by the Enlightenment and Tom Paine’s codification of the Rights of man. But only the Haitian revolution recognized all those rights. In the U.S., blacks and women, for instance, had to wait more than a century to reach the status guaranteed to Haitians. France and the U.S. maintained slavery more than 50 years after Haiti abolished it.
With the British and the U.S. playing hardball on the recognition question, France felt able to demand that the Haitians should pay cash for their freedom. In Jamaica and other British colonies, the state paid the slaveowners compensation. In Haiti the former slaves paid twice, in blood and in treasure. When they had trouble paying back the French the kindly American bankers came to Haiti’s rescue. We will lend you the money to pay off your debt, they said, and Haiti achieved another first, becoming the first Third World debtor nation. That debt was eventually paid off more than a century later—the last payment was in 1947. In the meantime it had caused Haiti the most extreme distress, wrecked her infrastructure and destroyed her independence. What the metropolitan countries could not achieve by conquest, they achieved by compound interest.
Early in the last century, the Americans became a little dissatisfied with Haitian repayment of their debt, and that led to an immediate increase in Haitian haplessness. The U.S. invaded, changed their constitution, took away their land, chopped down their trees to plant sisal, logwood, coffee and pineapple and destroyed the agricultural base of the country. After they left officially in 1935, however, the Americans bequeathed Haiti an armed force which was corrupt, cruel, ungovernable and in thrall to the U.S. It guaranteed that any Haitian President either obeyed Washington or went into exile. In 1947, Dumarsais Estimé, said to be a socialist, was deposed after a couple of years. That began a period of dictatorship distinguished chiefly by American support for the ruthless Francois Duvalier and his inane son, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.
During the U.S. occupation (1915 to 1935), the Haitians tried to throw the occupiers out, only to be bombed and strafed in an eerie foretaste of the fascist bombing of Guernica during the Spanish civil war. Nobody made much of the Haitian version, because, after all, what were they but a bunch of “Niggers speaking French” as they were described by William Jennings Bryan, one of Colin Powell’s predecessors as U.S. Secretary of State. The Haitian resistance leader, Charlemagne Peralte, was like Bouckman, betrayed, murdered and his head exhibited to discourage the others.
History repeats itself in Haiti, but never as farce
Today, we watch as the United States leads its partners France and Canada, in an adventure in Haiti which already resembles King Leopold’s so-called “humanitarian” incursion into the Congo over a century ago. That enterprise, described by the King of the Belgians as rather like “a Red Cross scheme” left between ten million and twenty million Congolese dead or with their hands and feet chopped off for misbehavior. Four of them went to university.
The American adventure in Haiti has not so far been identified by anyone as an illegal enterprise. It would seem to be, on the face of it, an illegal trespass into the affairs of another country, an illegal complicity in the illegal removal of a duly elected head of state and an illegal interference in the sovereign rights of Haitians, for a start.
Mr. Annan, who has now condemned the American adventure in Iraq, may yet find time to condemn the one in Haiti, but probably not before the U.S. elections. He is the chief guardian, it is alleged, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the meantime, however, it is clear that the intervention has had some catastrophic consequences. The bandits let loose and sanctioned by the Americans, French and Canadians, have destroyed the health, educational and democratic systems of Haiti—such as they were. More important for the latest disaster, they destroyed the Civil Defense structure, the network which would have warned Haitians of impending disaster and which would have at least attempted to rescue those worst affected. It is likely that had this organization been in existence instead of in hiding from the interim government’s murderous heroes, so many would not have died.
But it is also clear that the Americans, Canadians and French do not believe that the Haitians are entitled to the same rights as other human beings. Perhaps, using their renowned scientific expertise and prowess, they have once again figured out what precise degree of humanity is possessed by each Haitian, and perhaps by each Jamaican and Trinidadian also.
That, of course, would explain why it is not necessary for anyone to discover what really happened on February 29, when President Aristide was posted to the Central African Republic as “cargo” in a CIA plane which just happened to be on hand when the U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Foley, decided to pay a call on the President before dawn one morning.
Perhaps it may explain why various Caribbean leaders are content to watch the Haitians die without being able to organize to help themselves, because of course, the Haitians are “hapless” and not 100 percent human.
It may not have occurred to our leaders that in condemning the Haitians to “haplessness,” they are in fact, recognizing that the United States has the right to legalize a new class of human being, one without rights—like the thousands locked away in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and a host of secret dungeons around the world.
It may not have occurred to our leaders that in acquiescing to this foul doctrine they are not only condemning Haitians to death but they are condemning themselves and us. It may not have occurred to them that in their acquiescence they are occupying the same moral ground once inhabited by such as Pierre Laval, Vidkun Quisling, Pol Pot and the Africans who sold their brothers into slavery .
But, as the West Indies cricket team has proved, in some cases, leaders are expendable. When the Laras, the Pattersons and the Owen Arthurs fail us, there may be others on whom we can depend to defend the hapless and the wretched of the earth.
John Maxwell of the University of the West Indies (UWI) is a veteran Jamaican journalist and author of How to Make Our Own News: A Primer for Environmentalists and Journalists.
—Jamaica Observer, September 30, 2004