One of the biggest flaws in the major news media is its apparent allergy to important historical context. Past events that help explain complex present-day contours of wealth and power are either inconvenient or uninteresting to reporters and editors, often rushing to make deadline or publish something splashy that will grab readers and boost revenue.
Even the BBC, often seen as the premier international news channel, recently ran a series of stories along these lines. Correspondent Mike Thomson told the terrible story of child slavery in Haiti – told many times over in the Western media – with nary a mention of how slavery was established on this island. He embedded with UN peacekeeping patrols of Cite Soleil, portraying Haitians as uniformly grateful for their presence and neglecting to mention persistent accusations of abuse. His reporting focused on the arresting sights, smells, and personal stories of Haiti’s extreme poverty. Missing context, it’s hard to imagine his work informing viewers towards understanding and civic action more than simply depressing them.
Thankfully, it’s easier now more than ever to uncover and disseminate little known histories. I recently stumbled upon Vuvox.com, a free tool that allows anyone to construct a Flash-based collage of images. A few hours of Google Image searching, Photoshop work and re-reading later, here’s rudimentary pictoral outline of US policy towards Haiti in the past century – critical knowledge for anyone seeking a genuine understanding of Haiti’s problems and why the United States is entangled in them. I’d encourage folks to look through the books and articles cited below for more information. If you hear somebody ask, “What does the United States have to do with Haiti?” give them this link. It covers the basics.
For a succinct account of the US occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, I’d suggest Dr. Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, first published by Common Courage Press in 1994, pages 78-79. Farmer, now the UN Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti (see my interview with him here), also describes in the latter half of the book the extermination of the Creole pig, increasing investment in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorships, and the conditions agreed to by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he returned in 1994 after the first coup.
More on the disparate and cruel treatment of Haitian refugees in Chapter 5 of Let Haiti Live: Unjust US Policies Towards Its Oldest Neighbor, by Melinda Miles and Eugenia Charles, published by Educa Vision in 2004.
Matthew J. Smith’s Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change 1934-1957, out this year by University of North Carolina Press, includes detailed accounts of the failed SHADA rubber program during World War II and the ousting of Daniel Fignole that paved the way for Duvalier. The Eisenhower administration feared Fignole would be “another Arbenz,” the socialist-democrat President of Guatemala overthrown by the CIA just three years earlier. See Chapters 2 and 5.
The story of Aristide’s fall in 2004 is mired in a deep and bitter controversy. I find Dr. Farmer’s take on it, printed in the London Review of Books, to be generally persuasive; Peter Dailey’s letter in response outlines the opposing view. Also, Canadian journalist Claude Adams recently blogged about the minimum wage and textile industry in Haiti. My posts on Haiti over the past year are collected here.