Regardless of how his actions might affect the Haitian nation or its people, the incoming Haitian president is unlikely to see out his term in office without it being violently hampered, or even terminated, unless he demonstrates a clear willingness to succumb to the political and financial demands of Washington and Wall Street.
The announcement of Wyclef Jean’s candidacy for the Haitian presidency has leant the upcoming election an air of celebrity, and a media spotlight it wouldn’t usually attract.
However, while mainstream news networks fall over themselves to offer predictions on a “crowded race” steeped in “excitement” and “intrigue”, very few have drawn attention to a crucial and self-evident fact of Haitian politics: regardless of how his actions might affect the Haitian nation or its people, the incoming president is unlikely to see out his term in office without it being violently hampered, or even terminated, unless he demonstrates a clear willingness to succumb to the political and financial demands of Washington and Wall Street.
US involvement with Haiti began in the early 20th century. The Caribbean nation had struggled for more than a decade with economic hardship and political instability – thanks in the main to the crippling debts that had been imposed on it by its former colonial master, France – and in 1915, Woodrow Wilson dispatched an invasion force of 330 marines.
By way of re-establishing “peace and order” and teaching the Haitians “how to elect good men”, Wilson dismantled the national constitution, reinstated virtual slave labour, and oversaw a bloody two-decade occupation by US military forces which Haitian historians estimate resulted in 15,000 civilian deaths.
By the time American forces withdrew in 1934, they had put Haitian finances completely under the control of the White House, supplanted the Haitian army with the US-controlled Gendarmerie d’Haiti, and more than tripled the profits of American banking interests in the process.
Now widely recognised as “a crucial moment in the development of American imperialism”, this “friendly protection, guidance and assistance” lent to the Haitian people by Wilson set the tone for all future US-Haiti relations. Ever since, the White House has made sure that anyone who doesn’t protect US business interests in the nation’s lucrative export industries, or restricts access to the impoverished cheap labour force, doesn’t remain in office.
For example, between the fifties and eighties, US presidents supported the Duvaliers, two of the most brutal dictators in Latin American history. As ‘Papa’ and ‘Baby’ Doc shut down the entire press, demolished schools, deployed death squads specifically tasked with crushing democratic movements, and ordered the deaths of upwards of 30,000 Haitian civilians, the US praised them for providing “stability in the region” and sent them vast amounts of aid, so impressed were they with the Duvaliers’ enthusiasm for foreign investment, and their ferocious opposition to communist Cuba.
However, when Haiti’s first free election came in 1990 and the poor majority entered the political arena to elect, by a two-thirds majority, populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the US was forced to intervene. The White House had been backing World Bank official Marc Bazin, and when it emerged that Aristide viewed capitalism as “a machine devouring the planet”, and was more concerned with enacting social reforms than facilitating US investment, George Bush Sr. swiftly stepped in to “promote democracy” by overthrowing a democratically elected leader in a violent coup.
After three years, Bill Clinton restored Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, on the condition that he accept a neoliberal economic programme masterminded by the world bank aimed and aimed at aiding the “enlightened, business class”. Without an alternative, Aristide acquiesced, and throughout the rest of the nineties thousands of farmers went bankrupt and Haiti’s economy shrunk by 0.4 per cent every year, turning it into the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
A decade later, when Aristide began to mobilize populist forces again in a desperate attempt to win back some semblance of economic sovereignty, George Bush Jr. first orchestrated the halting of more than $500 million in aid slated to pay for safe drinking water and literacy programs, and then, like his father before him, followed through on his pledge to “support the growth of democratic movements” by overthrowing a democratically elected leader who commanded 90 per cent of his country’s popular vote.
This has been a whistle stop tour, and Aristide is by no means a saint. Nonetheless, if the historical record tells us anything, it tells us this: whoever adopts the Haitian presidency, and regardless of his level of democratic support, what determines whether he is afforded a genuine chance at a presidency is how far he is willing to bend to the will of the White House.
And as Obama’s ‘change we can believe in’ doesn’t seem to extend to US policy towards Latin American self-determination – he has already tacitly supported the military coup which ousted left-leaning President Zelaya in Honduras last year, and is overseeing a broad remilitarisation of the region in reaction to political developments in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia – it is difficult to see how this state of affairs won’t continue to prevail for Haiti’s incoming president, ex-Fugees singer or otherwise.
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