The most devastating natural disaster to hit the Western Hemisphere in decades inundates the American news media. The humanitarian effort from across the globe in response to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti has been astounding. Mainstream television has produced an array of shocking and heroic visuals sandwiched between car commercials and ads for Viagra and processed food. The media attention paid to Haiti is a welcome development. Publicizing the catastrophe has generated tens of millions of dollars in relief donations. That’s a good thing. But why were Haiti’s long-suffering people deemed so un-newsworthy before the quake? Passed over in the process have been some uncomfortable truths behind the outpouring of compassion toward the plight of the Haitian people.
For over two centuries the U.S. has been on the wrong side of history in Haiti. It has propped up military dictatorships that enriched a tiny oligarchy at the expense of Haiti’s population. Decades of abuse have created a country with a level of food insecurity on par with Sub-Saharan Africa, a per capita income of about $390 a year, and a sizable underclass forced literally to eat mud to sustain itself.
A curious little article appeared in the Sunday New York Times co-written by Marc Lacey and Simon Romero, titled “Quake Ignores Class Divisions, Leaving Both Rich and Poor Shaken.” In it, Lacey and Romero offer the puzzling “analysis” that the earthquake in Haiti was a great social equalizer since many members of Haiti’s ruling elite also lost their homes. The article is a good example of the hidden class assumptions that blinds many journalists who write for the nation’s mainstream news outlets.
Contrary to Lacey and Romero’s argument, the Haitian earthquake certainly did affect the lives of far more poor people than wealthy people. How could that not be the case when over 80 percent of the population lives below a very low positioned poverty line? Thousands of cinder block shacks on the barren mountainsides and in the teeming shantytowns around Port-au-Prince didn’t stand a chance against a 7.0 quake. And wealthy people have resources they can tap to get them through the crisis or maybe even get out of the country.
These are options the vast majority of Haitians simply do not have. Finally, you can be sure that members of the oligarchy in Haiti will reap the greatest benefits from any reconstruction effort that is organized in the weeks and months ahead. Lacey and Romero’s piece glosses over the class oppression in Haiti and with it conveniently disposes of the pivotal role U.S. foreign policy played in perpetuating that class oppression.
Haiti could be seen as the nation where “Wilsonian democracy” met its most glaring hypocrisy. It was President Woodrow Wilson who sent the Marines there in 1915 and after a 19-year occupation (1915-1934) the U.S. left behind an indigenous “security” apparatus aimed not at fighting foreign invaders but at repressing its own population. After World War Two, the U.S. supported the Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1971) as well as the miserable rule of his son Jean Claude “Baby Doc” (1971-1986), who was 19 years old when he took power. The School of the Americas trained many Haitian officers and American arms found their way into the hands of the notorious Tonton Macoutes death squads as well as the right-wing paramilitary “Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress” (FRAPH), a recognizable pattern to anyone familiar with the history of El Salvador or other states south of the border.
More recently, there was a terrible injustice inflicted on Haiti that the same American news media that are currently showing such compassion toward Haiti helped sell: the February 29, 2004 overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Frustrated at its failure in 2002 to oust the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela the George W. Bush Administration turned its attention to Aristide.
The right-wing fanatic, Roger Noriega, who was Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, had it in for Aristide from the moment he assumed his post. I’ll never forget seeing the first African-American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, lying to the American people about the U.S.-engineered coup against Aristide. “He was not kidnapped,” Powell told the press. “We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly, and that’s the truth.” Like his February 2003 presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” Powell’s posture on the Haitian coup one year later was nothing but lies.
As George W. Bush teams up with Bill Clinton to raise relief aid for Haiti no one in the mainstream news media seems to remember that it was Bush who gave Aristide a one-way ticket to the Central African Republic. Everything Bush did while he was president hurt Haiti, but now he is seen as a great benefactor of that nation in its time of need. I even saw John King of CNN, David Gregory of NBC, and Major Garrett of FOX ask Bush what he thought should be done on the ground in Haiti to better orchestrate the relief effort. I think Bush’s true feelings toward the plight of thousands of poor black people desperately needing help in the face of a natural disaster were amply demonstrated by his response to Hurricane Katrina. Yet there he is rehabilitated and legitimized in the eyes of the world. David Gregory said to Bush: “You’re Back!”
The heartfelt charity from all corners we see going to Haiti is good to see as is the role of the U.S. military in providing relief efficiently and quickly. It really shows what a force for good in the world the Pentagon could be — no other organization comes close to the logistical capabilities of the American military. But we should at least be cognizant of the historical context for the newfound compassion toward Haiti. When the television cameras stop whirring and the famous correspondents leave Haiti and move on to the next Tiger Woods scandal, we should take a hard look at the power relations between the United States and Haiti that not only tolerated but helped create the Western Hemisphere’s best known economic, medical, political, judicial, educational, and ecological disaster long before the natural disaster hit.
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