Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti and Imperialism

I just want to add to our two previous posts (here and here), one more statement about disaster capitalism and imperialism, really some more background to Haiti's place in the Western world (I've deliberately used this term), or more specifically, how it is understood within Western ideology. Haiti, we should recall, won its independence as the first successful slave rebellion in 1804. When the country established diplomatic ties with France in 1825 it came at the cost of 150 million francs. Zizek summarizes the situation (in a review of Hallward's book Damming the Flood):
Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all white nations", the "mere existence of an independent Haiti" was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price - the literal price - for the "premature" independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as "compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray).
Then, there was a coup led by the United States, France and Canada (See Engler and Fenton's Canada in Haiti)-- can you guess one of the reasons?, and continuing impovershiment ever since, partially through forced neo-liberal structural adjustments. My concern is not that they will become a victim of disaster capitalism, because there is a long history of that already, but that they will again be forced into continuing "structural readjustment" that will continue to constrain their ability to undertake political reform. That is, when foreign soldiers (peacekeepers) aren't their to constrain them. Nevertheless, we should not call, as Hallward and Zizek stress, Haitians victims. Instead, as Zizek writes,
The Lavalas movement [which included Aristide] has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people's direct self-organisation. Although the "free press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a "normal" democracy - a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.
It's a familiar story; change the names and we have been told the same things regarding violence and corruption about Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and even Brazil. Now that a natural disaster has opened Haiti to international aid, let's hope it doesn't come at the cost of already existing political solidarity.

Update: See also this short article on the role of USAID in these structural adjustments.

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