Haiti, a nation undermined

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Author: Paul Farmer

The historical situation in Haiti has long been dire, and we need to understand its history if we are to understand how human values, and which ones, come into play. Haiti, once France’s most lucrative colony and born of greed and slavery, became an independent republic 200 years ago. Haitians should have much to celebrate. The country is the birthplace of many values that we celebrate as modern, as it was the first nation in the world to outlaw slavery, the source of vast European profits. A slave revolt, unprecedented and unequaled since, transformed the colony of Saint-Domingue into Latin America’s first sovereign nation.

Haiti’s second constitution, promulgated in 1805, declared that all citizens, regardless of skin color, were to be known as nègres, prohibited foreign ownership of land and reclaimed as the country’s name the term used by the island’s indigenous people. Haiti meant “high country” to the original inhabitants, millions of Arawak who had almost all died out a century after Columbus landed in 1492.

Haiti in 1804 had few friends. The small country, in cinders after a decade of war waged successfully against Europe’s greatest powers, was surrounded by the slave economies of Jamaica, Cuba and the southern United States. Its leaders tried to make some friends by helping Simón Bolívar and others cast off colonial rule in the New World. One of the conditions of this assistance was that slavery be abolished in the nascent republics of South America. And Haitian troops, former slaves, marched east to abolish slavery in what is now the Dominican Republic, the nation with which it shares its small island.

Haiti’s first century as an independent nation was a difficult one. Bolívar did not keep his promise, and he tried to block Haiti’s formal participation in international affairs. The Dominican Republic remains a country in which racism—and dislike of all things Haitian—is tolerated or condoned. Throughout the 19th century, Haiti remained isolated by trade embargoes and the world’s refusal to recognize a country born of a slave revolt. The 20th century was no easier: Gunboat diplomacy was followed, in 1915, by U.S. military occupation. Franklin Roosevelt ended the occupation in 1934, but decades of military and paramilitary dictatorships ensued. Haiti’s first democratic elections were not held until 1990.

What transpired over the next 14 years is much disputed, but Haiti’s brief experience with democracy is readily documented. We do know this: In spite of a spectacular coup attempt (by Duvaliériste and paramilitary forces) between the elections and the installation of the president-elect, the inauguration of the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide took place on February 7, 1991.

Father Aristide’s government policies reflected liberation theology and the corporal works of mercy: Ambitious programs to promote adult literacy, public health and primary education were quickly launched, as were campaigns to raise the minimum wage (opposed vigorously by Haitian and U.S. factory owners) and to promote land reform (opposed by those with large and often fallow land holdings). Tensions were high, and in September the Aristide government was overthrown by yet another military coup, this one anything but bloodless.

Thus the modern Haitian military, a creation of the U.S. occupying force in the 1930s, once again took power. (Some will note a certain symmetry here with the recent history of Rwanda. In the case of Haiti, as elsewhere in Latin America, it was the U.S. government and not France that gave assistance and training to the army.) The degree to which the first Bush administration secretly abetted the 1991 coup is much debated and may not be known for years. But there is no doubt that a CIA asset in Haiti formed and led the vicious paramilitary group named FRAPH, credited with many of the murders committed during the years following the coup.

1992 Haiti was like a burning building from which the only exit was over the Dominican Republic border or across the sea. Tens of thousands of refugees embarked for the United States. The United Nations soon condemned the U.S. policy of forcibly returning Haitian refugees and declared post-coup Haiti “a human-rights nightmare.” Hundreds of thousands of “internal refugees” fled the pro-Aristide urban slums—which were targeted by the military and paramilitary forces—for rural hiding places or the neighboring Dominican Republic, famously hostile to Haitians.

A change in U.S. policy

During endless negotiations orchestrated by the United Nations and the Organization of American States the military dictators refused to budge. Then Bill Clinton, who had promised during his U.S. presidential campaign to grant sanctuary to Haitian asylum seekers and to restore constitutional rule to Haiti, took office. But the flood of unwelcome refugees to Florida forced his administration into another strategy—to stanch the flow by stopping military and paramilitary terror in Haiti.

Instrumental in shaping the policy that eventually led to the re-establishment of constitutional rule in Haiti was John Shattuck, former vice chairman of Amnesty International. He joined the Clinton administration in June 1993 as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Within 18 months after Clinton took office, Shattuck recalls, “disaster had struck in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia and China. Human-rights conflicts were erupting or escalating in virtually every part of the world.”

Since Haiti is a close neighbor with strong ties to the United States, the crisis in “our backyard,” just then generating huge numbers of refugees, loomed larger than the catastrophe evolving in Rwanda. Clinton, says Shattuck, favored using military force, if necessary, to restore democracy in Haiti. “The strategy had many opponents inside the Beltway, but the president knew it was time to reach over their heads and take it to the public.”

How did Clinton come to feel so strongly about this matter when Washington’s power elite saw little reason to waste time and energy, or to jeopardize American lives, on account of Haiti? On September 14, 1994, the day before Clinton was to present his proposal to the U.S. public, Shattuck brought him photographs of the atrocities taking place there.

“I spread my photos of the disfigured faces and bodies of Haitians who had recently been attacked by the FRAPH on a coffee table in the Oval Office,” Shattuck says. “Examining them closely one at a time, the president swore quietly, ‘Those bastards,’ and vowed that Haiti’s reign of terror would be brought to an end. The statistics I summarized for the president spoke for themselves. . . . As I talked, the president stared at the hacked and mutilated bodies of men, women and children trapped on an island ruled by thugs.”

And so the U.S. military deed was done. Constitutional rule was restored to Haiti in 1994. Not a single American life was lost to hostile fire during the course of the operation.

But there are many ways to undermine a popular democracy. What followed was a decade of “structural adjustment” programs forced on Haiti by the same international community which had declared that Haitian democracy should be restored. Aristide served out what little was left of his term and became the first Haitian president to hand over power to another elected president.

Aristide was re-elected by a landslide in 2000. But he pulled little economic weight, since the bulk of his support came from the poor rather than Haiti’s wealthy elite, notoriously reluctant to pay taxes. The “new” U.S. policy gurus on Haiti, who came into the White House with the next Bush administration, were precisely those who’d disparaged the left-leaning Haitian populist during the first Bush administration. A virtual embargo on aid or credits to the cash-poor Aristide government ensued.

Haiti in 2004 was the most impoverished nation in the hemisphere; the aid embargo was strangling the country. Shortly after its bicentennial celebration, Haiti endured its 33rd coup d’état and lost tens of thousands to violence, floods and epidemic disease.

Questions and ironies abound. Haiti was the first state in the Western Hemisphere to put into practice the modern notion of rights: the first to proclaim universal equality among the races, the first to offer a sanctuary to oppressed refugees. Then why is Haiti the hemisphere’s most HIV-affected nation? Why does Haiti, the source of much of 18th-century France’s wealth, now stand as one of the poorest and most volatile countries on the face of the earth? Why is political stability so elusive, and why are violence and rights violations so endemic? Why is it so difficult, even when the tools of the trade are made available, to practice good medicine and public health in the Western Hemisphere’s neediest nation?

We might seek to answer these questions by asking “what went wrong” in Haitian politics and culture. But such narrowly focused investigations give less truthful answers than an attempt to understand Haiti’s history and its place in the modern world economy—the webs of power that link us all. Simply put, Haiti’s poor majority is by no means to blame for the mess it finds itself in, today or at any point in the last 200 years.

Not all the news from Haiti is bad. I know from my own experience that it is possible to deliver high-quality health care in rural central Haiti, where there are neither paved roads nor electricity. Haiti also can claim to have led the charge against AIDS in the poor world, having launched some of the first integrated prevention-and-care programs. A new funding mechanism, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, allowed Haiti to ramp up long-standing efforts to prevent new infections and to improve care for the sick.

Even as some poor nations seemed ready to concede defeat in the struggle against what had become the world’s leading infectious cause of adult death, Haiti could point to real victories. The corporal works of mercy, at least many of them, helped to promote these victories. But is mercy enough?


This article was part of the longer piece published in Autumn 2006, If We Fail to Act.

Paul Farmer is the founding director of Partners in Health, an international charity organization.


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