January 1 was the 201st birthday of the first nation of free people in the Americas. Its citizens are descendents of the only successful slave rebellion in human history.

The country is of course Haiti, which in its 201st year finds itself occupied, not just by International Monetary Fund or World Bank policymakers, but by well-armed foreign soldiers. Some in the international community want to deepen and extend this occupation. They call it making Haiti a UN protectorate.

All this, it should be noted, follows last February’s foreign-orchestrated overthrow of Haiti’s constitutional order: the elected president and hundreds of elected mayors, council members and senators throughout the country were forced from office. The poor — especially those associated with ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas party — have been the primary victims of the recent upheaval. Food prices have skyrocketed, thousands of government workers fired, and thousands more jailed or killed.

The Canadian government, through the Ottawa initiative and soldiers sent to “secure” the airport the night Aristide was forced out of the country, has played no small role in orchestrating Haiti’s recent social/humanitarian disaster. Fortunately, however, our country is not preordained to play a destructive role in Haiti, even if we have an under-acknowledged colonial legacy.

On a recent trip to Haiti, I found that many people were perplexed by Canada’s current policy towards their country. Those I talked to generally had positive things to say about Canada’s role after the 1994 restoration of Aristide. Some people asked if Canada’s Haiti policy changed because Paul Martin took power. Others pointed out that it might be Ottawa trying to curry favour with Washington after not (officially) joining the Iraq debacle. (One person thought it might have something to do with Canada never having its own colonies: Haiti is just the right size, he said.) Whatever our government’s motives, the Haitians I talked to all said Canada is currently playing a destructive role in their country.

Ten months of Canadian-backed terror against the poor of the hemisphere’s poorest country is enough. It’s time to change our government’s anti-democratic and élite-friendly policies in Haiti. Haiti solidarity activism, which has been slow to take off, should become the Canadian left’s top foreign policy concern.

Why Haiti more than other conflicts?

Canada also has a significant presence in Afghanistan but the domestic situation there is substantially more complex. The occupation in Afghanistan is not so clearly anti-poor or anti-democratic. The constitutional order Canada helped overthrow in Haiti represented the poor majority and it is the poor who currently face the brunt of the repression.

Opposition to Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine is critical but U.S. opinion/action is of overwhelming importance to change. Successful Canadian solidarity work could (and should) move Canada towards the position of the rest of the world: condemning Israeli policy at the UN, which would certainly be of some help to Palestinians. But without the U.S. halting its vast sums of military aid and continuous UN vetoes it’s unlikely that the Canadian left could accomplish a great deal more.

Iraq is clearly a larger humanitarian catastrophe than Haiti but again we have little control over Iraq’s destiny. In Haiti, on the other hand, Canada is acting aggressively to legitimize the murderous installed regime by giving cash, through Paul Martin’s recent visit and by playing host to the recent Montreal conference with some of the Haitian Diaspora. Canada is also in charge of the entire 1600-member UN police force. The UN police are coordinating with the Haitian police — increasingly reconstituted with former military officers — that are responsible for a large number of the political assassinations.

In our age of “war on terror” the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine obviously take on an even greater political significance than the immense suffering of those countries’ inhabitants. The conflicts contribute to racism against Arabs and Muslims in Canada, for example (all those anti-Arab rants in the Asper-owned papers.).

In the same way, the overthrow of Haiti’s elected government and the recent deterioration of living conditions are intertwined with deep-seated racism. Mainstream reporting about Haiti has a significant undercurrent of “look at those poor blacks unable to govern themselves.” The discussion about turning Haiti into a UN protectorate is just the extension of this racist idea. (Iraq is stable enough for elections but Haiti isn’t?).

More fundamentally, it’s not a coincidence that the campaign to de-stabilize the country gained momentum as Haiti prepared to celebrate 200-years of independence. The world’s powers have never taken kindly to Haitian independence; not when slaves defeated the English, Spanish and French empires between 1791 and 1804 nor when the Lavalas government broke ties between Haiti’s police and the U.S. in 1999. (This came four years after the Army, created by the U.S. during its occupation of 1915-1934, was disbanded.)

Haiti’s anti-colonial, pro-black and anti-oppression symbolism is an integral part of its history. The slave-holding nations, hoping to crush its example, refused to recognize its independence. For 60 years the U.S. refused recognition and the colony of Canada, with slaves in Montreal until 1834, wasn’t a great deal kinder.

The right, especially the active white supremacist elements in the Republican Party, have used Haiti to advance their racist world view. But the left, aside from a few black Pan-Africanists, has done little to combat the right’s racism toward Haiti and has mostly forgotten any connection with Haiti’s inspiring example of human liberation.

“Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint L’Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in San Domingo.”

How many of us have read about Toussaint L’Ouverture? Or the slaves who liberated themselves, their island and provided support for Latin American independence? Our children should learn about Haiti’s shining example of fighting human oppression, not just about how that country is very poor.

If we want to move forward with our struggle for liberation we need to be grounded in our successes. All the more so when right-wing forces use Haiti’s successful slave rebellion to humiliate and destroy its people today.

Haiti’s social movements, I was told by people there, have enough strength to once again overcome the country’s small élite and create a more just system. But foreign powers are interfering and supporting Haiti’s élite, moving the balance of powers in the élite’s favour. That is why our solidarity is of utmost importance.

For those interested in organizing or taking part in demonstrations (planned for Saturday, February 26) in Canada or throughout the world commemorating the one year anniversary of the overthrow of Haiti’s constitutional order get in touch with Anthony at [email protected].

For those interested in bringing Haitian speakers to Canada or the northeast of the U.S. get in touch with Yves at (514) 807-9037 or [email protected].

Anyone planning on attending the World Social Forum who might be interested in outreaching with our Brazilian, Argentinean and Chilean comrades please get in touch with Yves.

Yves Engler

Dubbed “Canada’s version of Noam Chomsky” (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I. F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), “part...