Haiti can teach you a lot about the harsh reality of social affairs.

From the grips of the most barbaric form of plantation economy sprung probably the greatest example of liberation in the history of humanity.

The 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution was simultaneously a struggle against slavery, colonialism and white supremacy. Defeating the French, British and Spanish empires, it led to freedom for all people regardless of colour, decades before this idea found traction in Europe or North America.

Unfortunately, Haiti’s history also demonstrates how fluidly Europe (and North America) moved from formal colonialism to neo-imperialism. Technically "independent" for more than two centuries, outsiders have long shaped the country’s affairs.

Through isolation, economic asphyxiation, debt dependence, gunboat diplomacy, occupation, foreign supported dictatorships, structural adjustment programs and "democracy promotion," Haiti is no stranger to the various forms of foreign political manipulation.

A very Canadian coup

Most recently, the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was destabilized and then overthrown on February 29, 2004 by the U.S., France and Canada, which ushered in a terrible wave of political repression and an ongoing UN occupation.

As we approach the five-year anniversary of the coup, there are three important lessons to be learned from this intervention. First of all, the Canadian-sponsored "responsibility to protect" doctrine, which many want to encode in international law, is little more than a cover for imperialism. Liberal Party officials justified cutting off aid and invading Haiti by citing a "responsibility to protect" the country, yet the intervention further devastated an already impoverished population.

Peacekeepers as class warriors

The second lesson is that "peacekeepers" can be used to wage a brutal class war. In the two years after the coup, UN troops regularly provided vital support for the Haitian police’s violent assaults on poor communities and peaceful demonstrations demanding the return of the elected government.

UN forces also participated directly in this violent political pacification campaign, launching repeated anti-"gang" assaults on poor neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince. The two most horrific raids took place on January 6, 2005 and December 22, 2006, which together left some 35 innocent civilians dead and dozens wounded in the densely populated slum of Cité Soleil (a bastion of support for Aristide).

In April 2008 UN troops once again demonstrated that their primary purpose in the country was to defend the status quo. During riots over the rising cost of food they put down protests by killing a handful of demonstrators. (Kevin Pina’s film Haiti: The UNtold Story, which will be shown across the country in the coming weeks, documents the chilling brutality of UN forces.)

Haiti as laboratory for complicit NGOs

Finally, Haiti provides an example of how self-described "progressive" Western government-funded NGOs function as an arm of imperialism. A sort of NGO laboratory, Haiti is a highly vulnerable society where NGOs have a great deal of influence. By one estimate, Haiti has the most development NGOs of any country per capita and the vast majority of the country’s social services are run by domestic or foreign NGOs.

Their influential position in Haiti provides a clear window into Western government-funded NGOs’ worst tendencies. Many NGOs joined the Bush administration, Ottawa and a handful of armed thugs in calling for the removal of Haiti’s democratically elected president in 2004. After repeatedly complaining about human rights violations under the elected government, these groups (Development and Peace, Rights and Democracy, Oxfam Québec, Alternatives etc.) ignored or denied the massive increase in human rights violations that took place in the aftermath of the coup.

A January 2008 federal government-funded report published by Alternatives (Québec’s biggest proponent of the World Social Forum) provides an eye into NGOs’ colonial attitude vis-a-vis Haiti: "In a country like Haiti, in which democratic culture has never taken hold, the concept of the common good and the meaning of elections and representation are limited to the educated elites, and in particular to those who have received citizen education within the social movements." According to Alternatives, Haitians are too stupid to know what’s good for them, unless, that is, they’ve been educated by a foreign NGO. (For a detailed account of government-funded NGOs role in Haiti see Press for Conversion‘s three recent reports or Damming the Flood by Peter Hallward.)

In trying to reason with these groups, one discovers that information or rational argument does little to sway groups receiving millions of dollars from the Canadian government for work in Haiti. Maintaining a progressive agenda in a country considered "high priority" by the power brokers in Ottawa is extremely difficult.

And with the intervention into Haiti — unlike say the invasion of Iraq — on few people’s political radar, these NGOs felt limited grass-roots pressure to abandon their government benefactors.

Unlike in Canada, Western government-funded NGOs are widely criticized in Haiti. Most progressive-minded Canadians see NGOs as part of the solution to global poverty yet where these groups are "helping" out the situation is quite different. Across the country’s political spectrum, Haitians have been highly critical of development NGOs’ role in undermining the country’s government.

A couple months ago the left-wing newspaper Haiti Progrès called NGOs in the country a "mafia" and on February 5 the country’s president, René Préval, called on Washington to stop channelling its assistance through NGOs.

This weekend, on February 28, thousands of Haitians will once again demonstrate against the coup, expressing their opposition to the responsibility to protect, UN peacekeepers and Western government-funded NGOs.


Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and other books. If you would like to help organize a talk as part of a book tour in May/June Please e-mail: yvesengler[at]hotmail[dot]com.

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...