Haiti: Public Relations War and Historical Symbolism

With both Chavez and the U.S. looking to reverse their political fortunes in Latin America, could Haiti become the setting for geopolitical tensions?
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Even as Haiti reconstruction efforts proceed apace, the public relations battle is heating up. Juan Forero, a conservative reporter with the Washington Post, remarks that Obama might benefit politically from relief operations. "A successful mission," he points out, "...could advance U.S. diplomacy in a region long suspicious of U.S. intentions." Forero quotes Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras who sees good things in store. "I think that the United States will look very magnanimous," the diplomat remarked. "Haiti is good for the United States," he added, "to show its humanitarian side."
The U.S. is in dire need of an image makeover, and some cynical Washington policymakers may privately share Arcos' sentiments. Shortly after taking office Obama promised a new beginning with Latin America, emphasizing that there would be "no senior or junior partner" in terms of the U.S. relationship with the wider region. The U.S. president even shook hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and called Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva "my man."
Since that time, however, Obama has squandered much of that goodwill by failing to adequately back Honduras' deposed President Manuel Zelaya's return to power, by expanding the U.S. presence in several Colombian military bases, and by punting on the eventual closure of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. imperiousness in Haiti has aroused further suspicions. Doctors Without Borders has complained that the U.S. diverted some of its planes from landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, thus forcing the organization to truck in supplies all the way from the Dominican Republic. Francoise Saulnier, head of Doctors Without Borders' legal department, said days were lost because the airport had been blocked by military traffic. "We lost three days," she remarked. "And these three days have created a massive problem with infection, with gangrene, with amputations that are needed now, while we could have really spared this to those people."
Could it all be a cynical plot to reoccupy Haiti by military means? The U.S. exercised plenty of leverage over Haiti even before the quake, and one could argue that it doesn't really need additional muscle. Nevertheless, it's easy to see how Washington's heavy handed approach in Haiti as well as elsewhere can feed into regional suspicions: the U.S. military has already intervened in Haiti and several other countries over the past decade.
What's more, the U.S. military responds to the Pentagon and not to the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Haiti known as MINUSTAH. From a political perspective, it's difficult to imagine that Haitians would accept a long-term U.S. deployment. "This has to be a multilateral effort, and it has to be one that scales back the U.S. military presence and places the operations under a multilateral umbrella," says Chris Sabatini of the Council of the Americas.
On the surface at least, Cuba, Venezuela and the United States all share the same humanitarian goals in Haiti. Bitter rivals elsewhere, the three nations now find themselves working side by side in the island nation. Even as the U.S. provides relief, Venezuela has sent several planes to Haiti with doctors, aid and some soldiers. Paul Waldie of The Globe and Mail reports that American soldiers are camped just outside the Venezuelan embassy, located near to Port-au-Prince's port.
Beneath the veneer of international cooperation, however, some tensions have emerged. Chávez has said that though Venezuela was the first country to deliver aid to Haiti, his government had difficulty carrying out relief operations. During his TV show Hello, President!, he remarked that one shipment of aid had to be sent by water and then by land through the Dominican Republic, "because our ships can't dock at any Haitian port because those that are [in working condition] have been taken by the Yankees."
While Chávez supports ongoing humanitarian efforts, he has questioned the need for so many U.S. troops. "I read that 3,000 soldiers are arriving, Marines armed as if they were going to war. They are occupying Haiti undercover," he added. "The empire (the U.S.) is taking Haiti over the bodies and tears of its people," he thundered. With the heated rhetoric flying, U.S. officials have been put on the defensive and counter that the American military is in Haiti at the request of the local government.
So, who is winning the public relations war? Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs declares that some of Chávez's rhetoric has been "overkill." Nevertheless, he adds that relief officials had essentially been correct in criticizing the U.S. military for diverting Haiti-bound flights. "I just don't see this as a clear win for Washington," he remarked. "Everyone likes the idea of children being pulled from the rubble, but there isn't enough of that to counter the memories of the airport thing."

Chávez and Aristide

How has earthquake relief become such a political football and what are the larger geopolitical fault lines going forward? Though Chávez is now sparring with Washington over Haitian relief efforts, it's not the first time the Venezuelan leader has criticized U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean.
In 2004 for example, Chávez was the only Latin leader to label President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure from Haiti as a coup d'état. Aristide left Haiti in the midst of a bloody rebellion led by former army and police officer, Guy Philippe. Aristide's fall from power, Venezuelan officials argued, should be scrutinized in light of the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States.
Prior to his political fall, Aristide was under intense pressure from the United States and France to resign. The Haitian President left Haiti by airplane guarded by American marines and declared that the U.S. had kidnapped him. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell denied Aristide's coup allegations, exclaiming that the Haitian president "was not kidnapped... We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly."
In a sense it is not too surprising that Chávez, an economic nationalist opposed to U.S.-sponsored free trade schemes, would defend Aristide. A politician who preached a mixture of nationalism and liberation theology during his rise to power, Aristide regarded the neo-liberal model of economic development pushed by Washington as anathema.
Though he ultimately accepted free market prescriptions as Haiti came under heavy economic pressure, Aristide initially opposed policies that would have given businesses a free hand in the economy. What's more, according to the Associated Press, Aristide was overthrown "in part after business owners angered by his approval of an increased minimum wage organized opposition against him."
When a new government took power in Port-au-Prince under Gérard Latortue, Chávez snubbed the Bush administration by refusing to recognize the regime, which the United States, Canada, France and the European Union all recognized as the new government. Moreover, Chávez decried the participation of Latin American troops in the United Nations' "stabilization mission" sent to Haiti and even offered refuge in Venezuela to exiled President Aristide.

From Aristide to Préval

René Préval, who came to power in early 2006, has also been cautious in crafting an independent economic and foreign policy for Haiti. Préval, an agronomist who briefly worked as prime minister in Aristide's government in the early 1990s and later as president himself from 1996 to 2001, has worked to appease international lending agencies.
That is not too surprising, given that during his first presidential term he oversaw privatization of a number of government companies. In his second incarnation as president, Préval has been a booster of garment exportation and opposed a measure that would have nearly tripled the minimum wage that stood at a paltry $2 a day. Careful to get in the good graces of the Americans, he visited Washington shortly after his inauguration.
Nevertheless, Préval enjoyed the support of the impoverished living in slums as well as the Haitian peasantry. Widely viewed as Aristide's protégé, Préval was elected in 2006 with heavy backing from Aristide's Lavalas party. Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs has remarked that Préval's election in 2006 represented "a putative victory for Aristide," since the new president shared many of Aristide's political beliefs.
Perhaps, that is what Chávez hoped too. In the wake of the election, the Venezuelan called Préval and asked the new Haitian leader if he would like to join in his Petrocaribe initiative, which provided petroleum products and other aid to needy Caribbean countries to help them counter rising energy prices. Recipients were offered deferred payment and long-term financing for fuel shipments.
When Haiti accepted Chávez's offer, Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel traveled to Port-au-Prince to sign the accord. During the signing ceremony, Rangel declared that while some would undoubtedly claim that Haiti was joining the famed "axis of evil," in reality the island nation was contributing to an "axis of solidarity and the consolidation of a new Latin America."
Perhaps some in the U.S. State Department sat up and took notice, when in addition to offering Petrocaribe, Chávez created a $20 million fund for Haiti to provide humanitarian aid and to develop joint cooperation projects. The money went towards payment for health care, education, housing and other basic necessities sorely lacking in the Caribbean nation of 8 million.
Furthermore, the Bush administration could not have been pleased by Chávez's electrifying trip to Haiti in 2007. Arriving at Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture airport in his characteristic red shirt, Chavez was greeted by thousands of Haitians who cried, "Long live Chavez, down with Bush!" The crowd then chanted "Chávez, Chávez, it is you whom we seek ... President Préval needs your help to return Aristide." Meanwhile, the demonstrators denounced UN peacekeepers for using overwhelming military force to suppress violent gangs. Later, Chavez remarked that Bush represented the most "homicidal and colonialist" empire the world had ever seen, in contrast to his own Bolivarian Revolution promoting solidarity, liberation, and the emancipation of peoples.
No doubt, many Haitians came to appreciate Venezuelan largesse. Indeed, Chavez helped to build Port-au-Prince's largest outdoor market that opened in 2008. On the entrance sign to the market, Chavez's name was scrawled in bold lettering. What's more, "Venezuela" was written across the roof of a local building lying within the market, and the Chavez name also appeared on a new electrical plant.

Building up Historical Solidarity Through Film

In the war of public relations, film can also loom large. As I explain in my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), the hallmark of Chávez's new cultural policy is Villa del Cine, a spanking new film studio. Inaugurated in June 2006 amid much fanfare, the $42 million project under the Ministry of Culture aims to produce 19 feature-length films a year, in addition to documentaries and television series. Through this "Bolivarian Cinecittà," Chávez seeks to spur production of films dealing with social empowerment, South American history, and Venezuelan values.
When I interviewed Villa del Cine's director Lorena Almarza, she told me the studio had developed "a very fraternal relationship" with African American Hollywood actor Danny Glover. Indeed, Chávez's film studio has funded Glover's new epic film, Toussaint, about Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1746-1803), one of the fathers of Haiti's independence from France. The film represents Glover's directorial debut; the star will also co-produce the movie. Though the film shall include African and Haitian actors, high profile Hollywood stars have also been billed for Toussaint. The film will star Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, and Wesley Snipes.
Together with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint L'Ouverture was one of the principal leaders of the Haitian rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century that struggled against the revolutionary French as well as Spanish, British, and Napoleonic forces. Toussaint liberated black slaves not only in Haiti but all across the island of Hispaniola (today, the island is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
When Toussaint concluded a ceasefire with Napoleonic forces, which were determined to reestablish colonial rule and reimpose slavery, the Haitian revolutionary was betrayed, apprehended and deported. He died in France in 1803. Toussaint's lieutenant Dessalines, an ex-slave just like Toussaint, continued the rebellion. Haiti finally declared its independence from France in January 1804. The impoverished Caribbean colony was the first black nation to throw off imperial rule and become a republic.
Needless to say, Toussaint the movie has not been immune from political controversy. Connie Mack, a U.S. Republican congress member from Florida, blasted Glover for cutting a "sweetheart movie deal" with Chavez. Some Venezuelan filmmakers complain that Villa del Cine will only produce films that fall in line with Chávez's socialist ideals, an accusation which Glover denies. The veteran actor has remarked that Toussaint won't be left-wing revisionism but rather a critical movie dealing with a part of the hemisphere's past that has been "essentially wiped out of our historic memory."
Despite the denials, it's clear that a movie dealing with Caribbean slave revolt dovetails with Chávez's frankly anti-imperialist political outlook. "This film [Toussaint] will form part of our ideological canon against Metro Goldwyn Mayer [MGM]," said Venezuelan congressman Simón Escalona. Outside of Venezuela, high-profile figures are pleased with Glover's project. Haitian President Preval told the New York Daily News "We had the first successful anti-slave rebellion in this hemisphere. It's our contribution to humanity. If Glover can take this story to the big screen, we will be happy."

The Political Uses of History: From Bolivar to Petion

Chavez, however, hasn't stopped with Toussaint. For the Venezuelan president, the Haitian independence struggle has key symbolic meaning. When he traveled to Haiti in 2007, Chavez timed his arrival for maximum political and historic effect.
"We know that March 12, 1806 [two years after Haiti became a republic] exactly two centuries ago and a year ... a very great Venezuelan cried out for independence," Chavez said. "And it is here in a revolutionary boat with a revolutionary crew that the Venezuelan flag was hoisted for the first time. Francisco de Miranda, as you know, was that great Venezuela, and the reason for our visit is linked to what he did way back then."
Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), considered by some to be a forerunner of later South American independence figures such as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), was a soldier who fought in the American and French revolutions. In addition, he played a key part in events leading to Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain.
In 1806, Miranda sailed from the U.S. and landed on Haiti, a nation that had just shaken off French rule. In Haiti, Miranda received aid for his anti-colonial struggle against Spain. Once there he hoisted a tricolor flag of his own design, which later served as the prototype for the future Venezuelan flag. When talking about this historic era, Chavez refers to Haiti as "holy land for us," since the island nation of "Black Jacobins" aided Miranda.
True enough, yet the relationship between Venezuelan and Haitian independence was a little more ambiguous and subtle than Chavez lets on. "To Spanish America," writes Leslie Bethell in The Cambridge History of Latin America, "Haiti was an example and a warning, observed by rulers and ruled alike with growing horror." Miranda was a member of the white creole elite and had no intention of inciting black slave revolt in Venezuela. Indeed, in his correspondence Miranda wrote, "I confess that much as I desire the liberty and independence of the New World, I fear anarchy and revolution even more. God forbid that the other countries suffer the same fate as Saint-Domingue [the old French colony of Haiti] scene of carnage and crimes; committed on the pretext of establishing liberty; better that they should remain another century under the barbarous and senseless oppression of Spain."
Chavez is also wont to extol the historic ties between Simon Bolivar and Haitian revolutionaries. Addressing the Haitian public in 2007, the Venezuelan leader remarked, "We are very conscious of what the Haitian people are--a people who were able to defeat empires and free their country well before the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean--a heroic people and also a ravaged people over the past two centuries. You must also know that Bolívar passed through here ... in 1816 when in Venezuela ... all appeared lost in the battle against Spain."
Chavez is referring to Bolivar's fateful trip which brought the Venezuelan independence leader to Haiti on Christmas Eve, 1815. The Great Liberator had just been expelled from Venezuela, but fortunately Haitian President Alexandre Pétion (1770-1818) welcomed Bolívar and his freedom fighters and provided them with shelter, guns, ammunition and a printing press. To this day, Venezuelan children are taught in school that their country owes a "historic debt" to Haiti for helping Bolívar.
Never one to neglect rich historic symbolism, Chávez remarked during his visit to Port-au-Prince that it was time to encourage the "union of our republics. It is an old project of Miranda's and Bolívar's ... of Pétion's and of Louverture's--all those who dreamed of a great nation, of a free nation." "Today I feel I am paying part of our historic debt to Haiti," Chavez added. Following their historic meeting, Chávez and Préval commemorated the occasion by placing flowers at Port-au-Prince's monuments to Pétion and Bolívar.
Chavez is not perverting history, but again the relationship between Bolivar and Petion is a little more ambiguous than the Venezuelan leader has claimed. Like Miranda, Bolivar was a member of the white creole elite that feared black slave revolution. As he was about to depart from Haiti en route to Venezuela, Bolívar asked his benefactor how he might repay Haiti's generosity. Pétion replied that the best thanks Haiti could receive would be the liberation of all slaves residing in the Spanish colonies.
To be sure, Bolívar later honored his debt to Pétion by freeing the 1,500 slaves his family owned in Caracas. He also printed a proclamation, on Pétion's very own printing press, abolishing slavery in Venezuela. The proclamation, however, only applied to black slaves and their families who enlisted in Bolívar's army: those who refused to join would remain in bondage. If anything, Bolivar's decree motivated slaves to join the Spanish royalist side. It wasn't until 1854 that slavery was finally abolished in Venezuela.

The Politics of Earthquake Relief

In light of the recent past and Chavez's geopolitical aims in the Caribbean, it's not too surprising that the Venezuelan would question U.S. motivations in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Over the past few weeks, Chavez's political rhetoric over Haiti reconstruction has become somewhat stark. Social and economic misery will continue in the island nation, Chavez declared, as long as capitalism and imperialism persists.
To his credit, Chavez hasn't simply mouthed empty rhetoric: Venezuela has sent several tons of food and supplies to Haiti, and its state oil company PDVSA provided 225,000 barrels of fuel. Venezuela is one of Haiti's main bilateral creditors, and Chavez has said that Petrocaribe will forgive the island nation's $295 million debt. "Haiti has no debt with Venezuela - on the contrary, it is Venezuela that has a historic debt with Haiti," Chávez said.
Could Haiti now become the setting for geopolitical tensions? Chavez has said that he would like nations belonging to ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, an initiative promoting barter and reciprocity amongst left wing regimes throughout the region) to facilitate Haitian reconstruction by building hospitals and schools and by helping to develop agriculture. ALBA, Chavez said, "is already in Haiti, but now we're going to make a specific strategic plan for the short- and medium-term."
Washington would certainly look askance at such developments. For all of its lofty rhetoric, the Obama administration seems to be following the contours of traditional U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean. Obama, for example, has tapped former president Bill Clinton to oversee fundraising for Haitian disaster relief, suggesting that Washington would prefer more of the same neo-liberal style economics for the island nation.
Even before the earthquake Clinton pushed for re-development of the Haitian sweatshop and garment industry. Reportedly, Clinton and United Nations' Secretary General Ban Ki-moon favor an economic plan that would foster free trade zones, tourism, privatization, and export agriculture. Meanwhile the International Monetary Fund, which takes its cue from the U.S., has provided $100 million to Haiti for earthquake relief but the aid reportedly comes with strings attached such as refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage.
If ALBA nations can put together an alternative redevelopment scenario for Haiti, which is by no means clear, such an initiative would be infinitely superior to neo-liberal shock. If Chavez were to spearhead the efforts, he would gain well-deserved admiration and respect from the long-suffering Haitian populace.
Chavez, however, is still a politician and certainly must recognize the public relations value of showing up the United States in Haiti. This past year has not exactly been kind to the Venezuelan leader, who is probably keen to reassert his stature in the wider region. The first blow came with the election of Barack Obama, who ran hard against George Bush in 2008 and who has stated, publicly at least, the need for a new U.S.-Latin American relationship. Without Bush around, Chavez has lost a lot of his rhetorical edge.
Other problems abound: electrical shortages have forced the Venezuelan government to declare a state of emergency and to restrict operating hours at shopping malls. In addition, Chavez has faced grinding recession and had to devalue the Bolivar currency by half. In Honduras, Chavez's ally Manuel Zelaya was deposed and the U.S. subsequently got its way through the election of a moderate president. In Chile, the country recently elected a right wing president who has been critical of Chavez.
With both Chavez and the United States looking to reverse their political fortunes in the wider region, the Haitian government has been somewhat non-plussed. Asked if U.S. troops deployed to Haiti amounted to colonialism by other means - as Chávez has implied - Preval cautiously responded that he was grateful for help from both the U.S. and Venezuela. Marie-Lawrence Jocelyn Lassegue, Haiti's Minister of Culture and Communications, has echoed her boss' sentiments. Shrugging off concerns that rival nations could try to exert geopolitical influence over Haiti during reconstruction efforts, she remarked, "We need help from everyone."

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)

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