Haiti: Act of Nature or Act of Man?

Brooklyn, where I live, has a Haitian expatriate population of about 100,000 people. From discussions with a few colleagues, students, and friends, every family has already heard, or awaits word, that loved ones were injured or died in the earthquake and the chaos that followed. There will be a lot of mourning in our neighborhoods.

Local politicians and public figures have been quick to respond. Council member Charles Barron and Reverend Al Sharpton organized a delegation of lawmakers and clergy to travel to Haiti in support. The New York Yankees donated $500,000 to aid rescue and relief efforts.

At the request of one of my students, a young woman whose parents are from Haiti, I donated money for emergency medical relief to Doctors Without Borders. She also recommended donating to the American Red Cross; UNICEF; and Yéle, a Haitian relief organization sponsored by the singer Wyclef Jean.

This is not a good time to assign responsibility for what happened and is happening in Haiti. People are too upset. But there is never a good time to assign responsibility, and unfortunately, if we wait for resolution of this crisis, the world's attention will be shifted elsewhere. There will always be another disaster, and experience tells us that no one, except the mourners and the survivors, will be paying attention to Haiti anymore.

For the last decade, I have been involved in developing curriculum for New York State on the causes, impact, and lessons of the Great Irish Famine that struck between 1845 and 1852. For six out of seven years the potato crop failed because of a fungus and millions of people starved or emigrated. Between 1841 and 1880 the population of Ireland plummeted from over 8 million people to less than 4 million.

John Mitchel, an Irish patriot who challenged British control over Ireland, charged, "The Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine." What Mitchel meant was that crop failure was transformed into famine because the British failed to act to save Irish lives. The crop failure was an act of nature, but the famine was an act of man.

In the New York State Great Irish Famine Curriculum guide we recommend that students debate Mitchel's proposition. Similarly, while it is urgent that teachers involve their students in emergency relief efforts, students need to examine whether conditions in Haiti are solely acts of nature.

The United States and much of the rest of the world is rushing aid to Haiti hoping to prevent earthquake devastation, clearly an act of nature, from becoming something much worse. Yet I believe the death and destruction we are viewing in Haiti is very much an act of man and that the United States played a major role in laying the groundwork for this catastrophe.

President Obama delivered a powerful statement to the people of Haiti, recognizing, "Few in the world have endured the hardships that you have known. Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle." He promised, "you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you. The world stands with you." However, what the President did not say was that Haiti is in this precarious position because the United States and the rest of the world not only refused to help the Haitian people in the past, but they established the conditions that made Haiti so vulnerable.

In the 19th century, to punish Black Africans for rebelling against slavery, defeating invading European armies, and securing not only freedom but independence, the United States and the European colonial powers isolated Haiti from global markets. Unable to sell sugar, its primary cash crop, the Haitian people turned to subsistence agriculture in an environment that could not support the population. Forests and topsoil were stripped away until much of the population of Haiti was impoverished and on the verge of starvation before the earthquake hit.

The only thing that can save Haiti as a viable nation is what "saved" Ireland - mass emigration and a drastic reduction in population to bring the number of people into balance with the environment that must support them. But while the colonial power that controlled Ireland, Great Britain, wanted the Irish to emigrate for its own ends, the United States, the imperialist power that has dominated Haiti for 100 years, does not want the Haitians to emigrate because it does not want them to move here.

In 2008, the last year for which records are available, only 26,007 Haitians were legally admitted to the United States. This is fewer than the number of legal immigrants from China, Columbia, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, India, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and approximately half the number of people admitted that year from Cuba.

While Cuban refugees have been welcomed for over half of a century, a major assignment of the U.S. Coast Guard has been to turn back people trying to sail from Haiti to the United States. One factor in the different policies was Cuba's Cold War ties with the Soviet Union. But race is also a factor. Many of the Cuban refugees are white. The Haitians are all black.

One of my students recounted that he was on a Caribbean cruise off the coast of Haiti when the cruise ship sighted a small boat loaded with Haitian refugees on the verge of death. They were rescued, but in the middle of the night they were off-loaded by the Coast Guard and returned to Haiti, to either try to escape again, to live in poverty, or to die. It is estimated that the Coast Guard intercepted and returned over 100,000 Haitians trying to enter the United States without documentation during the last 20 years.

The U.S. military has "policed" Haiti at least since 1888 when war boats were sent to "persuade" the government to be friendlier to U.S. shipping interests. Troops were dispatched to protect American agricultural producers there in 1891 and 1914. In 1910 the American State Department supported efforts by the National City Bank of New York, now known as Citibank, to take control over the Banque National d'Haïti, Haiti's only commercial bank and its national treasury. In 1915 United States Marines invaded Haiti, secured control over the national capital and government, and occupied and ruled the country until 1934; U.S. economic interests controlled the economy of Haiti until 1947.

After World War II a series of military coups destabilized the government. Finally, in the name of anti-communism, the United States supported a dictatorship headed by Papa Doc Duvalier, who was later succeeded by his son. Under the Duvaliers, who remained in power until 1986, secret police known as the Tonton Macoutes murdered an estimated 30,000 Haitians. Since the fall of the Duvalier regime, the United States has intervened in support of a coup that overthrew an elected reform government, placed an economic embargo on Haiti, and in 1995 sent 20,000 troops to occupy the country. A small military contingent was sent to Haiti again in 2004.

There is no question that the earthquake that devastated Haiti is an act of nature. But the disaster in Haiti is the result of 200 years of foreign interference with the development of the country and with international efforts to keep the Haitian people imprisoned in a land that cannot support them. International help to rebuild Haiti today will only restore it to the conditions that existed before the earthquake struck. The international community wants Haiti back on life support, but they do not want it to actually heal.

What is needed in addition to this help is an international commitment to let millions of Haitians leave and migrate to the United States, Canada, France, and other nations where they can live decent lives and earn enough money to send back to really build their homeland.

In The Wretched of the Earth (1963), Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from the French colony of Martinique, wrote: "Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves. So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: "It's a just reparation which will be paid to us."

Right now the people of Haiti need aid from the rest of the world and they need it quickly. But for the future, Haiti needs a just reparation, from Europe, and especially from the United States.