Washington Babylon — January 14, 2010, 12:32 pm

Haiti: Media provides sanitized history for American audiences

As I noted here yesterday, much of the media coverage (including the blogosphere) of the tragedy in Haiti lacks any sort of historical perspective and makes it impossible to understand events in the country. Why is Haiti so poor? Marginal Revolution asked in a post yesterday. Among the answers were that “Haiti cut its colonial ties too early, rebelling against the French in the early 19th century and achieving complete independence”; and that “Haiti has higher than average levels of polygamy.”

It’s pretty stunning that this almost entirely ignores the role of outside powers. Is Haiti poor simply because foreigners exploited it? Of course not, but one can’t understand why the country is in such terrible shape if you ignore the French and American roles in beggaring the country.

So here are a couple of suggested reading items: First, this post by Barbara Miller, a specialist in the anthropology of international development, who asks the exact same question posed by Marginal Revolution, and comes up with quite a different set of answers:

Colonial plantation owners grew fabulously rich from this island. It produced more wealth for France than all of France’s other colonies combined and more than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. Why is Haiti so poor now?

Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests. After the revolution, the new citizens carried with them the traumatic history of slavery. Now, neocolonialism and globalization are leaving new scars. For decades, the United States has played, and still plays, a powerful role in supporting conservative political regimes.

Gee, I wonder if those small matters had anything to do with Haiti’s poverty?

For a lengthier account, also check out “The Historical Context of American Intervention”, by Robert F. Baumann, written for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Baumann offers a fairly American-friendly view of U.S. involvement, but he provides some interesting background on the Duvalier years:

The election of President Francois (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier in 1957 ushered in the modem phase of Haitian political life…Gradually, paranoia and a willingness to rule by terror became the trademarks of his presidency. In 1966, he declared himself “president for life.”

Duvalier further strengthened his grip on power with the founding of the Tonton Macoute (Haitian militia). This ill-trained body, which soon substantially outnumbered the army, operated as hired political thugs around the country at the behest of the Duvalier regime…In addition, Duvalier skillfully manipulated American anticommunism to enlist outside financial and material support, much of the latter in the form of weapons. Later, in 1971, the United States financed the training of a special counterinsurgency force in Haiti known as the Leopards.

Perhaps the most emblematic gesture of Papa Doc’s tenure was a referendum ensuring the direct succession of his son, Jean-Claude, which carried by the absurd total of 2,391,916 to 0!

Incidentally, Ron Brown, Bill Clinton’s former Commerce Secretary, once lobbied for Baby Doc. (As I first reported back in 1993).

Ok, so read up and continue sending support to help Haiti now. The easiest way to do that is to send a text message to 90999 with the word “Haiti” in the message.

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