Thursday, March 3, 2011


We had a visit up here, last week, from a French woman who is currently working for the Clinton Foundation in Port-au-Prince. Amid conversation about the differences between the French language and Haitian Creole, I asked her if the cultures of her native country and the one in which she currently resides bear many similarities. Haiti being a former French colony, I would have expected her to say that some form of hangover remains, to a similar extent that the language persists (albeit in a mutated form). She surprised me somewhat by saying that no, the country was much more similar to the USA, culturally, than to France.

Having thought about this since, it only makes sense. In Haiti, I have yet to see any person displaying any attribute or custom that I would consider typically ‘French’. I have, however, lost count of the number of times where I have thought something particularly ‘American’. Most clothing here comes donated from the States, and it appears every other Haitian child owns a t-shirt commemorating one homecoming or another. Obama, whose popularity I mentioned before, is known to some children who don't even know their own President. Brand symbols such as the nike swoosh are sown onto the saddles of 50cc motos. The culture, it seems, that most young Haitian people aspire to, is African-American. The icon of this is of course musician Wyclef Jean, who succeeded in the Haitian-American Dream of going to the US and becoming a millionaire rap artist. You might think that this is no different in Ireland, but at least most transatlantic-antics are taken with a pinch of salt, and the likes of Crystal Swing keep our aspirations of becoming rap artists firmly in the ground.

Although Haiti had been under French rule between 1697 and 1804, France has had some, but relatively little interference here, when compared to the US. After the Haitian Revolution, when Jean Jacques Dessalines became the first ruler of Haiti, he set about massacring any remaining French or mixed-race Mulatto people on the island nation, save some doctors and pharmacists. The remaining French class was small, virtually non-existent. Later, between 1915 and 1934, the US military invaded and occupied Haiti, taking apart the country's constitution and effectively re-introducing slavery. Granted, during this period of time under the American occupation, much of Haiti's infrastructure was constructed. The United States withdrew in 1934, and between this time and the inauguration of Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, Haiti had no fewer than eleven heads of state. Relations with America fluctuated during Papa Doc's, and subsequently Baby Doc's, reign as 'President for Life'. Eventually, in 1986, under pressure from the Reagan administration to relinquish control, Duvalier Jr went into exile in France, leaving, critically, on an US Air Force jet. 

In the mid-nineties, America actually assisted in the restoration of a democratically elected head of state. Having been inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of Haiti, with 66% support, Jean Bertrand Aristide was deposed by a military junta in 1991, after only eight months in power. Through 'Operation Uphold Democracy' (which, on the list of US military operations on Wikipedia, is definitely the LEAST ridiculous name - see 'Operation Sea Dragon' and 'Operation Bushmaster'), former US president Jimmy Carter was able to negotiate, with the head of the junta Raoul Cedras, the peaceful restoration of Aristide as President in 1994. It is also of note that the US and the Organisation of American States (OAS) imposed isolating embargos on Haiti under the military junta. Whilst these embargos intended to increase pressure on the ruling parties, they ultimately had the opposite effect. The ruling elite and the military, as one, excelled in smuggling, both in fuel and in illegal drugs. The detrimental effects were mostly confined to the lower-middle classes, working in relatively new private sector jobs. The effect on the environment was also significant. A lack of fuel meant Haitians turned to alternative sources, which in turn increased deforestation. This will hold particular resonance with former UCDVO volunteers, who have worked on reforestation projects around Gros Morne.

The late nineties and early noughties seem to be a bit of a murky period for relations between Haiti and the US. From what I can gather, the following happened:
1.Aristide genuinely had the best intentions for his country and its people, and while realistically did not see his country dramatically evolving into a global force financially, he did want his people to maintain dignity in their relative poverty. Thus, he did not want his country to be taken advantage of.
2.This, combined with the popular support of Aristide, did not sit well with the US, but Aristide would be out of power in 1996, and under the Haitian constitution, could not stand for a second consecutive term.
3.Aristide was re-elected in 2001.
4.The US imposed a government aid embargo on Haiti in 2001.
5.Aristide was forced into exile in 2004. His lawyer claimed prior to this that the US had been arming anti-Aristide factions, who subsequently took control of northern Haiti. Aristide claims that on March 1st, 2004, the chief of staff of the US Embassy in Haiti came to his house, and told him that if he did not leave office, he and many other Haitians would be killed, and that he was then escorted to a flight to the Central African Republic by US authorities.

Prior to coming here, and even after, the general perception of Aristide I had was one of a dictator. This, I have since become aware, is probably due to the general control of the US over the media. Aristide’s general demeanour of a passionate, vociferous priest doesn’t help.  In recent days, there have been a number of open letters written to the Guardian Newspaper, London, calling for the return of Aristide from exile in South Africa. The general perception of liberal news sources outside the US, is that there is pressure from the US on South Africa to keep the former President out of Haiti until the run-off of the Presidential Election is held here on March 20th.

This brings us nicely to the most recent bout of alleged US interference in Haiti. The current elections have no doubt come at a poor time. Any country would need more than a year to re-establish order after a cholera epidemic, let alone such a massive earthquake. In the earthquake, the government buildings next to the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, purportedly taking many records of the electorate with them. The result of this was that a significant portion of the electorate did not receive their ballot cards, and was reflected in the 22% turnout at the November 28th General Election. The international pressure for Haiti to hold these elections, despite all the signs opposing it, had prevailed.

Pressure to hold an election was one thing from the OAS, but then, following the announcement of the provisional results, pressure to change the results culminated in an alternative line-up announced at the end of January, for the run-off election between the top two candidates, on March 20th.

As the foremost donor of aid to Haiti, one could argue that the US deserves a certain amount of input into how Haiti should be run, at least for an initial transition period. When responding to the reports by members of congress of US involvement in the deposing of Aristide in 1994, Colin Powell was quoted as saying "It might have been better for members of Congress who have heard these stories to ask us about the stories before going public with them so we don't make a difficult situation that much more difficult" and that Aristide "did not democratically govern, or govern well".

A running joke in our house is to list off the things that America 'invented'. For example, I'll say "Oh, this sandwich is really good" and Mitch will say "America invented sandwiches". Other examples include Jokes, English, Computers and many many other things America may or may not have invented (but probably didn't). One of the ones I thought particularly ironic was ‘democracy’. It seems that America has tried on numerous occasions to show Haiti how democracy should be done, and yet the model doesn't quite seem to fit. While culturally, it appears America has drawn the minds of the next generation, only time, and US immigration law, will tell if that leads to a more physical draw. For now, Haiti needs to develop a stable democracy, with a flourishing economy, and the US should support, but not try to impose this. 

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