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Reflections on Disaster: Haiti and Me

February 1, 2010

There will come a day pretty soon when someone decides that the people of Haiti are no longer news.  For now though the bright lights of global 24-hour news continue to shine on the suffering of 10 million people in the Caribbean sea.  There are so many words spilled in wake of a disaster like this one that it seems pointless adding to them. What do you write that isn’t platitudes, or at least criticism of other people’s platitudes?  But as time has passed and talk has turned to Tony Blair’s unshrinking ego or the grand unveiling of Michael Jackson’s children, I guess maybe I feel I do want to add one thing.

What has struck me most about this disaster, is not the magnitude of the destruction or the inadequacy (or otherwise) of the response, but the coverage of it.  To be precise I mean the way we frame an event such as this.  In this disaster, as in several preceding it, the global media, and so us too their viewers, are not observers but stakeholders who participate in the construction of a story; in essence it is not about the events but their narrativisation.  So the question to ask is, what does the story we construct tell us, not about the event itself, but about us who weave it?

Something crystalised for me I think in the coverage of events in Haiti. I have come to believe that in these moments of great disaster we participate in a grand and very graphic lie; the lie that somehow in these moments of such concentrated suffering that we are able to seek and find our common humanity.  The suffering of the people of Haiti, we tell ourselves, touches us because their tragedy stirs something primordial, a basic empathetic link between people that can cut through distance, or cultural difference.  We should and do care because we are human. That is enough.

It seems a beautiful fiction on the face of it, one I almost want to leave undisturbed.  But as always the question to ask is exactly for whose benefit is it that this story functions, and what are its consequences? Well, who are the ‘we’ who immerse ourselves in this compulsory narrative that must accompany every disaster? It is the overwhelmingly prosperous, relatively liberal, internationally mobile consumers of global media, the ‘globalised’ few whom these stories are narrated (and for whom ‘global’ media exists), and who therefore have a stake in constructing this kind of universalist narrative.  Why? Because it helps us (because of course I am one of them) define our place in the world, situate ourselves through our relation to certain events, experiences, and ideas, and shape a perception of the world as we wish it to be, the one in which we are most comfortable with our position of privilege within it.

But the reality, it seems to me, is in a sense the opposite – in disasters such as those in Haiti, but equally I think of Aceh, or New Orleans, we don’t find commonality in the wreckage of people’s lives and worlds, but rather reaffirm our difference. Through watching the suffering of others with whom we could never identify, we naturally set ourselves apart. It is not me there, nor could it ever be.  Isn’t the truth that the suffering of someone really like me would be too traumatic to project into my home, into my life, on a continuous news cycle?   This instead is a moment of almost cinematic tragedy in which we recognise, not ourselves, but a familiar script from our over-narrated age (the word ‘cinematic’ here is not metaphorical; it is impossible not to relate to this event except through the emotional register of cinema, the hyper-real, the more than).    But this act of narration and self-creation has a more sinister side than simply putting a nicer gloss on a harsh and unforgiving world.  It forms part of the ideological edifice that helps in part to hide the gross inequalities of power and economic opportunity that underpin the world, and our own privileged place within it.

We want to ‘feel the pain’ of people who are in no way like us, and show in our capacity for empathy, our understanding of human universality, that we deserve just a little bit of our fortune.  We sit atop the pile, perhaps unfairly and perhaps with the help of some twisted historical injustices, but we can justify it because our place there gives us the capacity and the knowledge  to direct others along the way to join us.   Hello world, we are the liberal elite.

I write this firmly as a member of that elite; as a humanitarian worker, perhaps even at its vanguard.  And though the suffering of the people of Haiti, like the suffering of so many other people in other much less noticeable places, does genuinely move me to the point where I shape my life around the urge to ‘do something’, I feel I am cheating those people and their experiences if I claim we share anything other than opposite ends of mutually-sustaining spectrum; that is to say I get to be at one end at least in part because they sit at the other.

This I want to scream at a man like David Brooks, who writing in the pages of the New York Time op-eds, addressed the admittedly pertinent question of how a group of people can be poor enough that they remain so vulnerable to natural disaster that would not devastate so many other places on the planet in anything like the same way.  Thus this he tells us, not unfairly, ” is not a natural disaster story, it is a poverty story”, but then concludes:

[I]t is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty.Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth.

…Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10….We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Mr. Brooks, you see, cares and is privileged. He is one of us. But perhaps Mr. Brooks hasn’t heard of New Orleans.  That too was a poverty story, but one produced by Mr. Brooks’ own progress-friendly culture.  And perhaps Mr. Brooks also doesn’t care much for history, because Haiti’s stands out not just among the other countries he cares to mention, but among any other country on earth.

After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments.

In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out — mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead.

In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

In a moment that should have been among the most remarkable, and truly universal, moments in human history, a regime in the very same country that gave the world the idea of liberté, égalitéfraternité, cursed Haiti with the futurethe consequences of which were so graphically displayed 200 years later when that earthquake struck.  The same country that birthed the ideals which we celebrate, laud, and attempt to reaffirm in the concept of humanitarianism or other forms of celebratory universalism, condemned Haiti to the poverty that made this disaster what it was. There is something strangely poetic therefore in this moment, horribly so.  But still we continue to relate to disasters such as this in such a way that in framing them, we frame ourselves as we would wish to be.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Erik Kehl permalink
    February 1, 2010 10:46 pm

    Published on: 1/17/2010.
    THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES is in the process of conceiving how best to deliver a major conference on the theme Rethinking And Rebuilding Haiti.
    I am very keen to provide an input into this exercise because for too long there has been a popular perception that somehow the Haitian nation-building project, launched on January 1, 1804, has failed on account of mismanagement, ineptitude, corruption.

    Buried beneath the rubble of imperial propaganda, out of both Western Europe and the United States, is the evidence which shows that Haiti’s independence was defeated by an aggressive North-Atlantic alliance that could not imagine their world inhabited by a free regime of Africans as representatives of the newly emerging democracy.

    The evidence is striking, especially in the context of France.

    The Haitians fought for their freedom and won, as did the Americans fifty years earlier. The Americans declared their independence and crafted an extraordinary constitution that set out a clear message about the value of humanity and the right to freedom, justice, and liberty.

    In the midst of this brilliant discourse, they chose to retain slavery as the basis of the new nation state. The founding fathers therefore could not see beyond race, as the free state was built on a slavery foundation.

    The water was poisoned in the well; the Americans went back to the battlefield a century later to resolve the fact that slavery and freedom could not comfortably co-exist in the same place.

    The French, also, declared freedom, fraternity and equality as the new philosophies of their national transformation and gave the modern world a tremendous progressive boost by so doing.

    They abolished slavery, but Napoleon Bonaparte could not imagine the republic without slavery and targeted the Haitians for a new, more intenseregime of slavery. The British agreed, as did the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.

    All were linked in communion over the 500 000 Blacks in Haiti, the most populous and prosperous Caribbean colony.

    As the jewel of the Caribbean, they all wanted to get their hands on it. With a massive slave base, the English, French and Dutch salivated over owning it – and the people.

    The people won a ten-year war, the bloodiest in modern history, and declared their independence. Every other country in the Americas was based on slavery.
    Haiti was freedom, and proceeded to place in its 1805 Independence Constitution that any person of African descent who arrived on its shores would be declared free, and a citizen of the republic.

    For the first time since slavery had commenced, Blacks were the subjects of mass freedom and citizenship in a nation.

    The French refused to recognise Haiti’s independence and declared it an illegal pariah state. The Americans, whom the Haitians looked to in solidarity as their mentor in independence, refused to recognise them, and offered solidarity instead to the French. The British, who were negotiating with the French to obtain the ownership title to Haiti, also moved in solidarity, as did every other nation-state the Western world.

    Haiti was isolated at birth – ostracised and denied access to world trade, finance, and institutional development. It was the most vicious example of national strangulation recorded in modern history.

    The Cubans, at least, have had Russia, China, and Vietnam. The Haitians were alone from inception. The crumbling began.

    Then came 1825; the moment of full truth. The republic is celebrating its 21st anniversary. There is national euphoria in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

    The economy is bankrupt; the political leadership isolated. The cabinet took the decision that the state of affairs could not continue.

    The country had to find a way to be inserted back into the world economy. The French government was invited to a summit.

    Officials arrived and told the Haitian government that they were willing to recognise the country as a sovereign nation but it would have to pay compensation and reparation in exchange. The Haitians, with backs to the wall, agreed to pay the French.

    The French government sent a team of accountants and actuaries into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands, all physical assets, the 500 000 citizens were who formerly enslaved, animals, and all other commercial properties and services.

    The sums amounted to 150 million gold francs. Haiti was told to pay this reparation to France in return for national recognition.

    The Haitian government agreed; payments began immediately. Members of the Cabinet were also valued because they had been enslaved people before independence.

    Thus began the systematic destruction of the Republic of Haiti. The French government bled the nation and rendered it a failed state. It was a merciless exploitation that was designed and guaranteed to collapse the Haitian economy and society.

    Haiti was forced to pay this sum until 1922 when the last instalment was made. During the long 19th century, the payment to France amounted to up to 70 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

    Jamaica today pays up to 70 per cent in order to service its international and domestic debt. Haiti was crushed by this debt payment. It descended into financial and social chaos.

    The republic did not stand a chance. France was enriched and it took pleasure from the fact that having been defeated by Haitians on the battlefield, it had won on the field of finance. In the years when the coffee crops failed, or the sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate in order to repay the French government.

    When the Americans invaded the country in the early 20th century, one of the reasons offered was to assist the French in collecting its reparations.

    The collapse of the Haitian nation resides at the feet of France and America, especially. These two nations betrayed, failed, and destroyed the dream that was Haiti; crushed to dust in an effort to destroy the flower of freedom and the seed of justice.

    Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth, both of which continue to have a primary interest in its current condition.

    The sudden quake has come in the aftermath of summers of hate. In many ways the quake has been less destructive than the hate.

    Human life was snuffed out by the quake, while the hate has been a long and inhumane suffocation – a crime against humanity.

    During the 2001 UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, strong representation was made to the French government to repay the 150 million francs.

    The value of this amount was estimated by financial actuaries as US$21 billion. This sum of capital could rebuild Haiti and place it in a position to re-engage the modern world. It was illegally extracted from the Haitian people and should be repaid.

    It is stolen wealth. In so doing, France could discharge its moral obligation to the Haitian people.

    For a nation that prides itself in the celebration of modern diplomacy, France, in order to exist with the moral authority of this diplomacy in this post-modern world, should do the just and legal thing.

    Such an act at the outset of this century would open the door for a sophisticated interface of past and present, and set the Haitian nation free at last.

    l, Hilary Beckles is pro-vice-chancellor and Principal of the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.

  2. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    February 2, 2010 10:10 am

    Great post, and I think you’ve placed the Haiti story well into the wider narrative on power relations that have been touched on before.

    The belief of those glolites (globalised liberal elites), who watch the 24 hour news cycle, is that they [we] have the capacity to make Haiti better again without recognising the wider economic, socio and geo-political context within which the crisis exists. Central to this self-imposed blind ignorance is another point you raise – The Other. Haitians are ‘the other’, they are not us, thus we can construct them as powerless victims. Their very powerlessness – real or not – legitimises our intervention. However of course our intervention is not to re-construct the global structures so these people stop becoming ‘the other’, but it is to mop up the symptoms, through a UN intervention or bundles of rice. These people are so ‘other’ that it is even considered legitimate to take the children away to be saved, as if these were poor distruaght puppies, not humans with families and identies and complex lives. The fact that the main victims of the New Orleans were the black underclasses on the margins of the American economy is analagous to Haiti and the global economy.

    This mop-up approach is seen by IR theorist Mark Duffiled as a strategy of containment of the global under class (globuclass!?). The other (who he calls the ‘uninsured’ in comparison to the wealthy global elite who are institutionally protected from such crisis with state or private insurance) is essentially pacified through foucaultian biopolitics: we provide aid in the form of food, medicines and relief. People are kept alive but not empowered. In keeping them alive we in fact further extend our power over them, for it us who decides who recieves relief and who does not, and on what conditions.

    Duffiled has a wonderful explanation of how the modern liberal empire fuctions with regards to sovereighnty and intervention in relation to countries on its frontier: “While its territorial integrity is respected, soverignty over life is internationalised, negotiated and contingent.”


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