What a grand old party it's going to be Monday when all those countries and financial institutions that have forever plundered, exploited and impoverished Haiti will gather in Montreal at the invitation of the government of Canada to decide its future. Of course there will be a few new faces at the table - Brazil, maybe even a couple of Haiti's neighbours, though I'm not sure Cuba or Venezuela are invited. And who knows? Some Haitians may even come along.
But mostly this meeting is promoted by those who like to call themselves, and whom the media will call, the donor countries. What is important to note about most donor countries, including Canada, is that they have always extracted far more from the poor recipient countries than they've contributed. Poor countries, in reality, have been net donors to us rich folks.
In my little book, The Betrayal of Africa , I document how this works on that continent. Basically, it's the collusion between monstrous African leaders and Western governments and corporations, overseen by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to enrich themselves at the expense of the people of the continent.
As it happens, Haiti is a perfect Caribbean example of this same conspiracy between tyrannical local leaders and the rich world pitted against the people of the country.
The successful development of the rich world depended greatly on Africa. The slaves shipped to the Western hemisphere created a good part of the capital that fuelled the industrial revolutions in Europe and the United States. France, which took over Haiti from Spain, made a killing from the labour of hundreds of thousands of African slaves who worked Haiti's once-rich natural resources. Hard to believe now, but in the 18th century Haiti was France's imperial jewel, and thanks to African slave labour the largest sugar exporter in the world.
In 1804, the slaves gloriously revolted against France, making Haiti the world's first free black republic. It never had a chance. Slave-owning America refused for 60 years to recognize the new state. Using gunboat diplomacy, France, backed by the United States, demanded generous compensation for its lost property, including its former slaves. Haiti had no choice but capitulation. The amount was 150-million gold francs, five times the country's annual revenue. To pay, Haiti had to borrow from France itself and from banks in Europe and the U.S. at usurious rates.
This debt effectively strangled Haiti's growth while further enriching Western bankers. Instead of building a stable economy, much of Haiti's budget for the next 120 years actually went to debt payment. Not till 1947 was the debt finally paid off. A few years ago, the government of Haiti, under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, demanded that France repay every cent of this odious debt, calculating the total owed at $21-billion. The French government laughed off the demand.
On Monday, we will learn what French President Nicolas Sarkozy will do to save Haiti. In our Alice in Wonderland world, France is considered a donor to Haiti, rather than a beneficiary. Obviously $21-billion is a lot of money for Haiti, whose total 2008 revenues were less than $1-billion for a population of around nine million; by comparison, the province of Quebec, with a slightly smaller population, had revenues of $63-billion.
Hard to believe now, but in the 18th century Haiti was France's imperial jewel, and thanks to African slave labour the largest sugar exporter in the world.
France won't be Haiti's only philanthropic benefactor around the Montreal table. Well before the debt to France was paid off, Haiti had met the American Marine Corps. President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines in 1915, in order to protect both the Haitian people (so he declared) and U.S. investments on the island (which he failed to declare). The Marines remained the occupying power for the next 20 years and the United States the de facto economic ruler for decades after. So envious was Haiti's next-door neighbour on the island, the Dominican Republic, that President Lyndon Johnson sent them the Marines as well in 1965, this time to protect its citizens from communism.
The Red Menace, in the person of Fidel Castro, equally menaced Haiti. That was reason enough for the United States to support yet another in a long line of venal Haitian dictators, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, even though he was outrageous even by America's liberal tolerance for tyrants. While Duvalier's brutal paramilitary goon squads, the Tonton Macoutes, murdered tens of thousands of Papa Doc's opponents, the President and his family systematically looted their country. Haiti became one gigantic sweatshop, where foreign businesses from Canada and elsewhere could pay starvation wages with the connivance of both Haitian and American rulers.
In 1990, a left-wing priest named Aristide was overwhelmingly elected President. Since he was clearly sincere about introducing policies to improve the wretched lives of the majority of Haitians, it was obviously necessary to overthrow him. With the approval of George Bush the first, he was gone in nine months. When Bill Clinton decided to re-instate him three years later - America giveth, America taketh away - it was on condition that Aristide only introduce neo-liberal economic policies promoted by the World Bank, the IMF and Western governments. In one of those policies, Haiti reduced the tariff on imported rice from to 3 per cent from 50 per cent. Subsidized American rice flooded the country, forcing countless rice farmers off their farms into urban slums and shantytowns, perfect targets for a natural disaster. There's a thousand such stories, and they go far to explaining why Haiti is so vulnerable to hurricanes and now earthquakes.
The Canadian government has acted in an exemplary fashion since the catastrophe began, and the Canadian people have opened their hearts and purses to the people of Haiti. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear we don't know what we're up against. In much of Africa, the betrayal of the people by colluding local elites and foreign interests continues apace. Why should poor Haiti expect to be different?
Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa
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