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Haiti: Resilience or Interference?

Aristide’s return to Haiti is a chance to ask what role the U.S. will play in the nation’s future.

Aristide supporter, photo by Ansel

An Aristide supporter in Cite Soleil.

Photo by Ansel

There are two hidden stories of Haiti that you won’t find in the average news headlines. One is about resilience; the other, crushing interference from the United States and other developed countries. Haitians changed the world when they founded a nation of freed slaves in 1804 and inspired slave rebellions in the American South. In the centuries since, they’ve struggled to get to their feet economically and politically, despite a 120-year debt France imposed on Haiti after it declared independence and decades of political interference from the United States.

This week, the homecoming of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide speaks of both stories. Aristide, a priest from the slums of Haiti, ushered in democratic rule in 1990 after the fall of the draconian “Baby Doc” Duvalier regime. But he was twice ousted, first in 1991 by a U.S.-backed coup and again in 2004, when he claims he was kidnapped, also with U.S. support. According to renowned doctor and activist Paul Farmer, Western nations disliked Aristide because he called for France to pay restitution to Haiti, and the international business community felt threatened by him. Aristide recently told Democracy Now! he was first deposed in part because he pushed for a raise in the minimum wage. Farmer writes in his book, The Uses of Haiti,  “Aristide's attempt to raise the minimum daily wage to 25 gourdes a day—about three dollars—did not please the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had invested millions.” Since 2004, Aristide lived in exile and was unable to return to Haiti—until now.

On Friday, Aristide flew from South Africa back to Port -Au-Prince, accompanied by actor, activist, and YES! Magazine board member Danny Glover and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!. He arrived two days before Haiti’s presidential elections.

Since the earthquake, Haiti has again been poised between a path of resilience and a path of foreign intervention. Author Alex Dupuy writes in the Washington Post that U.S. aid is doing little to help Haitians. Of the $267 million worth of U.S. contracts awarded for reconstruction projects in Haiti, only $4.3 million has gone to Haitian firms, and the rest has gone to U.S. companies, he says. And a report by the watchdog-group Disaster Accountability Project suggests charities haven’t fared much better. In a press statement, DAP executive director Ben Smilowitz says, “The fact that nearly half of the donated dollars still sit in the bank accounts of relief/aid groups does not match the urgency of their own fundraising and marketing efforts and donors' intentions, nor does it covey the urgency of the situation on the ground.”

Some Haitians are taking matters into their own hands. Author Beverly Bell reports that camps across Haiti have been creating women’s rights and housing rights groups, and Haitian farmers have organized their own food aid programs—with local food.

Aristide’s return represents a boon to these homegrown peasant movements. He is, after all, one of their own. Last month he wrote in the London Guardian, “What we have learned in one long year of mourning after Haiti's earthquake is that an exogenous plan of reconstruction—one that is profit-driven, exclusionary, conceived of and implemented by non-Haitians—cannot reconstruct Haiti. It is the solemn obligation of all Haitians to join in the reconstruction and to have a voice in the direction of the nation.”

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But according to Danny Glover and many others, little will change in Haiti until U.S. foreign policy shifts. The U.S. has been wholly unsupportive of Aristide’s return, despite widespread popular support. Glover expressed his frustration to me at a YES! Magazine board meeting this summer: “We can't even mount a campaign ... And 20,000 women signed a petition to say they want Aristide back in the country. Where do we support those women?”

What can the United States do to help Haiti? Perhaps the best thing would be policy changes—such as the provision of more aid to Haitian organizations and not to corporate contracts. As a Haitian street vendor told Beverly Bell, “We want partnerships—people putting their hands with ours in the cassava pot to reconstruct our country. We don’t want orders.”


Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Madeline is YES! Magazine's senior editor.

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