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In 2004, the elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was kidnapped by US marines and flown to the Central African Republic. It was a coup of the kind tried unsuccessfully in Venezuela two years earlier and successfully in Honduras in 2009. The institutional structures put in place by the coup regime, including the UN troops occupying the country, still remain despite several elections.
Why did all this happen with relatively little international fuss? Podur’s book explains in forensic detail the role of international media, NGOs, the UN and other actors in misrepresenting Aristide’s government and upholding the coup and subsequent dictatorship. It’s an important book not just for Haiti itself, but also because it illustrates how modern imperialism works. Parts of the narrative find echoes all over the world, from the coup in Guatemala in 1954 to Iraq post-2003.
Aristide is a Catholic priest and exponent of liberation theology. From his parish in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince he became a focal point for the democracy movement under the Duvalier dictatorship. He later founded Lavalas, a progressive political organisation that gained widespread support in Haiti’s poor neighbourhoods. His disinclination to follow the neoliberal dictats emanating from Washington was all the excuse the US needed to support his removal.
By 2004, Haiti was experiencing a low-level war between Aristide’s government and paramilitary groups made up of former members of the Haitian army (which Aristide abolished) and Duvalier’s informal death squads, tacitly backed by Haiti’s business elite. Allegations of human rights abuses and corruption against Aristide, spread but never substantiated by the international media, helped muddy the water when the US actually removed him. Human rights organisations funded by USAID also played their part in creating a climate where few Latin American countries challenged the coup and a UN mission, MINUSTAH, was quickly brought in with a mandate to use lethal force.
By 2007 MINUSTAH was still taking part in attacks on Cité Soleil, the poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince alongside a Haitian police force now with paramilitaries incorporated. Ostensibly the assaults, complete with tanks and indiscriminate killings, were to control gangs, but it was no coincidence that this was a Lavalas stronghold. Lavalas activists are arrested and imprisoned indefinitely on trumped up charges (such as the pacifist priest accused of gun-running). Lavalas was excluded from elections.
Then the earthquake of 2010 hit. The usual assertions that the death toll was more about poverty than geology, while true, are less interesting here than the impact of the ‘new dictatorship’ on disaster response. With the Haitian government left without the capacity to respond, help had to come from the US. The US military took over Port-au-Prince airport and gave priority to its own operations over, for instance, medical supplies. Shortly after the initial rescue effort the US took the opportunity to negotiate control of Haiti’s ports, airports and roads. Of every $100 of US reconstruction contracts awarded, only $1.60 went to Haitian firms.
In the immediate aftermath, reported one horrified French physician, US doctors made excessive use of careless amputations, sometimes for problems as treatable as fractures. Compare their response to the careful work of Cuban doctors at the same time and the racism that permeates western responses to Haiti becomes clear.
Many leftists who have been engaged in a sustained way in Haiti are highly critical of NGOs. This can seem baffling to people in the UK who are conditioned to understand NGOs generally as an expression of the selflessness that often motivates people to donate to them. Yet Podur’s narrative makes clear how the actions of some NGOs have both justified the coup (or at least muted and confused opposition), as well as failing to deliver effective disaster relief. While some NGOs have done excellent work, Podur doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the likes of the Red Cross leaving vast sums of donated money sitting in bank accounts and operating with zero accountability to Haitian people.
The carefully documented detail is an undoubted strength of this book, and it is animated throughout by a clear anger at the injustice perpetrated against Haitians. But I couldn’t help but feel the subject matter deserved an even more popular format. The section on why Latin America’s left-leaning governments didn’t oppose the coup also felt a little thin, with Brazil’s angling for a permanent place on the UN security council mentioned only in passing. Similarly, more on the economic aspects of imperial domination would have been welcome, including western aspirations to make Haiti a sweatshop economy (backed by ‘friend of Haiti’ Bill Clinton) and the role of debt in curtailing Haiti’s independence.
However, Podur has done us a real service in documenting Haiti’s past decade. It’s a more complex story than can be summarised here, but the kind of ‘complexity’ that is actually constructed to obscure the realities of empire is neatly sliced away in Podur’s account, leaving bare the contours of a deep and ongoing injustice.
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