#126 – Dick Bernard: Haiti, a look back, and forward

Six years ago today – it was a Saturday in early afternoon – I first breathed Haitian tropical air, outside the airport at Port-au-Prince. For the next week, six of us were immersed in background sessions on Haitian policy and politics, present and past. By the time we left, on December 13, 2003, it was becoming quite obvious that the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide would soon fall. That happened February 29, 2004, in the middle of the night.
A couple of weeks after I arrived home I wrote my reflections on my experience in Port-au-Prince (here). I really wouldn’t change anything I said then, but my education about Haiti really didn’t begin until after those reflections had been written.
Rather than allowing the trip to be just an instant event, I decided to learn what I could about the geo-political relationship between Haiti and the United States. At first, it was simply curiosity; then it became interesting, then troubling.
My “college course” about Haiti and the United States began completely innocently, in January of 2004.
I had looked at the U.S. Department of State website, under Haiti, and noticed a brief news release announcing U.S. aid to Haiti – as I recall, it was for $50,000,000. I wrote a brief letter to the Haiti desk at the State Department just inquiring who in Haiti was getting that money. A couple of weeks later I got a surprise phone call at home…from the guy at the Haiti desk at State. He was polite, but I got no answer to my simple question.
Over the next two years I pursued that question about the $50,000,000. To this day I have received no dispositive answer. What became obvious, however, is that the funds were not intended to help Haiti, rather were designated to destabilize and ultimately remove the democratically elected government of the country. Even the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had its fingers in the drama of getting rid of Aristide and any vestiges of his Lavalas party. Some of the money, probably a lot, was part of the U.S. Department of Defense…no humanitarian focus in those days. (State referred me to USAID and DoD). The issue, quite certainly, was not democracy at all; it was power and control.
I don’t spend as much day-to-day time on Haiti these days as I did those first couple of years, though I continue to be very actively engaged in many ways. Haiti and Haitians are never far from my mind and heart. We travelled with Fonkoze in central Haiti in March, 2006, but since then most contact has been through people we have met or heard from. Some recent developments are actually quite positive and actually hopeful, it appears, including this recent story from Fonkoze; but on the other hand the U.S., France and their allies have dug a hole so deep for the Haitians, over Haiti’s entire (over 400 year) history, that it is hard to imagine any meaningful long-term progress, even when intentions are good. To be Haitian, in Haiti, is a continuing struggle. I’d rather have hope, than be hopeless.
Among the world’s 192 nations, Haiti remains among the most poverty stricken…a legacy of being almost literally a slave state, even though it has been a theoretically independent Republic since 1804.
In the process of my learning, I’ve become acquainted with a wide array of people and organizations which do great advocacy work such as the wonderful micro-finance organization Fonkoze; the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network; Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti; Sasha Kramer’s SOIL; Margaret Trost’s WhatIf? Foundation; Sopudep School; Partners in Health; Friends of the Orphans; Comprehensive Development Program; St. Joseph’s Home for Boys; Haiti Outreach; and on an on and on. For those who care about Haiti, there are people who care to become better acquainted with.
A couple of good books I’d recommend to get a sense of what was Haiti, and what actually happened in the 2004 coup, are Randall Robinson’s “An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President”, and “Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment” by Peter Hallward.
Paul Farmers “Pathologies of Power”, and Margaret Trost’s “On That Day Everybody Ate” are also of interest.
Mesi to everyone who has contributed to my understanding of Haiti over the years. R.I.P. to Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, Fr. Michael Graves and all of the many victims, physical and otherwise, of U.S. and allied United Nations misconduct over the many years of oppression.