U.S. & Haiti
by Noam Chomsky
Z magazine, April 2004
Those who have any concern for Haiti will
naturally want to understand how its most recent tragedy has been
unfolding. For those who have had the privilege of any contact
with the people of this tortured land, it is not just natural,
but inescapable. Nevertheless, we make a serious error if we focus
too narrowly on the events of the recent past or even on Haiti
alone. The crucial issue for us is what we should be doing about
what has taken place. That would be true even if our options and
our responsibility were limited; far more so when they are immense
and decisive, as in the case of Haiti. And even more so because
the course of the terrible story was predictable years ago-if
we failed to act to prevent it-and fail we did. The lessons are
clear, and so important that they would be the topic of daily
front-page articles in a free press.
Reviewing what was taking place in Haiti
shortly after Clinton "restored democracy" in 1994,
I was compelled to conclude, unhappily, in Z Magazine, that "It
would not be very surprising, then, if the Haitian operations
become another catastrophe," and if so, "It is not a
difficult chore to trot out the familiar phrases that will explain
the failure of our mission of benevolence in this failed society."
The reasons were evident to anyone who chose to look. The familiar
phrases again resound, sadly and predictably.
There is much solemn discussion today
explaining, correctly, that democracy means more than flipping
a lever every few years. Functioning democracy has preconditions.
One is that the population should have some way to learn what
is happening in the world. The real world, not the self-serving
portrait offered by the "establishment press," which
is disfigured by its "subservience to state power" and
"the usual hostility to popular movements"-the accurate
words of Paul Farmer, whose work on Haiti is, in its own way,
perhaps even as remarkable as what he has accomplished within
the country. Farmer was writing in 1993, reviewing mainstream
commentary and reporting on Haiti, a disgraceful record that goes
back to the days of Wilson's vicious and destructive invasion
in 1915 and on to the present. The facts are extensively documented,
appalling, and shameful. They are deemed irrelevant for the usual
reasons: they do not conform to the required self-image, and so
are efficiently dispatched deep into the memory hole, though they
can be unearthed by those who have some interest in the real world.
They will rarely be found, however, in
the "establishment press." Keeping to the more liberal
and knowledgeable end of the spectrum, the standard version is
that in "failed states" like Haiti and Iraq the U.S.
must become engaged in benevolent "nation-building"
to "enhance democracy," a "noble goal," but
one that may be beyond our means because of the inadequacies of
the objects of our solicitude. In Haiti, despite Washington's
dedicated efforts from Wilson to FDR while the country was under
Marine occupation, "the new dawn of Haitian democracy never
came." "Not all America's good wishes, nor all its Marines,
can achieve [democracy today] until the Haitians do it themselves
" (H. D. S. Greenway, Boston Globe). As New York Times correspondent
R.W. Apple recounted two centuries of history in 1994, reflecting
on the prospects for Clinton's endeavor to "restore democracy"
then underway, "Like the French in the l9th century, like
the Marines who occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, the American
forces who are trying to impose a new order will confront a complex
and violent society with no history of democracy. "
Apple does appear to go a bit beyond the
norm in his reference to Napoleon's savage assault on Haiti, leaving
it in ruins, in order to prevent the crime of liberation in the
world's richest colony, the source of much of France's wealth.
But perhaps that undertaking too satisfies the fundamental criterion
of benevolence: it was supported by the United States, which was
naturally outraged and frightened by "the first nation in
the world to argue the case of universal freedom for all humankind,
revealing the limited definition of freedom adopted by the French
and American revolutions." So Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith
writes, accurately describing the terror in the slave state next
door, which was not relieved even when Haiti's successful liberation
struggle, at enormous cost, opened the way to the expansion to
the West by compelling Napoleon to accept the Louisiana Purchase.
The U.S. continued to do what it could to strangle Haiti, even
supporting France's insistence that Haiti pay a huge indemnity
for the crime of liberating itself, a burden it has never escaped
-and France, of course, dismissed with elegant disdain Haiti's
request, recently under Aristide, that it at least repay the indemnity,
forgetting the responsibilities that a civilized society would
The basic contours of what led to the
current tragedy are pretty clear. Just beginning with the 1990
election of Aristide (far too narrow a time frame), Washington
was appalled by the election of a populist candidate with a grass-roots
constituency just as it had been appalled by the prospect of the
hemisphere's first free country on its doorstep two centuries
earlier. Washington's traditional allies in Haiti naturally agreed.
"The fear of democracy exists, by definitional necessity,
in elite groups who monopolize economic and political power,"
Bellegarde-Smith observes in his perceptive history of Haiti;
whether in Haiti or the U.S. or anywhere else.
The threat of democracy in Haiti in 1991
was even more ominous because of the favorable reaction of the
international financial institutions (World Bank, IADB) to Aristide's
programs, which awakened traditional concerns over the "virus"
effect of successful independent development. These are familiar
themes in international affairs: U.S. independence aroused similar
concerns among European leaders. The dangers are commonly perceived
to be particularly grave in a country like Haiti, which had been
ravaged by France and then reduced to utter misery by a century
of U.S. intervention. If even people in such dire circumstances
can take their fate into their own hands, who knows what might
happen elsewhere as the "contagion spreads. "
The Bush I administration reacted to the
disaster of democracy by shifting aid from the democratically
elected government to what are called "democratic forces":
the wealthy elites and the business sectors, who, along with the
murderers and torturers of the military and paramilitaries, had
been lauded by the current incumbents in Washington, in their
Reaganite phase, for their progress in "democratic development,"
justifying lavish new aid. The praise came in response to ratification
by the Haitian parliament of a law granting Washington's client
killer and torturer Baby Doc Duvalier the authority to suspend
the rights of any political party without reasons. The law passed
by a majority of 99.98 percent. It therefore marked a positive
step towards democracy as compared with the 99 percent approval
of a 1918 law granting U.S. corporations the right to turn the
country into a U.S. plantation, passed by 5 percent of the population
after the Haitian Parliament was disbanded at gunpoint by Wilson's
Marines when it refused to accept this "progressive measure,"
essential for "economic development." Their reaction
to Baby Doc's encouraging progress towards democracy was characteristic-worldwide-on
the part of the visionaries who are now entrancing educated opinion
with their dedication to bringing democracy to a suffering world-although,
to be sure, their actual exploits are being tastefully rewritten
to satisfy current needs.
Refugees fleeing to the U. S. from the
terror of the U.S.-backed dictatorships were forcefully returned,
in gross violation of international humanitarian law. The policy
was reversed when a democratically elected government took office.
Though the flow of refugees reduced to a trickle, they were mostly
granted political asylum. Policy returned to normal when a military
junta overthrew the Aristide government after seven months and
state terrorist atrocities rose to new heights. The perpetrators
were the army-the inheritors of the National Guard left by Wilson's
invaders to control the population-and its paramilitary forces.
The most important of these, FRAPH, was founded by CIA asset Emmanuel
Constant, who now lives happily in Queens, Clinton and Bush II
having dismissed extradition requests-because he would reveal
U.S. ties to the murderous junta, it is widely assumed. Constant's
contributions to state terror were, after all, meager; merely
prime responsibility for the murder of 4,000 to 5,000 poor blacks.
Recall the core element of the Bush doctrine,
which has "already become a de facto rule of international
relations," Harvard's Graham Allison writes in Foreign Affairs:
"those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists
themselves," in the President's words, and must be treated
accordingly, by large-scale bombing and invasion.
When Aristide was overthrown by the 1991
military coup, the Organization of American States (OAS) declared
an embargo. Bush I announced that the U.S. would violate it by
exempting U.S. firms. He was thus "fine tuning" the
embargo for the benefit of the suffering population, the New York
Times reported. Clinton authorized even more extreme violations
of the embargo: U.S. trade with the junta and its wealthy supporters
sharply increased. The crucial element of the embargo was, of
course, oil. While the CIA solemnly testified to Congress that
the junta "probably will be out of fuel and power very shortly"
and "Our intelligence efforts are focused on detecting attempts
to circumvent the embargo and monitoring its impact," Clinton
secretly authorized the Texaco Oil Company to ship oil to the
junta illegally, in violation of presidential directives. This
remarkable revelation was the lead story on the AP wires the day
before Clinton sent the Marines to " restore democracy,"
impossible to miss-I happened to be monitoring AP wires that day
and saw it repeated prominently over and over-and obviously of
enormous significance for anyone who wanted to understand what
was happening. It was suppressed with truly impressive discipline,
though reported in industry journals along with scant mention
buried in the business press.
Also efficiently suppressed were the crucial
conditions that Clinton imposed for Aristide's return: that he
adopt the program of the defeated U.S. candidate in the 1990 elections,
a former World Bank official who had received 14 percent of the
vote. We call this "restoring democracy," a prime illustration
of how U.S. foreign policy has entered a "noble phase"
with a "saintly glow," the national press explained.
The harsh neoliberal program that Aristide was compelled to adopt
was virtually guaranteed to demolish the remaining shreds of economic
sovereignty, extending Wilson's progressive legislation and similar
U.S.-imposed measures since.
As democracy was thereby restored, the
World Bank announced, "The renovated state must focus on
an economic strategy centered on the energy and initiative of
Civil Society, especially the private sector, both national and
foreign." That has the merit of honesty: Haitian Civil Society
includes the tiny rich elite and U.S. corporations, but not the
vast majority of the population, the peasants and slumdwellers
who had committed the grave sin of organizing to elect their own
president. World Bank officers explained that the neoliberal program
would benefit the "more open, enlightened, business class"
and foreign investors, but assured us that the program "is
not going to hurt the poor to the extent it has in other countries"
subjected to structural adjustment, because the Haitian poor already
lacked minimal protection from proper economic policy, such as
subsidies for basic goods. Aristide's minister in charge of rural
development and agrarian reform was not notified of the plans
to be imposed on this largely peasant society, to be returned
by "America's good wishes" to the track from which it
veered briefly after the regrettable democratic election in 1990.
Matters then proceeded in their predictable
course. A 1995 USAID report explained that the "export-driven
trade and investment policy" that Washington imposed will
"relentlessly squeeze the domestic rice farmer," who
will be forced to turn to agroexport, with incidental benefits
to U.S. agribusiness and investors. Despite their extreme poverty,
Haitian rice farmers are quite efficient, but cannot possibly
compete with U. S. agribusiness, even if it did not receive 40
percent of its profits from government subsidies, sharply increased
under the Reaganites who are again in power, still producing enlightened
rhetoric about the miracles of the market. We now read that Haiti
cannot feed itself, another sign of a "failed state. "
A few small industries were still able
to function, for example, making chicken parts. But U.S. conglomerates
have a large surplus of dark meat, and therefore demanded the
right to dump their excess products in Haiti. They tried to do
the same in Canada and Mexico too, but there illegal dumping could
be barred. Not in Haiti, compelled to submit to efficient market
principles by the U.S. government and the corporations it serves.
One might note that the Pentagon's proconsul
in Iraq, Paul Bremer, ordered a very similar program to be instituted
there, with the same beneficiaries in mind. That's also called
"enhancing democracy." In fact, the record, highly revealing
and important, goes back to the 18th century. Similar programs
had a large role in creating today's third world. Meanwhile the
powerful ignored the rules, except when they could benefit from
them, and were able to become rich developed societies; dramatically
the U.S., which led the way in modern protectionism and, particularly
since World War II, has relied crucially on the dynamic state
sector for innovation and development, socializing risk and cost.
The punishment of Haiti became much more
severe under Bush II-there are differences within the narrow spectrum
of cruelty and greed. Aid was cut and international institutions
were pressured to do likewise, under pretexts too outlandish to
merit discussion. They are extensively reviewed in Paul Farmer's
The Uses of Haiti, and in some current press commentary, notably
by Jeffrey Sachs (Financial Times) and Tracy Kidder (New York
Putting details aside, what has happened
since is eerily similar to the overthrow of Haiti's first democratic
government in 1991. The Aristide government, once again, was undermined
by U.S. planners, who understood, under Clinton, that the threat
of democracy can be overcome if economic sovereignty is eliminated
and presumably also understood that economic development will
also be a faint hope under such conditions, one of the best confirmed
lessons of economic history. Bush II planners are even more dedicated
to undermining democracy and independence and despised Aristide
and the popular organizations that swept him to power with perhaps
even more passion than their predecessors. The forces that reconquered
the country are mostly inheritors of the U.S.-installed army and
Those who are intent on diverting attention
from the U.S. role will object that the situation is more complex-as
is always true-and that Aristide too was guilty of many crimes.
Correct, but if he had been a saint the situation would hardly
have developed very differently, as was evident in 1994, when
the only real hope was that a democratic revolution in the U.S.
would make it possible to shift policy in a more civilized direction.
What is happening now is awful, maybe
beyond repair, and there is plenty of short-term responsibility
on all sides. But the right way for the U.S. and France to proceed
is very clear. They should begin with payment of enormous reparations
to Haiti (France is perhaps even more hypocritical and disgraceful
in this regard than the U.S.). That, however, requires construction
of functioning democratic societies in which, at the very least,
people have a prayer of knowing what's going on. Commentary on
Haiti, Iraq, and other "failed societies" is quite right
in stressing the importance of overcoming the "democratic
deficit" that substantially reduces the significance of elections.
It does not, however, draw the obvious corollary: the lesson applies
in spades to a country where "politics is the shadow cast
on society by big business," in the words of America's leading
social philosopher, John Dewey, describing his own country in
days when the blight had spread nowhere near as far as it has
For those who are concerned with the substance
of democracy and human rights, the basic tasks at home are also
clear enough. They have been carried out before, with no slight
success, and under incomparably harsher conditions elsewhere,
including the slums and hills of Haiti. We do not have to submit,
voluntarily, to living in a failed state suffering from an enormous
Noam Chomsky is professor of linguistics
at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of
numerous books and articles.