Relief Efforts in the Shadow of
Can we move from crimes-as-charity
to actual support for Haiti?
by Dan Freeman-Maloy
Over the course of the past decade, Canada's leading officials
and most prestigious commentators have learned how to approach
Haiti in the spirit of cynical power politics and racist condescension
(or worse) while maintaining a posture of national self-flattery.
With attention again riveted on Haiti following the horrific tragedy
inflicted by Tuesday's earthquake, this ugly mixture is once again
on display. The need for emergency aid is, without question, urgent
[see below for links]. But established patterns of "help"
for Haiti need to be overcome if the destructive impact of this
catastrophe is to be somehow limited.
Scattered self-congratulations can already
be heard in Canada's mainstream press (a willing partner, for
the most mart, in recent Canadian government crimes against Haiti).
On Thursday, papers across the country ran editorials on Canadian
policy and the relief effort. Under the title "Helping Haiti,"
the Calgary Herald editorialized that "Canada's response
is not only appropriate, but one to be proud of. ... Once again,
Canada's humanitarianism and compassion shines brightly."
The Montreal Gazette concurred: "Canadians have, to their
credit, been involved in helping Haiti help itself for years."
For its part, the Globe and Mail yet again cast Haiti as the "basket
case of the Western hemisphere," the editorial headline promising
that "Today's rescue is just the beginning."
In previous years, such benevolent rhetoric
has been to Western policy in Haiti what anti-terrorist slogans
have been to Western policy in the Middle East. It was under the
cover of such declared benevolence that the elected Haitian government
was overthrown in 2004 by means of US, French and Canadian involvement;
it was amidst similar rhetoric that Haitian movements resisting
this outrage were decimated in the ensuing years with the "security
assistance" of foreign powers.
This is not to distract from the urgent
need for a massive international relief effort. But it should
give us reason for pause. The Haitian struggle for sovereignty
and decolonization is very much ongoing. And for many years, it
has been common practice to package assaults on Haiti as aid.
It is imperative that genuine aid and relief work be disentangled,
in our understanding and in practice, from the criminal policies
they are often used to justify.
This article does not address the details
of the ongoing catastrophe in Haiti triggered by the earthquake
of January 12. Rather, it provides a reminder of how calls to
"help" Haiti were a cornerstone justification for one
of the greatest crimes in the past decade of Canadian foreign
policy. It is beyond me to discuss how the Haitian struggle for
independence is likely to adapt to the catastrophic circumstances
that have now emerged. What is clear is the need to not only expand
the evolving relief effort, but also engage with the inevitable
tensions within it.
"Operation Halo," 2004: regime
change as an aid package
The 2004 regime change in Haiti was one
of most despicable episodes in a miserable decade of Western aggression.
Early that year, Haiti faced intervention from the two powers
which have most tormented it throughout its history: France, which
grew rich on this slave colony through to the late 18th century
(Haiti declared its independence in 1804); and the US, which occupied
Haiti from 1915-1934 and maintained client dictatorships in the
country through to the late 1980s, and then again from 1991-1994.
The intervention of 2004 was preceded by years of destabilization.
Aid to the government was cut and re-routed through sources more
beholden to donors. Finally, on February 29, US Marines occupied
the National Palace and forced Haitian President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide into exile. Canadian troops secured the airport from
which he was flown out of the country.
Put simply, the country produced by the
world's only successful slave rebellion -- punished for centuries
by spiteful racist powers -- marked its bicentennial with renewed
Western occupation. And so a presidential term that was supposed
to last until 2006 was violently cut short. Among the Aristide
presidency's crimes was constructing a legal case for repayment
by France of the massive payment extorted from Haiti in the 19th
century to compensate for the slaves France lost when they freed
themselves (the equivalent of $21.7 billion today). The aftermath
of the coup saw paramilitary forces with a well-known record of
torture and extra-judicial killing ruthlessly target Haiti's main
mass-based political party, Lavalas. It is against the backdrop
of centuries of such sabotage that Haiti has been made so vulnerable
At the time, prestigious Canadian media
joined officials in whitewashing the intervention as somehow charitable.
Facing outrage from the 20-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom),
Prime Minister Paul Martin framed the issue for the Globe and
Mail immediately after Aristide's ouster: "their upset is
not with Canada per se. Their upset is with the fact a constitutionally
elected president has lost his position." What was necessary,
he implied, was to refocus on humanitarian assistance for Haitians
and spin Canadian involvement in these terms. As Martin put it:
"we've got to get aid in there." Caricom, alongside
the African Union (AU), refused to recognize the regime that had
been installed with Canadian support. In the Canadian press, Martin
found a more receptive audience.
Indeed, a sample of Globe headlines from
the weeks of Canadian involvement leading up the coup is illustrative:
"Martin helps in Haiti," "PM offers to help solve
Haitian crisis" (January 13); "How to help Haiti"
(January 24); "U.S. asks Canada to help police chaotic Haiti"
(February 13); "...Canada, U.S. adopt France's suggestion
that President's departure might help Haiti" (February 27);
"Canada considers sending troops to help Haiti" (February
28); "Time to help Haiti" (March 1); and so on. Official
presentation of Canadian participation in the coup as an aid package
fit all too naturally into such Globe reports.
Riding out these diplomatic bumps, the
Prime Minister would within a couple of months go on an official
visit to Washington. Drew Fagan reported approvingly for the Globe
how "Martin smiled broadly as Mr. Bush praised Canada's commitments
in Afghanistan and Haiti." By 2005, the Haitian regime
change of February 2004 factored into news coverage as the start
of a Canadian "peace mission." The spinning of "Operation
Halo" (the official name for Canada's February-July 2004
troop deployment) involved rewriting a state crime as a charity
In the summer of 2004, the Canadian military
role in Haiti gave way to such other forms of involvement as police
deployment, financing and diplomatic support for the installed
government of Gérard Latortue (who had been flown in from
Florida to head the government after the coup). A combination
of the reconstituted Haitian National Police (HNP), associated
paramilitaries, and foreign police and military forces (now operating
with United Nations authorization) acted to suppress movements
calling for the restoration of democratic rule. Canadian involvement
remained wide-ranging. In a period of mass political imprisonment
without trial, for example, the installed Minister of Justice,
Philippe Vixamar, explained to the University of Miami's Thomas
M. Griffin "that he is a political appointee of the Latortue
administration, but the Canadian International Development Agency
('CIDA') assigned him to his position and is his direct employer."
Such were the forms of Canadian "aid."
With a willing press, the Canadian government had little problem
maintaining this destructive fiction at home. The routine was
The fall of 2004, for example, witnessed
an upsurge of popular demonstrations calling for Aristide's return,
and a wave of lethal repression. For Prime Minister Martin, Canadian
involvement in such a fight compensated for the limitations of
Canadian participation in the occupation of Iraq. "Think
about what we're doing in Afghanistan, think about what we're
doing in Haiti," Martin explained in mid-October: "we
are not on the sidelines."
With Haitians reeling from the intensified
repression, the Canadian government dispatched Prime Minister
Martin for a November 2004 visit with the stated aim of bolstering
the installed Haitian government's legitimacy. For good measure,
Martin packed his plane with food and other aid supplies -- a
point Canadian reporters happily emphasized. The Globe and Mail
account of his visit was published with a large picture of a young
Haitian girl sitting on Martin's lap, waving a Canadian flag for
the camera. This visit was later cited as a "humanitarian
Within this setting, it has been all too
easy for Canadian commentators to express thinly veiled racism
towards Haitians and to openly question their right to independence.
Sticking with the case of the Globe and Mail, one may recall Marina
Jiménez giving voice to Canadian hopes that "the poor
people of Cité Soleil will have a change of heart, switching
allegiance from the shadowy and ruthless chimères [i.e.,
activists affiliated with Haiti's leading mass party] to 'les
blancs' in the uniforms who, this time, are in it for the long
haul." Or Jeffrey Simpson, shedding crocodile tears over
this "failed state" -- whose "ills ... have persisted
and even grown worse despite a United Nations military and police
presence and hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid"
-- only to propose that independent Haitian governance be revoked
and formally (if temporarily) replaced by a UN protectorate.
Simpson floated the proposal under a headline with the familiar
message: "Hello, my name is Haiti and I really need your
More "help" of this kind is
the last thing that Haiti needs.
Disaster relief and reconstruction
The election of René Préval
in 2006 was a testament to the perseverance of Haitian society
and its independent political organizations in the face of harsh
circumstances. However, this decade's round of destabilization
and repressive violence capped off a much longer period of imposed
under-development, and again tipped the balance in favour of international
and against sovereign Haitian institutions. Any country would
require massive international support to cope with a disaster
on the scale of this week's earthquake. Now, international relief
efforts are plainly imperative.
Massive reparations from Western powers
to Haiti are long overdue. (This is in addition to the minimalist
demand that the indemnity France extorted from Haiti for lost
slave labour be repaid.) It is at this point flatly obnoxious
to accompany the sending of any Western funds, even on a massive
scale, with the faintest hint of self-congratulations. But funds
and resources certainly need to be sent. An immediate challenge,
as Naomi Klein argues, is to ensure that all government resources
are sent as grants, absolutely none as loans. Such demands are
urgent and pressing.
The danger that Western powers will use
this occasion to increase their leverage over Haitian society
is real. President Obama's appointment of former president George
W. Bush to join Bill Clinton in organizing the relief effort is
a troubling sign. In Canada, while it was the Martin Liberals
who carried out the intervention of 2004, the main apparent objection
of the Harper Conservatives was that Canadian forces left too
soon and should have participated more directly in repression.
With Sarkozy's France calling a donors conference amidst a flurry
of international commitments, the actual policies that emerge
need to be carefully monitored and considered.
In sum, it is necessary to acknowledge
and deliberately break with past crimes. Those who set up a continuum
between recent years' intervention and proposed relief missions
are issuing threats, not promises.
Over the past decade, the idea that more
Western involvement in Haiti is always better has dovetailed with
what Peter Hallward has flagged as "perhaps the most consistent
theme of Western commentary on the island: that poor black people
remain incapable of governing themselves." At a time when
the need for international involvement is indeed urgent, it is
all the more important to keep this racist tendency in check.
The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund
Partners in Health
Notes:_ "Ottawa works to ease
Caribbean 'upset,'" Jeff Sallot (March 3, 2004; A17). What
follows draws from the Globe and Mail unless otherwise indicated,
partly because it is most representative of official opinion in
Canada, partly because my notes from the period are based mostly
on its coverage._ "Bush backs open border for beef,"
Drew Fagan - Ottawa Bureau Chief (May 1, 2004; A1)._ "Martin
vows to ease Darfur's suffering," Paul Koring (February 23,
2005; A1)._ Thomas M. Griffin, "Haiti - Human Rights Investigation:
November 11-21, 2004," Center for the Study of Human Rights,
University of Miami School of Law (www.law.miami.edu/cshr/CSHR_Report_02082005_v2.pdf):
p. 24._ "Martin cool to renewed U.S. request for assistance;
Canada stretched too thin to contribute to Iraq, PM says in Paris,"
Mark Mackinnon (October 15, 2004; A16)._ "Internal strife
will undermine rebuilding plan, PM tells Haiti," Brian Laghi
- Ottawa Bureau Chief (November 15, 2004; A4); "On the road
again," Brian Laghi (January 15, 2005; F3)._ "Backyard
Baghdad," Marina Jimenez (January 22, 2005; F4); "Hello,
my name is Haiti and I really need your help," Jeffrey Simpson
(June 8, 2005; A17).