Losing Some Illusions about Canada's Role in the World

Monday, February 26, 2007


Written by Ari Altstedter

Before Feb 7 I knew two things about Haiti; the first was that it was the only place where slaves successfully rebelled and established a free home for themselves in 1804 and the second was that it produced Wyclef Jean, an obscenely talented rapper/singer/musician/producer/and just all round awesome guy.

Both these points brought me to the Canada in Haiti event with a powerful sympathy for the small Caribbean nation, but also a very limited idea of what to expect. What I learned from two powerful Haitian-Canadian speakers was a history of Haiti as surreal as it is dark. Thanks to constant Western interference, Haiti’s history is characterized by hyperbolic, seemingly fanatical imperialism, and outright bald-faced racism. Most shockingly for me (and I think for most of the packed room), was that Canada was up to at least its armpits in all of this. Good, old, fair broker, peacekeeping, would never dream of imperialism, Canada.

For the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the modern history of Haiti from only about the last seven years. But a brief review of the catalogue of the West’s pointlessly cruel policies to Haiti are useful in order to set the stage for the year 2000, which is about the time Canada makes its triumphant debut into Haitian history. Shortly after the victory of the slave rebellion all of Europe and the United States banned trade with the island while at the same time taking turns to extort billions of dollars for property expropriated by the blacks. The result was that from birth Haiti was both hugely in debt but without means to get out of it, having nowhere to sell the cash crops produced by its plantation economy.

Having been plunged into poverty that remains to this day, Haiti’s first black leader was assassinated causing a contest for power between the poor masses and an elite group of basically western agents (usually mulattoes). This in turn led to an outright U.S. invasion and occupation in 1915 which lasted until 1934. On their way out, the United States established the Duvalier Dictatorship which became infamous for its cruelty in seeing to what were essentially elite and American interests. Even when the Duvaliers were finally run out of the country a pattern emerged of the poor majority electing a popular candidate, followed by the 5 per cent of the population (which controls 60 per cent of the island’s wealth) deposing said candidate with a military coup.

This continued until about the new millennium when one of those formerly deposed popular candidates, Jean Bertrand Aristide, ran again for President. With the help of a powerful grassroots movement he swept to victory with a mandate to the tune of 90 per cent of the vote. Once in power, Aristide began enacting the promises for radical change that had got him there, raising the minimum wage twice, resisting neo-liberal reforms designed to help multinationals, and most unthinkable, disbanding that unfailing source of coups and repression, the army.

Of course all of these populous reforms started making the rich people, on and off Haiti, a little fidgety, and when rich people start to fidget governments start acting differently. Shortly after Aristide’s election the United States took the lead in cutting off aid to the poorest country in the hemisphere. The supposed reason being some flimsy excuse about whether eight senators from Aristide’s party had won their seats with majorities or just pluralities. Canada quickly followed suit and even provided a rubber stamp of legality in 2001 by validating the move in the Organization of American States, conveniently holding its conference that year in Quebec City. 

This halt of aid however did not mean Western countries were stepping out of Haitian affairs. Rather, the Canadian International Development Agency and its counterparts in other countries were quietly funneling huge amounts of money to any anti-government or opposition group they could get a hold of, indiscriminate of whether they were peaceful political parties, paramilitary organizations, or just good old fashioned thugs.

As anti-government forces on the island began to get violent, Canada hosted “The Ottawa Initiative on Haiti” from January 31 to Feb 1, 2003. This meeting was explicitly meant to decide upon Haiti’s future, which the Initiative determined should be as a UN protectorate after the government was disbanded. This momentous judgment on Haiti’s future was determined by all interested foreign governments in conjunction with the Haitian opposition. Conspicuously missing was the democratically elected Haitian government itself. This spectacularly hypocritical example of imperialism illustrates just how little even our own government cares about democracy abroad, which in this case took a back seat to Canada’s mining companies needing fat concessions from Haiti’s government, and Nortel’s interest in contracts to overhaul Haiti’s energy grid.

By February 2004 a small but well funded band of former soldiers, police officers, and mercenaries had taken a good part of the country at gunpoint. Even so, the capital, Port-au-Prince, was far too large for such a small group to take control. Thanks to American and Canadian troops however, this was unnecessary. As soon as the rebels appeared outside the city, the American troops guarding the President informed him it was about time they stopped. Aristide took the only option available and let the Americans escort him to the airport secured by our Canadian Forces. Aristide was promptly shipped out on an airplane and literally dumped in the middle of Africa.

From here things get really weird. With Aristide out of the way, the rebels mysteriously stopped being a problem which allowed Canadian, US and French troops to take control of the country, for its own good of course. The three foreign powers appointed the almost comically Orwellian named “Council of the Wise” to run the country. This council continued the proud democratic tradition from which it was born by appointing a new President, Gerard LaTortue. The new President was imported from Boca Raton, Florida because apparently no one actually on the island was qualified. LaTortue wasted no time in doing what he was brought there to do, reversing Aristide’s reforms by dismantling social services, lowering the minimum wage, and privatizing government industries.

He then fused the merry bands of ex-soldiers, paramilitary death squads, and outright mercenaries that had brought down his predecessor and turned them into the Haitian National Police (the HNP), so they could basically continue what they had been doing before; waging war against Aristide supporters. A recent study by one of the premiere medical journals in the world, The Lancet, said that during LaTortue’s government the HNP and political gangs on its payroll were responsible for 8000 murders and 35,000 rapes and sexual assaults. The HNP were trained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Even worse, at the time of a September 30, 2004 attack on protestors, the Haitian Deputy Minister for Justice was on the payroll of the Canadian International Development Agency. As a final cherry on this incriminating cake, LaTortue’s government was the only one ever to be visited by a Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin.

The LaTortue period was very bad, but the good news is it's over now. Despite massive voter fraud the 2004 elections, Haitians elected a populous candidate to the presidency. Overall, the Haitian speakers who visited Guelph seemed cautiously optimistic about Haiti’s future, but two major problems still remain. The first is actually the UN. Since the coup against Aristide UN troops have been in Haiti nominally as peacekeepers. 

Under LaTortue the only highlight of their contribution was to stand by and watch as an HNP allied gang massacred fans at a soccer game. Since then, they have taken a more active role, going into slums to root out gangs and bandits. Unfortunately, for the most part what is meant by gangs and bandits are former Aristide supporters who, as the poorest of the poor are concentrated in the slums, are still seeking social justice, and have a healthy loathing for the police who've earned it. The UN force in Haiti has conducted regular raids into Port-au-Princes slums, particularly one Aristide-stronghold called Cite Soleil. For the most part these raids consist of UN troops, helicopters and armored personnel carriers barreling into the slums, spraying shacks with bullets, and leaving as many of the innocent dead as the guilty. 

The other major challenge to Haiti is the usual culprit of multinational corporations who have turned the island into the sweat shop capital of North America. If you need further evidence of just how involved Canada has been in screwing over Haiti, just look at the tag of your t-shirt. There’s a good chance it says Gildan Active Wear, a Canadian company that is the largest t-shirt manufacturer in North America and does most of its production in Haiti, helping to ensure that Haitians make just enough, but only just enough. Even worse, one of Gildan’s Haitian subcontractors has been connected with paying a gang in Cite Soleil to attack Aristide supporters and prevent them from organizing. It is people like this subcontractor, operating with a wink from foreign corporations, who one of the event’s speakers accuses of being, “the new slave traders who instead of bringing the slaves to the plantation bring the plantation to the slaves.”

Overall the West’s attitude to Haiti is summed up in the unconsciously racist and imperialist words of Luigi Einaudi, former Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States, made on December 31, 2003. “The real problem with Haiti is that the international community is so screwed up and divided that they are actually letting Haitians run Haiti.” It is ironic that Einaudi called the international community screwed up and then comprehensively displayed exactly why that is so without realizing.

Yes, the international community is screwed up, but the reason is because they won’t let Haitians run Haiti, as the country’s history of constant foreign interference shows. The reasons behind that are further evidence of how screwed up the international community is. They can be boiled down to the racist belief that black people can’t really take care of themselves (as Einaudi articulated so well), and the almost obsessive imperialist drive to maintain control, economically or otherwise. Both of these reasons are irrational and ultimately destructive, which is exactly why going into the Canada in Haiti event I knew nothing about Canada or the West’s dealings with the country. If I did know I wouldn’t stand for it. But now I do know, and so do you. So let’s not stand for it.

Look for the Peak's Power issue coming soon. The deadline for it's next issue with an Arts & Culture theme is March 9th.

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