By: Lone Havemose, Student, Human Rights Studies
The 16th of January 2011, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Dock” Duvalier returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile in France. Several “experts” in human rights, such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the UN have since then expressed the great need of a prosecution for the crimes he committed during his time as ruler. In an official letter to Hillary Clinton HRW writes:
we write to urge the United States to support the government of Haiti in its decision to move forward with the prosecution of the former dictator Jean‑Claude Duvalier for grave violations of human rights. As you know, during Duvalier’s time in power, serious and systematic violations of human rights took place, including arbitrary arrests, torture, ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial executions…
In this article I will argue that the prosecution is just another fake solution so Haiti’s real problems – and that these experts claims might in fact be contradictory to the aim of a human rights respecting society in Haiti.
The betrayal of the international community
What is confounding about the experts’ remarks is the ignorance of the Haitian peoples needs and the avoidance of mentioning those responsible for having put the Haitian population in such need. Haitians are extremely poor. A vast majority of the population lives in a condition of extreme poverty and for most Haitians every day is a struggle for life. But when Christopher Columbus came to Haiti, the island flourished, the native Taino Indian population lived in peace and harmony, growing their cassava and handcrafting their baskets. Then, after the Spanish settlers had eradicated all natives, Haiti became the richest colony in the world. How can it be that a country of such potential has become one of the absolute poorest countries on this planet?
It did take some effort to put this potent country in ruins. When France (who took over after the Spaniards) left it’s colony after a slave rebellion they demanded a debt of 21 billion USD by today’s worth, a debt that has cost the country enormous effort to pay back. Torn after the war of liberty, the imported African slaves, now Haitians, had no other instruction book of how to rule a country than the one left there by the French slave owners, a book filled only with stories of violence, exploitation, hierarchies based on race and economic benefit as only political aim.
The turbulent centuries after France had left were obviously an effect of the colonial times. A small, rich elite ruled while the rest of the population started up small scale farming in the countryside. Money was the motivation to take over power, and violence was the method to reach it. When the country was almost bankrupt in the beginning of the 20th century, the US took the opportunity to occupy Haiti. The Americans made sure to reintroduce slavery and racism and took complete control over the country’s economy. The “instruction book” was extended with new but very similar stories as when the French left.
When Françoise “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to rule no one was surprised to hear him declare himself emperor for life. Him and his son Baby Doc came to rule for 29 brutal years. While the Haitian people suffered under the ban of freedom of speech, kidnappings, killings and torture, the US set up very convenient trade agreements with the Duvaliers. Extremely low salaries for the workers made Haitian goods very cheap for American supermarkets.
During and after the Duvalier era a grass root, leftish priest called Aristide started climbing the staircase of politics in Port-au-Prince, and in 1991 he was elected president in the first democratic elections in Haiti. Not before long, though, the US-supported opposition removed him in a brutal coup. Army general Raoul Cédras took over power, and came to rule as brutally as the Duvaliers. The US enforced a false embargo where they promised to stop trading with Cédras, but the embargo had “exceptions” for around 800 American companies, one of them an oil company (Texaco) who supported the Cédras junta with oil, an action that had been officially approved by Washington and the George H.W. Bush administration.
After almost three years in power Cédras said he might step down and the US government responded by promising that assets would be frozen if he didn’t do so before January 15th 1993, though, in January when Cédras still had power nothing happened. Why the US brought Aristide back to Haiti in 1994 have been discussed, and some speculate that it might have been a compensation for the embarrassing fiasco in Rwanda the same year, others that the immigration to the US had increased under Cédras.
This “act of kindness” didn’t come for free, though. Aristide was made to rule according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank’s wishes, with cuts in social spending, privatization and shortened period in office. Salaries, that were already extremely low, had to be lowered. The agricultural production had to produce goods for exports, mainly demanded in North American supermarkets, rather than food for Haitians. The toll for rice had to be cut down from 50 to three per cent. Haiti, who had imported only 7000 tons of rice in 1985 imported 22 000 tons in 2002. The same thing happened to the chicken and the sugar industry.
During this time in office Aristide demanded France to pay back the illegal debt that Haiti had been forced to pay after the proclamation of independence. His calculation, including interest and adjusted inflation, was that France now owed Haiti 21,685,135,571.48 USD. At the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti’s homepage one can read:
In 1825, France illegally extorted an ‘independence debt’ from Haiti that amounts to $21 billion in today’s dollars. In effect, Haiti was forced to pay for its freedom. The crushing burden of the debt is the principle historic cause of Haiti’s underdevelopment, and is directly responsible for today’s grinding poverty in Haiti.
Aristide’s call wasn’t answered. Instead he was removed from power once again by France and the US in 2004, after what has been called a “campaign to image Lavalas [Aristides party] as authoritarian and corrupt in its basic structure”. A campaign that seriously undermined Lavalas’ work and made the pro- and anti-Aristide camps more and more hostile towards each other, the anti camp clearly a minority and mainly consisting of the rich, American supported mulatto elite. France, the US and Canada already had troops on their way when the United Nations Security Council gave their approval of an intervention in Haiti. Aristide was dropped off, at comfortable distance, in the Central African Republic and Haiti was occupied by the US, France and Canada for three months before a UN “stabilisation” army, called MINUSTAH, took over. Ironically, the authors of a French report regarding the relationship between France and Haiti brought up that this very year was the jubilee year of Haiti’s proclamation of independence from France – 200 years ago – and declared it was their responsibility, as a former colonizer, to “take their civilization mission seriously”.
In 2006 new elections took place where René Préval became president for the second time. Since then he’s been accused of being an inactive, let-go leader who has let Americans control Haitian politics. Reactions from the government were extremely slow after the hurricanes in 2008 and the earthquake in 2010, that is said to have killed between 230 000 and 300 000 people and made about three million people homeless. The days after the earthquake the only international airport in Haiti was occupied by American soldiers who directed all in- and outgoing flights, often turning away flights containing medical equipment and humanitarian aid for the many hurt people. They claimed that the reason for bringing over all the American soldiers was that it was needed for safety and security – a safety and security that was prioritized over saving people’s lives. Even if Haiti isn’t a very violent country, the rumor that it is have allowed the UN stabilization troops to stay, year after year in a country that is not at war or anywhere close to end up in war.
Later, a commission called the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) consisting of 50% Haitians and 50% foreigners, including Bill Clinton, was installed to control the aid money from the international community. The Haitians in the committee were given huge piles of documents, important for decision making, to read the night before the meeting where the decision would be made – the piles so big it would be impossible for them to be prepared for the meetings.9 In addition most of the economic support promised by the international community hasn’t reached Haiti. In 2011 a new president was elected, this time a pop singer called Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. MINUSTAH is still in the country, even after several unmotivated killings of Haitians, mainly in slum areas and during demonstrations against the government, the international community or MINUSTAH itself, and trustworthy accusations of both having spread cholera in the country and being corrupt and distanced from the Haitian population – a population who remains extremely poor.
The history of Haiti let’s us know that Haitians have been abused and taken advantage off for centuries. They were kidnapped and taken to a country they didn’t know to slave for other countries wealth; a wealth they never got to lay a hand on. Instead they were brutally tortured and killed.
When they protested they were put in a huge debt, so that their country never would get up and going. Through history we have seen how the Haitian people have been exploited and used and occupied. A foreign super power has controlled them by supporting brutal dictators, who tortured and exploited Haitians, but who proved to be profitable for the “international community”. When free elections took place, the people’s elected president was put down by foreign super powers twice.
During all this, the Haitian people have suffered and starved while no one stood on their side. Dishonest politicians have promised to help, but such promises have proved to be empty. Actions of “aid” have only made Haiti more dependent on foreign powers and the situation for the Haitian people worse. Again and again the people of this country have become targets of fake solutions to the real problems they face. To mention a few; the occupations, which haven’t been appreciated by Haitians but where said to have been made for their sake, the UN stabilization army, which fails to really support the Haitians, the many NGO:s that are accused for corruption, the reforms demanded by the IMF and the World bank, which also were claimed to be for Haitians best but have ended up being way more sufficient for US economy that for Haitian, and which has lowered the living standard of Haitians by dropping salaries to existential minimum. The pattern is clear: foreigners have benefitted and Haitians have become poorer.
Another fake solution
The suffering of Duvalier’s victims certainly shouldn’t be undermined. But again; what is confounding about the human rights experts’ remarks is the ignorance of the Haitian peoples needs and the avoidance of mentioning those responsible for having put the Haitian population in such need. Statistics say that between 50 and 75% of the population live in extreme poverty, i.e. for less than 1 USD per day. I argue that this is Haiti’s greatest problem, and that the expert’s failure to mention this and instead urge a prosecution of crimes committed decades ago is yet another fake solution to Haiti’s greatest problems.
The experts’ claims about Baby Doc’s prosecution are controversial not only because they ignore and derive focus from the greatest need in Haiti – the need of satisfaction and respect for socioeconomic rights – but also because of whom they encourage to support the prosecution. I want to emphasize the controversy of urging both France and the US to support the prosecution of Duvalier. Both countries certainly did their part in the effort of destroying all of Haiti’s potential of being a democratic and human rights respecting country. How can HRW urge the US and Hillary Clinton to help Haiti prosecute a dictator whose power wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the US? How can they urge France to do the same thing when France has hosted this dictator for 25 years and let him live in luxury in their country, with houses on the Riviera and villas in Paris? Why would Clinton want to support a prosecution of a man under whose rule she spent her very own honeymoon?
The experts argue that a prosecution of Baby Doc would give his victims the redress they’ve been waiting for. I, on the other hand, argue that if Haitians were in need of redress, it would first and foremost be from the international community, especially from Spain, France, the US, the UN, IMF and the World Bank.