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History of Haiti hidden in media

The recent disaster in Haiti has brought out the best in Americans. Generosity among ordinary people has been impressive, especially given the numerous problems of their own which still need to be dealt with.

Last week, The BG News reported on local efforts to raise money and bring aid to the battered nation and an editorial was published offering suggestions for students who want to help, including donations of food and cash.

On the national level, such decisions as President Obama’s to send $100 million the Haitians’ way received very little criticism, even from such staunch Obama opponents and fiscal conservatives as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (although they didn’t afford the disaster much coverage at all).

But there is still something crucial missing from the national dialog. It’s a common, recurring theme — the omission of historical perspective.

On January 14, an editorial in the New York Times stated, “Haiti urgently needs relief… But Haiti needs more. It needs a commitment to finally move beyond the relentless poverty, despair and dysfunction…” and “The United States has a special responsibility to help its neighbor.”

It’s difficult to see where one might take umbrage with the Times’ analysis, unless given a glance at the history of U.S./Haiti relations. To cast the United States in the role of concerned friend is to seriously overlook at least 100 years of anything but “neighborly” activity.

According to a Jan. 13 piece by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Muskal, the United States and Haiti are nations forever intertwined by “their common battle against colonial masters.” What Muskal fails to mention is after Haiti rebelled against French colonial rule in the late 1700s, the United States refused to recognize the independent nation and eventually became its new colonial rulers, beginning especially with Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 invasion.

In 1990, a remarkable victory for the Haitian people transpired. Jean-Bertrande Aristide, a Catholic priest working against enormous odds, became president in a landslide victory. He was ousted by a military coup — backed by the United States — in 1991, leading to much death and a dramatic setback for self-rule only a year after the country’s first significant democratic election.

After U.S. trade (much of it illegal and in violation of embargoes placed after Aristide’s overthrow) with the Haitian ruling class died down and the junta seemed to be running “out of fuel and power” as a CIA report put it, President Clinton opted to “restore democracy” to the nation and reinstall Aristide.

This restoration did not come without conditions. Aristide adopted policies similar to the favored U.S. candidate he defeated in the 1990 election. He was unable to run in 1996 due to restrictions in Haitian law, and in 2000 he was re-elected. In 2004, Aristide’s second term ended early with the Haitian rebellion, during which he was taken out of the country by the United States (Aristide refers to it as a kidnapping.)

There are many examples to illustrate the grim nature of U.S./Haiti relations. In 1998, the Miami Herald reported 4,000 tons of ash and glass from a Philadelphia trash incinerator that had been dumped on the city of Gonaives ten years prior was finally being picked up, with meager contributions from the guilty parties.

Haiti is currently the world’s largest producer of baseballs. This isn’t because the Haitians themselves decided it was a great market to tap into.

Of course, the lengthy history of colonization, exploitation and manipulation is left out of discussions on what to do about the country’s problems. Elite opinion has been pretty much in line with the editorial in the Times, and the crux of the Haiti discussion has been “They need our help, but they need to help themselves, too.”

There are a number of ways the United States could help Haiti and they are doing many of them. But applauding Obama’s aid package and decision to send troops leaves out too many important aspects of the discussion.

And the U.S. response to the Haiti situation has not been without criticism. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, according to an article on Reuters, accused the United States of occupying Haiti in the name of aid.

Said Chavez, “3,000 soldiers are arriving, Marines armed as if they were going to war. There is not a shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine, fuel, field hospitals, that’s what the United States should send.”

Much is being done by the United States to help the Haitians. In times of great tragedy such as this, little can really be said of politics. That the United States has been an abuser of Haiti for at least 100 years doesn’t matter so much when the current operation consists of lifting rubble off of battered bodies. But the historical context is of too great of importance to ignore entirely.

Haiti was crippled before the earthquake. Hopefully this is not its death knell.

Respond to Kyle at [email protected]

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