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On September 15, the CBC Radio One program Ideas broadcast a one-hour documentary on lessons from the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti. The documentary is titled Just Trying To Help and was produced by Tom Howell and Nicola Luksic. They also narrate the documentary. The documentary is part of a series by Howell and Lusic on Ideas called “Ideas from the Trenches.”
The program features a Haitian food sovereignty advocate and four non-Haitians well acquainted with the country:
- Harry Nicolas is a known and respected Haitian advocate for food sovereignty
- Marylynn Steckley is a PhD graduate from Western University in London, Ontario. She spent six years in Haiti with her family as a researcher and an NGO worker with the Mennonite Central Committee.
- Anton Allahar is Professor of Sociology at Western University specializing in ethnic and racial relations, globalization, democracy and Caribbean studies.
- Kysseline Cherestal is a lawyer and senior policy analyst with ActionAID USA. She and her team produced a documentary report and lead advocacy project about the Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti on behalf of the estimated 150 peasant farm families who lost their land due to the project and were not even compensated. The report and project is called Land for Haiti.
- Yasmine Shamsie is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
CBC News published a related report on the Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti by Tom Howell and Nicola Luksic.
The Ideas program is an informative and laudable effort to present the economic and social dilemma facing the Haitian people and nation today. The five analysts provide valuable and essential insight and personal testimony about Haiti’s economic and social underdevelopment and the failed promises of the aid response to the 2010 earthquake. The first half hour of the program was particularly noteworthy because it delved into the history of Haiti and how foreign “aid” has ended up as anything but, leaving the country more subjugated to the imperialist world order than ever.
The documentary unfortunately flagged in the second half, leaving the listener still looking for deep insight into how it is that so much of official aid in Haiti and worldwide becomes interwoven with the structures of imperial domination and exploitation.
The subject of the second half of the program is the Caracol Industrial Park. That project is presented as an example of failed aid, and, indeed, it is just that. But where this portion of the program falls down is its failure to expose the long history of political and economic intervention and subjugation of Haiti that has produded many such failed projects as Caracol. The two, modern-day coups d’etat in Haiti which in both cases overthrew the elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991 and 2004, are not even mentioned.
Caracol is presented as a well-meaning but poorly conceived project. This is a naïve interpretation. Caracol was merely the latest incarnation of the failed, interventionist policies by the United States, with Europe and Canada in tow, during the decades of rule of Haiti by the Duvalier family tyranny from 1957 to 1986. U.S. policy was particularly destructive during the rule of son Jean-Claude (1970-1986) because that is when sweatshop factory investment came into vogue as Haiti’s economic salvation. This was heavily promoted by the U.S. That miserably failed development model was given new life following the 2010 earthquake by ideologues of imperialism such as Paul Collier of Oxford University and including Bill and Hillary Clinton. In the specific case of Caracol, the Clintons served as key promoters of the project.
Caracol and all the other post-earthquake failures in Haiti were marked by aggressive political intervention by the U.S., Europe and Canada in order to make them happen.
One of the very first interventionist projects following the earthquake was the placing of a faithful servant of imperial interests into the office of the president of Haiti. Michel Martelly was “elected” to president in a two-round election in November 2010 and March 2011 that was entirely financed from abroad. the election saw the lowest voter turnout of any election in the history of the Americas. Aristide’s political party, arguably the most representative in the country, was barred from participation. None of this gets a mention in the documentary.
The ending of the program featured a discourse by Professor Yasmine Shamsie over what forms of assistance to Haiti by large countries would be appropriate and helpful. Her writings have been part of the architecture of development studies programs in Canadian universities which downplayed the terribly destructive coup d’etat of 2004. Any study of 2010 earthquake aid failings that does not probe the 2004 coup and how it weakened and fractured an already weakened and fractured democracy and body politic in Haiti is grossly lacking and misleading.
Many books have now been written about the post-earthquake balance sheet in Haiti. Those which are particularly worthy of reading are the ones by authors who have taken the long history of foreign political and economic intervention in Haiti into serious account. Notable among these authors are Mark Schuller, Beverley Bell and Laurent Dubois. (See here on the Canada Haiti Action Network website a list of recommended books on Haiti by these and other authors.)
Listening to this documentary on CBC prompts painful reflections on the past 11 years in Haiti. Much of CBC reporting on Haiti during that time was entirely in lockstep with the mainstream media narrative, a relay of political declarations coming from Washington, Ottawa and Paris and of ideologues such as Collier. That narrative obscured and misreported the incessant foreign intervention which was designed to disrupt and block democracy and popular political movements from emerging out of the ashes of the earthquake. This was true during and after the 2004 paramilitary coup and it was again true in 2010 and in the years that have followed.
The mainstream narrative propagates the idea that Haiti suffers chronically from a’political culture’ that has produced a succession of leaders who flout democracy and rule of law. The world of NGOs and university development studies have contributed a great deal to this blatantly false and prejudiced interpretation of the country’s history. One CBC radio documentary along, however meritorious, cannot turn the tide of that propaganda avalanche, still less if it fails to indentify the source of the problem under examination.
Canadians received a reminder of their government’s destructive intervention in Haiti in 2004 during a visit to Canada in 2014 of one of Haiti’s leading human rights advocates, Attorney Mario Joseph. He told the Canadian Press, “After lying to the whole world [in 2004], Canada, the United States and France put in place an occupation force to protect their interests.”
He went on, “Haiti can emerge from its situation. The imperialists must leave us in peace, (they) must leave us to manage it ourselves.”
A very useful documentary companion to Just Trying To Help would be one which looks at the successful aid and solidarity projects that do exist in Haiti. There are a great many, including the medical assistance programs of Cuba and of Partners In Health, public education projects such as SOPUDEP, agricultural assistance provided to peasants by peasant and farmer organizations from Brazil, the legal advocacy work of the Institute for Justice and Democracy, the SOIL sanitation and community development project, and many others.
There are also important movements of political solidarity by Haitians and others taking place abroad; for example, the recent protests in the United States against the awful drive by the government of the Dominican Republic to strip tens of thousands of people of Haitian origin of their right to be citizens and residents.
 This is an excerpt from a 2008 paper by Yasmine Shamsie in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal:
“Canada is among the most important actors in Haiti in terms of the resources it deploys and the influence it wields. In partnership with sympathetic governments, it has been extremely effective in its support for Haiti’s electoral process, and interviews with both Haitian officials and other donors indicate that Ottawa’s diplomatic acumen is very well respected. In addition, CIDA’s Haiti report “Reflecting on a Decade of Difficult Partnership” indicates there has been significant learning since the mid-1990s. The agency has developed a sophisticated understanding of the Haitian landscape as well as a thoughtful analysis of the complex nature of the country’s crisis…
“While some concern with order is required — indeed Canadian support for stabilization efforts [sic] during the period 2004-2006 laid the critical groundwork for a free and fair electoral process in 2006 — overvaluing this public good in future years could preclude the possibility of genuine democratic empowerment for the popular classes, as well as the possibility of redressing their grievances and addressing their long-term interests.”
The Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch project of the Center for Economic Policy Research (Washington DC) is an important source of ongoing analysis of Haiti. Researcher Jake Johnston wrote an article in March 2015 analyzing the failure of U.S. aid agencies to build promised housing for Haitians. A second article on the same subject that same month was published by the CEPR.
The website of the Canada Haiti Action Network is an ongoing source of news and analysis of Haiti, in English and French. There you can find an overview article co-authored by this writer from earlier this year of the situation in Haiti five years after the earthquake.
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