President Obama Explains “Why Haiti Matters” in Newsweek
This was a surprise. Barack Obama takes pen in hand and writes the Newsweek cover story in explaining why we’re going back in there. No doubt that Katrina and New Orleans weighed heavily on his mind for a heavy humanitarian response towards the benighted country, not just the media coverage.
In the last week, we have been deeply moved by the heartbreaking images of the devastation in Haiti: parents searching through rubble for sons and daughters; children, frightened and alone, looking for their mothers and fathers. At this moment, entire parts of Port-au-Prince are in ruins, as families seek shelter in makeshift camps. It is a horrific scene of shattered lives in a poor nation that has already suffered so much.
In response, I have ordered a swift, coordinated, and aggressive effort to save lives in Haiti. We have launched one of the largest relief efforts in recent history. I have instructed the leaders of all agencies to make our response a top priority across the federal government. We are mobilizing every element of our national capacity: the resources of development agencies, the strength of our armed forces, and most important, the compassion of the American people. And we are working closely with the Haitian government, the United Nations, and the many international partners who are also aiding in this extraordinary effort.
We act for the sake of the thousands of American citizens who are in Haiti, and for their families back home; for the sake of the Haitian people who have been stricken with a tragic history, even as they have shown great resilience; and we act because of the close ties that we have with a neighbor that is only a few hundred miles to the south.
But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America’s leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up—whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.
At no time is that more true than in moments of great peril and human suffering. It is why we have acted to help people combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa, or to recover from a catastrophic tsunami in Asia. When we show not just our power, but also our compassion, the world looks to us with a mixture of awe and admiration. That advances our leadership. That shows the character of our country. And it is why every American can look at this relief effort with the pride of knowing that America is acting on behalf of our common humanity.
The rest of it is here. And yes, they are great and beautiful words. I hope that they don’t smooth over the fact that these people need help because our country’s economic policies, as well as economic experimentation and speculation that helped make Haiti what it is today.
I also think of New Orleans now, barely alive near five years after Katrina, its levees still unfinished, experiencing periodic floods and the occasional small tornado. I think of all of our inner cities–like Detroit and Cleveland–going through their own version of shock doctrine, and our young men and women of color and young whites as well in the lower middle class trying to hump any kind of job or training for a job and still living at home, or living on a friend’s sofa, or even on the streets, and finding only the military as a last resort. They need help. We need help. I think we need more than stimulus packages. I think we need a reorganization of priorities away from Wall Street.
One hundred million dollars for Haiti seems like a lot of money, but it’s not as much as the banksters and Wall Street have ripped off from us for their vaunted bonuses.
And understand one more thing: the French demanded reparations from Haiti for the blood and sweat of slaves that they no longer used and abused. Those reparations were not completely paid until 1947, nearly 150 years later. Other Europeans found some way to wrest money from Haiti, because of the exorbitant loans they were given under one leader or two, and then when another successor tried to renegotiate the terms. In other words, their gunboats came and the country was occupied until Haitians paid up.
Haiti’s people were free, but not from economic serfdom which turned out to be just another form of colonialism. The same kinds of practices were repeated when France, Germany, Britain and Portugal were also kicked out of their African, Asian and Middle Eastern possessions, but these days gunboats aren’t really necessary. There’s the World Bank, and the IMF, and all sorts of other American and U.N. governmental agencies and international banks and foundations that levy conditions. They just let the people starve, if the leaders refuse to go along with draconian, leveraged economic measures the so-called experts suggest. They’ll starve if they do or if they don’t.
President Wilson invoked the Monroe Doctrine in Haiti in 1915, all to restore “civil order” against those who protested against American interests and banks, and also to bring the nation into some semblance of the 20th century. During those 20 years of occupation, roads and schools were built in Haiti, in a kind of New Deal for the country. When we withdrew, it appeared things had settled down–after we had broken some heads and snuffed a few thousands lives, but when we left the country near the end of the Thirties, they still owed us $40 million dollars, and we strengthened their military to the point where they could topple any government.
And then came “Papa Doc” François Duvalier in 1957 during Eisenhower, and later his son, “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude, who succeeded his father as President-for-Life at the age of 19 in 1971, during Nixon. Both pillaged the country for their own uses, while American presidents looked the other way on human rights and corruption, and used them both as a bulwark against leftist expansionism (Castro, anyone?) in the Caribbean.
The American occupation also did nothing about the color caste system in Haiti that decreed that fair-skinned Creoles would get the better jobs and educational opportunities, and would also get to keep most of the wealth and status. I mean, in Japan, after the war, the American victors abolished the nobility except for the Emperor and the Imperial Family; they could have done that much for Haiti. But no. As a result, this 1% of the Haitian population owns half of the country. They are decidedly more French than Haitian, but this earthquake may have leveled not only the huts of the lowly, but the beautiful homes and estates of the elite in Petíonville and the outer areas of Haiti, meaning that everyone has suddenly become quite equal in misery.
American corporations thought of turning Haiti into yet another Bermuda or Jamaica, that is, another tourist
trap destination for weary Americans and Europeans. This plan only worked so far, because Haiti’s degraded infrastructure, political instability, and pervasive poverty and crime scared off many would-be investors. They also experimented with bringing small factories–or in the age of globalization, the Caribbean equivalent of maquilladoras or sweat shops–to the country, until the companies left for greener climes in places like Singapore or the Philippines. As a result, only 20% of Haitians have a job. Child slavery is endemic; they work for nothing in Creole households in order to get a meal and a roof over their heads.
Five percent of Haitians are infected with the HIV virus; tuberculosis is a killer that runs rampant; and 90% of the children suffer from intestinal parasites and water-borne diseases, that is, from drinking water that is unfiltered and untreated. Malaria affects up to 30,000 Haitians each year. Malaria and intestinal parasites are diseases that have largely disappeared from the continental United States, except in very depressed small areas in states like Mississippi. But TB is no joke and has made a comeback since the 1980s, when HIV began to manifest. The result is that Haitians, if they live to adulthood, die young compared to Americans, which makes for a sizable population of orphaned children and young people. Because they are mostly malnourished, their growth is stunted.
One would think that the people would at least be able to feed themselves, but our country made it possible that Haiti would be even more dependent upon imports from the United States and other countries so that prices–especially those for foodstuffs–would eventually go sky-high. This happened in the 1990s, when under Clinton, the generals were exiled, and President Aristide was returned to power. Eighty percent of its forests have been cut and burned for farming or to create charcoal for cooking, so it is an environmental disaster area in places like the Artibonite Valley and elsewhere with periodic floods and mudslides washing away arable land, much less the four hurricanes that passed through the country recently. Immigration was nearly impossible to achieve, but hey, they could fry up mudcakes and feed them to their children instead. This is no lie; this is an established fact.
So I think that it was high time that Haiti became the world’s Katrina moment. It’s high time that Haiti stop paying for more than 200 years for the effrontery, the nerve, and the courage to demand what is due to any human beings wanting to be free, whether black, white, brown, yellow or red. It’s high time to remind people that just because their skins are darker, that they, like their ancestors, don’t deserve to be worked to death with 14-hour days. It’s also high time that our leaders stop messing with nations of color, placing onerous burdens on them as if they were still beasts and slaves of burden so that they remain dependent on our “good will” and whatever else we’d like to impose on them, and unable to track their own destinies.
And although many Americans are in great need at this time because of foreclosures, joblessness, and other woes, these people are in much greater need. They are not taking food out of my mouth. They never did. Our leaders took food out of theirs. Haiti matters because we jobless, we homeless matter here in the United States. Haiti. Ayiti. The Black Republic. Haiti matters.