Thursday, February 4, 2010

Haiti's Right to Self-Determination: the Imperial Context

Reading about the unfolding catastrophe that has struck Haiti I am taken aback with the complete lack of context with which American media has approached the problems therein. While I have read repeatedly about the relationship which Haiti had to the late French Republic, I have read virtually nothing about former American involvement there other than that of the recent flood of aid. Devin Z. Shaw's review of Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood illustrates this aid has great potential to assume a less than neutral role. So, with this critique in mind I turned to Mary A. Renda's Taking Haiti: Military Occupation & the Culture of Imperialism, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2001. Because I simply couldn't write a better synopsis I will simply rip the opening of her first chapter:

"The United States invaded Haiti in July 1915 and subsequently held the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere under military occupation for nineteen years. While in Haiti, marines installed a puppet president, dissolved legislature at gunpoint, denied freedom of speech, and forced a new constitution on the Caribbean nation – one more favorable to foreign investment."

These words represent a damming indictment of the behavior of the United State in Haiti during the last century.

Renda argues that an important feature of U.S. history is missing, namely the myriad of gunboat diplomatic engagements that the U.S. has entered into abroad. Renda contends that the military occupation of Haiti that began in 1915 was no sideshow. It was one of several important arenas in which the United States was remade culturally through imperial ventures with bureaucrats, military personnel and others participating in empire building in Haiti and elsewhere. Put differently, the various actors coming from the United States were changed by their interface and involvement in the occupation of Haiti. Renda's book seeks to contextualize the cultural interface of 'U.S. Americans' in the construction of an overseas empire.

Renda explains that marines coming from different regions of the U.S. had different sets of ideas of what it meant to be U.S. Americans but that paternalism served as a foundation for the justification of U.S. military intervention in Haiti for most if not all of them. Renda examines various actors and how they used the justification that it was their duty to help the Haitians that brought on and maintained the unwanted occupation there. Paternalism, or a perceived notion of necessary stewardship, drove American actors to decide the structure of political affairs for people abroad. This same culture of hubris moved U.S. citizens to occupy and reorder Haitian affairs.

While it is easy to get whipped into patriotic zeal over the immense aid flowing from the U.S. into Haiti at the moment, it would seem there is good reason to be somewhat careful as to the uses and affect this aid will have. While, it is easy to see an opportunity to rebuild Haiti on our ideals, isn't this another paternalism? No one, including myself wants a dearth of help to plague a people in need but we should be careful of the nature of the U.S. involvement in Haiti's affairs and not attempt to treat the Haitian people as in need of American political interventions. Too often I have recently read and heard a call from the elites in America for a revamping of Haitian economic and political systems such that the island nation would be open to U.S. interests. To risk oversimplification: let the Haitian people decide what economic and political systems they want.

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