The January 12th earthquake in Haiti killed around 100,000 people and many thousands more are dying because of the limited ability of the Haitian state, and unwillingness of western states, to respond rapidly and effectively to this humanitarian catastrophe. The response to the crisis by the British media reveals much about this country’s ideological self-definition vis-Ã -vis the global South in general and very poor countries such as Haiti in particular.
The focus of the media’s coverage has been divided between emphasising the natural aspects of this disaster, praising western aid agencies’ attempts to help the people of Haiti, and detailing the desperate conditions of the general population. To be sure, western populations have been quick and generous in their response to the crisis through millions of individual donations. But this generosity of spirit is not matched by their governments and media. Rather, the crisis has become an opportunity to engage in the reproduction of self-serving myths of western superiority and generosity.
The Times branded Haiti ‘The unluckiest country’ and The Daily Mail explains the devastation of the quake as resulting from the magnitude of the intensity combined with the epicentre’s proximity to the capital, Port-au-Prince. Alongside such ‘explanations’, reports detail the courage of western aid agencies. President Obama is quoted as promising ‘unwavering support’ for Haiti. Published eye-witness accounts which began by emphasising the desperation of the surviving population shifted, within days, to salacious stories of looting. UN and American forces have been portrayed as ‘restoring order’.
The narratives constructed in the media’s reporting and government reaction to the crisis have all the hall-marks of the white man’s burden: An impoverished (black) country, unable to self-govern, run its own affairs and respond to the disaster requires generous (white) western assistance; the world is ready to help – but aid is disrupted by an unworking Haitian state system and by thuggish (black) looters; aid, therefore, needs to be backed up by peacekeeping and the restoration of order.
Very little space in the mainstream media has been given to the original reasons for Haiti’s extreme poverty. To do so would undermine the myth of the white man’s burden and expose western powers’ responsibility for the country’s underdevelopment.
Haiti, originally named Saint-Domingue, used to be France’s most precious colony, its exports making up around two thirds of France’s gross national product. Between 1791 and 1804 the colony experienced a monumental revolution which overthrew French slave owners, established the world’s first black republic and beat back French and British attempts to re-conquer the country and re-establish slavery. CLR James in his magnificent book The Black Jacobins details how re-invading French troops confronted former slaves singing La Marseillaise, the revolutionary French national anthem. James portrayed the slave revolt as representing the extreme left wing of the French Revolution, not only fighting for an abstract conception of LibertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ©, fraternitÃ© but for a concrete anti-racist, anti-colonial recognition of the rights of the former slaves to take their place as equals amongst other nations. The United States, the self declared first anti-colonial nation, following its own revolution against the British in 1776, did not support the Haitian bid for freedom, only recognizing Haiti in 1862, a year into its civil war. To have done so earlier would have meant confronting its own, proliferating, system of slavery.
The victory of the former Haitian slaves against the French and then British came at a high cost. European countries refused to trade with Haiti, with France agreeing to resume trade on the condition that the Haitian state pay former slave owners compensation of 150 million francs (equivalent to around $35 billion today). When, in the early 20th century, the Haitian state found it impossible to continue repaying the loan, it turned to US banks for help. The United States occupied the country – from 1915 to 1934 – to ensure the repayment of these loans and to continue the expansion of US business interests in the Caribbean and wider Latin American region. The US then supported the murderous ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ dictatorships between 1957 and 1986. But ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was overthrown by mass uprisings in 1986 and Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in 1990 on a pro-poor platform. But no sooner had he entered office than a US-backed military coup overthrew him in 1991. The US then backtracked, supporting Aristide on the condition that he implement neo-liberal reforms, and restored him to office in 1994. In 2004 the US switched sides again, backing a coup against Aristide. Since then the country has been (in)effectively ruled by UN troops.
Today Haiti is a disaster zone. Jeffry Sachs’ recent Guardian op-ed continues the process of western myth-making in relation to Haiti: ‘The world has spent heavily in Haiti before, but very ineffectively. This time it must be done right’. By ignoring Haiti’s denigration at the hands of western powers it is easy for the mainstream media and western governments to portray the country’s plight as a result of domestic mismanagement and bad luck. It also helps in the ideological repackaging of the US military as a Florence Nightingale of the Caribbean following its disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the amounts committed by key western states, an £88 million aid package, in comparison to the US’s £400 million annual aid to Colombia, and the £9 trillion cost of bailing out the world’s banks, highlights well the priorities of the main powers today.
Is this to say that western powers can do nothing to help Haiti? On the contrary. They could follow Hugo Chavez’s lead of cancelling, unconditionally, Haitian debt. They could engage in a ‘shock and awe’ operation of raining down food and supplies on the Haitian population. But the white man’s burden was never about helping the rest of the world, but about advancing the interests of the key states in the international system. Can change come from within Haiti? The country has a rich history of struggle and rebellion against dictatorship and there is every reason to expect the people of Haiti to attempt, in the future, to establish a pro-poor, democratic system.
Ben Selywn is Lecturer in Global Politics and International Development at the University of Sussex.
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This post was written by Ben Selwyn