Haiti calls for help

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Haiti, a country born in courage, when its slave revolt in 1791 eventually led to the ouster of a French colonial regime, faces its greatest challenge. The Canadian writer, Haitian-born Dany Laferrière was in a Port-au-Prince restaurant on Jan. 12, 2010 at 4:53 p.m. when the worst earthquake in 200 years massacred upwards of as many as 100,000 Haitians living in, and around the capital. Interviewed by Le Monde he pointed to the courage of its poor residents out in the streets, helping each other face nightmare situations: no water, no food, nowhere to go, corpses everywhere, people trapped under rubble. Those who have what they need are not outside, he said.

Laferrière went to see his friend Frankétienne the Haitian playwright who had just been rehearsing his play about a Haitian earthquake. It can never be shown again, his friend exclaimed in anguish. Don't think of it, Lafferière replied, you must go on, culture is the most important thing we have in Haiti. Our culture will enable us to survive this catastrophic blow. He urged Frankétienne, who for Lafferière is "a metaphor for Port-au-Prince" to go into the streets. The architectural landmarks have disappeared. When our citizen see our cultural landmark figure it will help reassure them.

In 1804 Haiti became the second country in the Americas to become formally independent. The Haitians, plus yellow fever, defeated Napoleon's army to gain their freedom. The "Black Jacobins" C.L.R. James called the Haitians, who were inspired by the French Revolution, and its discourse of freedom, equality and the rights of man. Like the French revolutionaries who were were unable to establish a democratic republic, Haiti fell under the control of a succession of strongman leaders.

Shortly after independence, Haiti also became the first of many post-colonial regimes to enter the debt trap. Using the threat of military force, by 1825 France was able to exact reparations of 150 million Francs for "property" (slaves) seized from slave owners. To make payments on this ransom like agreement Haiti had to take out loans in France, the U.S. and Germany. By 1900, some 80 percent of the Haitian budget was still going to repay the loans. Some were still outstanding after World War II. By 2003 it was calculated that repaying debt on reparations to France from 1825 to 1947 had cost Haiti $21 billion (U.S.) in current dollars. Then Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanded repayment in full before being deposed by American, French and Canadian troops in 2004.

Today, Haiti remains caught in a debt trap. According to the Paris Club of creditor nations (including Canada) Haiti owes $1.9 billion (U.S.) to various lenders (banks and other governments).

Activists for disaster relief should make immediate forgiveness of every dollar of the Haitian debt a top priority. Reparations for past injustices should be part of any long term international plan for Haiti.

The Haitian call for help was answered by the U.S. marines which have taken over the airport, and displaced the official UN occupying forces under Brazilian command as the power in charge of Haiti. Like the seat of the Haitian government which has been devastated by the earthquake (the presidential palace and the legislative assembly both destroyed) the UN headquarters was left in ruins. Losses of government and UN personnel are impossible to estimate but are undoubtedly high.

U.S. assistance was slow in arriving, and is controversial in the extreme. The militarization of disaster relief over shadows the humanitarian instincts of populations around the world who want to donate money to help Haitians.

The U.S. established a boycott of Haiti after it first declared independence, invaded and occupied it from 1915 until 1934, then supported the Duvalier (Papa Doc, then Baby Doc) dictatorships from 1957 to 1986, as a bulwark against Cuba. In the new century, following a long established pattern, the U.S. denied grants to Haiti, and used trade agreements to pry open markets for rice exports.

U.S. geopolitical thinking did not get suspended because of a human crisis. Setting up bases for American troops in Haiti fits with the general U.S. foreign policy aims of subverting Cuba, and opposing the progressive regimes of Venezuela and Bolivia, while supporting the U.S. puppets such as Colombia. Per capita, there are already more U.S. troops in Haiti than in Afghanistan.

The courage to build another world is at stake in Haiti, much as the struggle for democracy was at stake in Spain during the civil war of the 1930s. Activists must hold governments to account, while holding out both hands to our Haitian brothers and sisters.

Duncan Cameron writes from France.

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