Opinion: This Is How Ignorant You Have To Be To Call Haiti a ‘shithole’

This Is How Ignorant You Have To Be To Call Haiti a ‘shithole’

President Trump’s defenders don’t know anything about Haiti’s history — or the USA’s

Jonathan M. Katz | The Washington Post

The president of the United States of America had no respect for Haiti. He could see as well as anyone following the news that the country was a basket case — racked by political unrest, filthy, incapable of handling its own affairs. There was no doubt his opinion of the black republic was informed by his blatant racism, which included praising members of the Ku Klux Klan.   

He had criticized his predecessors’ foreign wars while running for office. But in the White House, he realized he was willing to flex the country’s muscles abroad, as long as the mission fit his motto: “America First”.

Taking Haiti was a U.S.A. priority, he decided. The United States of America would invade.

That president was Woodrow Wilson. The year was 1915. And if that was the beginning of a story you have never heard before, you are not alone.

Since news broke that Wilson’s unwitting heir, President Trump, called Haiti — along with El Salvador and seemingly all 54 nations in Africa — “shithole countries”, the president’s defenders made it clear not only that they do not know Haiti’s history but also that they’re unaware of their own.

As soon as they heard his comments, Trump’s partisans went defensive, claiming that while Trump might have been rude, he was right.

Fox News regular Tomi Lahren tweeted: “If they aren’t shithole countries, why don’t their citizens stay there?”

“Trump should ‘vehemently condemn’ the Haitian government for running a shithole country,” wrote Will Chamberlain, one of the organizers of last year’s inaugural “DeploraBall.”

Some on the right particularly applauded a segment on CNN in which National Review editor Rich Lowry asked political commentator Joan Walsh whether she would “rather live in Norway or Haiti.” It was a reference to Trump’s reported wish that the United States ring in more Nordic immigrants instead of those from Latin America or Africa. Walsh refused to answer, noting she’d never visited either country. Tucker Carlson accused her of dishonesty. “Those places are dangerous, they’re dirty, they’re corrupt and they’re poor,” the Fox News host said, with an indignation Wilson would have admired. “Why can’t you say that?”

Trump’s supporters on cable news appear to believe that they, and he, are brave tellers of unvarnished truths others are too timid or politically correct to say out loud. Never mind that Trump is a notorious, if not pathological, liar — or that, hours later, he tried weakly to walk back the “shithole” remark after his favorite TV show told him to.

But in reality, they don’t know many truths at all. To rail against poverty in countries such as Haiti and argue that it’s some naturally occurring, objective reality ignores why that poverty exists and what the United States’ role has been in creating it. And ignoring that means not only making bad and hateful decisions today but risks repeating the errors of the past.

***

Haiti was founded Jan. 1, 1804, by people of African descent who were tired of being slaves. They fought and won a revolution against France, ultimately defeating an expeditionary force of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, then the most powerful in the world.

France fought so hard to keep the colony because it was basically the Saudi Arabia of coffee and sugar at the time, providing the majority of both commodities consumed in Europe. The money it generated fueled the entire French empire. But it was made with blood. The slave regime necessary to produce those crops was so deadly that 1 in 10 enslaved Africans kidnapped and brought to the island died each year. As historian Laurent Dubois has noted, the French decided that it was cheaper to bring in new slaves than to keep the ones they had alive.

As soon as Haiti was free, the world’s most powerful empires did everything they could to undermine it. France refused to acknowledge the new nation existed. In the United States — then the only other independent country in the Americas — President Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, was uninterested in seeing a free black nation succeed nearby. The slaveholding powers refused to set up official trade with Haiti, forcing the country into predatory relationships. Haiti’s independence remained a cautionary tale U.S. slavers used to counter abolitionists until the Civil War.

France finally offered much-needed diplomatic recognition in 1825, at gunpoint. King Charles X demanded the Haitian government pay restitution of 150 million gold francs — billions of dollars in today’s money — to French landowners still angry about the loss of their land and the Haitians’ own bodies in the war. If they didn’t pay, he would invade.

Haiti’s leaders agreed. They spent the next decades raiding their own coffers and redirecting customs revenue to paying France for the independence they had already won, ravaging the economy. By the 1880s, Haiti had paid what France had wanted.

But now it owed huge sums to foreign banks, from which it had borrowed heavily to make ends meet. In the early 20th century, much of that debt belonged to banks in the United States. Americans had also established extensive business interests in Haiti, exporting sugar and other commodities.

The United States, meanwhile, was looking to expand. Starting in 1898, we began using our military to secure new territory and markets overseas. By 1914, we had annexed the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam and other islands in the Pacific. In the Caribbean, we had Puerto Rico and a permanent base in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay. The Marine Corps had also helped carve out a new Central American country, Panama, in exchange for rights to dig a canal providing a trade route to Asia — and the United States invaded Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere.

Haiti was next. Haiti’s politics, roiled by the economic turmoil caused by the debt, were in a tailspin. Presidents were repeatedly assassinated and governments overthrown. The banks demanded payment; U.S. businessmen wanted more security and control. Newspapers had been paving the way for U.S. public opinion — a New York Times dispatch in 1912 declared, “Haitians acknowledge the failure of a ‘Black Republic’ and look forward to coming into the Union.”

In late 1914, U.S. Marines came ashore in Port-au-Prince, marched into the national reserve and carried out all the gold. It was hauled back to the National City Bank in New York — known as Citibank today.

Months later, declaring his concern that European powers, especially Germany, might gain a foothold in the Caribbean – even though they were all busy with World War I – Wilson ordered an invasion, then a full occupation.

The U.S. flag was run up Haiti’s government buildings. The Haitian government and armed forces were dissolved. For the next 19 years, the United States ruled Haiti. U.S. Marines fought a bloody counterinsurgency campaign to stamp out resistance. The Haitian government, constitution and army were disbanded and replaced with new U.S.-friendly ones. Intending to embark on a major public works program, the Marines instituted a system, drawn from Haitian law, called the corvée, in which peasants were essentially re-enslaved.

Many of the occupation’s leaders were explicit white supremacists who used lessons they had learned instituting Jim Crow at home to create new, American forms of discrimination in Haiti. One major organizer was Col. Littleton W.T. Waller, a child of antebellum Virginia who assured his friend Col. John A. Lejeune — the future commandant of the Marine Corps: “I know the n—– and how to handle him.”

Not all Americans were fans of the colonial regime in Haiti. Anti-imperialist lawmakers, journalists and organizations including the NAACP protested, held hearings and wrote screeds against the occupation.

But most Americans, then as now, were essentially unaware. As reports of massacres and other abuses mounted, though, embarrassment grew. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had served in the occupation of Haiti as assistant secretary of the Navy, came to office promising to end U.S. imperial policies in this hemisphere. The occupation ended in 1934.Haiti had some new roads and buildings, a legacy of scars and abuse and a new U.S.-made economic and political system that would keep wreaking havoc over the decades to follow.

In 1957, a U.S.-trained physician, François Duvalier, came to power. Known as Papa Doc, he was a black nationalist who positioned himself in part as an heir to the Haitian Revolution and an opponent of U.S. imperialism, but he also knew how to manage a nearby superpower. U.S. presidents gave him, and his son who succeeded him, support at key moments (when they weren’t trying to sponsor coups against him), until the dictatorship ended in 1986.

***

So in light of all that history, to be convinced that Haiti just happens to be a failed “shithole” where no one would want to live, you’d have to know nothing about how Haitians view their country and themselves.

You would have to know nothing about the destructive U.S. trade policies that continued past the end of the dictatorship, destroying trade protections and, with them, local industries and agriculture.

You would have to not know about the CIA’s role in the 1991 coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or the U.S. invasions in 1994 and 2004.

You would have to know nothing about why the United States sponsored and took the leading role in paying for a U.N. “stabilization mission” that did little but keep a few, often unpopular, presidents in power and kill at least 10,000 people by introducing cholera to Haiti for the first time.

And you would have to not understand the U.S. role in the shambolic response to the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake — which was a mess, but possibly not in the way that you think.

Haiti is indeed a difficult place to live for many of the people who live there. Poverty is rampant. There is no good sanitation system, in part because the same international system that introduced cholera in 2010 steadfastly refuses to meet its promises to pay to clean it up.

Before the outbreak, the United States withheld funds to pay for water and sanitation infrastructure for more than 10 years for purely political reasons. After centuries of exploitation and abuse, the best hope for many Haitians is to move away — and suddenly encountering infrastructure and opportunities, they thrive. For many migrants, the ultimate goal is to earn enough money to retire, build a home in Haiti and go back.

In trying to walk back his slur Friday, Trump insisted that he “has a wonderful relationship with Haitians.” There is no evidence of that.

As he decided to move forward with forcing the deportation of tens of thousands of Haitians allowed to take refuge after the 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s leading newspaper pronounced Donald Trump the country’s “worst nightmare.” Last summer, he reportedly said all Haitians have AIDS — a slur that cuts deep in the Haitian American psyche. And now this.

I lived in Haiti for 3½ years, by choice. I saw many people struggling, many beautiful and terrible sights, and lived through some of the hardest days of my life. I learned a lot about the complicated relationship between that country and ours — the ways in which our power can be used for good, and to do incredible harm.

Many people pointed out this week that Haitians have been through far worse than a racist president calling their country a “shithole.” The question is whether, knowing the truth, we all want to go through it again.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On January 15, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    Americans Cannot Afford to Grow Used to This

    A year into the presidency of Donald Trump, the country is in danger of accepting the unacceptable.

    David Frum | The Atlantic

    We’re nearly a full year into the Trump presidency. Steve Bannon has been removed from the NSC Principals’ committee, and then purged from the Trump circle. Stocks are up, taxes are down — at least for most people, at least for now.

    The ATMs continue to dispense cash; there has been no nuclear war.

    Factor in that a complete interloper, an unreliable rule-breaker, has just vaulted into spectacular prominence with a mega-selling new book crammed with salacious warnings that the president is succumbing to the first stages of dementia.

    All in all, it’s the perfect time for a round of thoughtful conservative punditry boldly to challenge conventional wisdom and proclaim that the Trump presidency, like the old joke about Wagner’s music – isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

    The reversal of the conventional wisdom would be welcome to many news consumers.

    It’s fatiguing and upsetting to be told every day that something has gone dangerously and importantly wrong with the government of the United States of America.

    And after all, people have business to do with the administration: bills they want signed; regulations they want relaxed. Other people work for that administration.

    Nobody wants to be made to feel like an enabler or collaborator for shrugging off a few irregularities and getting on with his or her work. And isn’t that work the real story ….?

    If abnormality continues long enough, it becomes normal.

    Chronic illness; a barrier that closes a once-open border; the death of a loved one:

    There is nothing that cannot lose its power to surprise and shock. The phrase “President Trump” once supplied a joke to The Simpsons.

    By now, WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO hearing and saying “President Trump”. It is our reality.

    WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO the publicly visible consequences of that reality:

    The lying, the bullying, the boasting.

    It seems useless to keep complaining, and so by and large the formerly unacceptable has been accepted.

    WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO this already: Trump’s “very stable genius” remark got traction because it was so much more extreme than usual; his usual stream of thoughts, any of which would have generated headlines coming from previous presidents, now largely pass unnoticed.

    WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO a routine level of disregard for the appearance of corruption: the payments from lobbyists and foreign hotels to Trump-branded properties; the flow of payments to the presidential family from partners in Turkey, the Philippines, India, and the United Arab Emirates; the nondisclosure of the president’s tax returns.

    WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO the president’s party in Congress sabotaging and discrediting the investigation into foreign manipulation of the U.S.A. presidential election.

    WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO the dwindling of the State Department, the paralysis of the National Security Council, and presidential attacks on the independence of prosecutors, the FBI, and the Department of Justice.

    WE HAVE GOTTEN USED TO the party of the president pushing through vastly significant laws without hearings and even without accurate estimates of their costs and consequences.

    WE ARE BECOMING USED TO state parties rewriting local election laws explicitly to impede voting by people who might vote against them.

    When we worry about democratic decline in the United States of America, it’s important to be clear what we are worrying about: CORROSION, not crisis.

    IN A CRISIS, of course we’ll all be heroes — or so we assure ourselves. But in the muddy complexity of the slow misappropriation of the state for self-interested purposes, occasions for heroism do not present themselves.

    On the contrary, the rhetoric of “resistance” comes to seem disproportionate, strident, cranky.

    Most things continue to operate more or less as they used to do.

    When the administration seeks to do something improper, oftentimes it is prevented — by the bureaucracy, by the courts, by the administration’s own bottomless inefficiency and distractedness.

    And if a few things get through – or more than a few — we can tell ourselves that soon enough things will return to normal.

    The adults who are failing to discipline Trump in the here and now can surely be trusted to clean up after him in the by-and-by.

    Yet the unacceptable does not become more acceptable if IT IS ACCEPTED by increments.

    If you flow with the current, you’ll be surprised where you end up.

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world,” George Bernard Shaw observed a century ago. The saying is true, but it was not intended as a compliment.

    It will take a strong dose of unreasonableness to save the country from the destination to which it is tending.

  • Clyde Duncan  On January 15, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    No Regrets for Making Haiti a ‘Shithole’?

    Sir Ronald Sanders | TeleSUR

    Haiti, for us in the Caribbean is more than just a member of our community; it is the first nation to rise up against slavery and oppression in our region.

    The effect of the inappropriate depiction of Haiti, El Salvador and all African nations as “shit hole” countries is a matter that the people of the United States of America and their government and Congress should contemplate seriously.

    The responses have been swift, showing a mixture of outrage and shock.

    At the time of writing this commentary, there has been no expression of regret about the comment that has done nothing but injures the relations between the United States and many countries. Hopefully, representatives of the U.S.A. in other countries will distance themselves from it, and apologise as discreetly as they can.

    I am here concerned particularly with the remarks about Haiti, a member state of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the current Chair of the group’s Heads of Government caucus.

    My colleague, the Ambassador of Haiti to the United States, Paul Altidor, rightly said, “We feel in the statements if they were made, the president was either misinformed or uneducated about Haiti and its people.”

    The United Nations spokesman Rupert Colville, described the remarks as “racist,” adding that, “You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as ‘shitholes,’ whose entire populations, who are NOT white, are therefore NOT welcome.”

    Haiti, for us in the Caribbean is more than just a member of our community; it is the first nation to rise up against slavery and oppression in our region.

    Importantly when the Republic of Haiti was established on January 1, 1804, it was the first free nation of free black people to rise in a world of Empires of Western European nations.

    And, Haiti paid a very high price for its assertion that black people were born free, entitled to freedom and the right to fight for it.

    In a real sense, from the moment of that assertion of freedom, Haiti was earmarked for the “shithole” status now applied to it.

    It was punished by every European nation, particularly France, which successive governments of the United States of America aided and abetted in the process.

    France demanded huge reparations for the slaves and plantations it lost at the revolt of Toussaint L’Ouverture. In 1825, Haiti’s leaders were forced to agree to pay France the harsh levy of 90 million gold francs, which the country did not finish repaying until 1947.

    For almost a hundred years, Haiti was pushed into poverty by the French demand, upheld by Western European nations and the USA.

    Indeed, the U.S.A., which continued to be a slave-owning nation after European nations outlawed it, did not recognise Haiti as a free nation until 1862 – the last major power at the time to do so.

    But, even that recognition was meaningless.

    Taking advantage of Haiti’s lack of capacity to defend itself from external intervention, U.S. naval ships entered Haitian waters no less than 24 times between 1849 and 1913, ostensibly “to protect American lives and property”.

    Finally, in 1915, the U.S. invaded Haiti and ruled the country as an occupying force for 20 years.

    During that period, Haiti and the Haitian people, already impoverished, were further disadvantaged – exploited and isolated by what was then ‘the international community’ – Western European nations and the U.S.A.

    Their constitution was rewritten against their will, something the U.S. State Department admitted in 1927.

    Under that Constitution, laws preventing foreigners from owning land were scrapped, allowing U.S. companies to take what they wanted.

    In 1926, a New York business publication described Haiti as “a marvelous opportunity” for U.S.A. investment, stating that “the run of the mill Haitian is handy, easily directed, and gives a hard day’s labor for 20 cents, while in Panama the same day’s work cost $3”.

    U.S.A. corporations grew from 13 in 1966 to 154 in 1981, enriching themselves, pauperizing the Haitian people even more and doing little to add wealth to the economy.

    And, as with slavery, the excesses of U.S. occupation by U.S. companies were justified by the language of racial superiority. Haitians were described as “coons,” “mongrels,” “unwholesome,” “a horde of naked niggers.”

    The New York Times reported U.S. representatives as saying that Haiti needed “energetic Anglo-Saxon influence.”

    The Haitians have also suffered from governments that suited foreign powers being put into office, only to be removed if their policies ceased to serve the interest of those foreign powers.

    Therefore, democracy in Haiti was emasculated not by the Haitian people, but by external forces and Haitian elites that they suborned.

    Incidentally, the U.S.A. has had balance of trade surpluses with Haiti for many decades. For instance, in 2014, the U.S. trade surplus with Haiti was $356.4 million; in 2015 and 2016 respectively it was $190.5 and $191.9 million. For the 11 months, ending November 30, 2017, the surplus in favour of the U.S.A. was already $385 million.

    So, for a ‘shithole’ country Haiti has provided annual revenues and employment to the U.S.A. of some magnitude.

    Sadly, from this entire experience, Haiti is the poorest country in all the Americas.

    But it is far from a “shithole,” possessing as it does some of the most beautiful landscapes and seascapes in the Caribbean; a remarkably talented and creative people – Haitian art and craft is natural, untrained aptitude; and hard workers.

    Of Haiti’s population of 10.4 million people, only 500,000 have permanent employment. Yet, the Haitian people maintain stability in a continuing struggle.

    If Haiti is a “shithole”, those who made it so should acknowledge their devastating role, and in their shame, they should pledge to do better.

    Every Caribbean person, at all levels, should make it abundantly and crystal clear that we resent this depiction of Haiti; we call for acknowledgement by all who have exploited it and kept it in poverty; and we urge that, instead of dismissing it in unfortunate language, they implement programmes to atone for their part in its pauperisation.

    For our part, the Caribbean should stand-up for Haiti with pride and gratitude.

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