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Peter Hallward on "Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment"

February 22, 2010


Peter Hallward

author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment and a professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University.

Kim Ives

journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté, speaking from Port-au-Prince

Haitian President René Préval said Sunday that the death toll from the earthquake could reach 300,000 once all the bodies are recovered from the rubble. We speak to Peter Hallward, professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University. "Unless prevented by renewed popular mobilisation in both Haiti and beyond, the perverse international emphasis on security will continue to distort the reconstruction effort, and with it the configuration of Haitian politics for some time to come," wrote Hallward recently. "What is already certain is that if further militarisation proceeds unchecked, the victims of the January earthquake won’t be the only avoidable casualties of 2010." [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with an update on Haiti a month and a half after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the Caribbean island nation. Haitian President René Préval said Sunday the death toll from the earthquake could reach 300,000 once all the bodies are recovered from the rubble.

    PRESIDENT RENÉ PRÉVAL: [translated] You have seen the images. You know the figures. More than 200,000 bodies were collected on the streets. Counting those still found under the rubble, the death toll could rise to 300,000. More than 250,000 destroyed or damaged homes, more than 1.5 million people are suddenly homeless.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking in a regional summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Mexico, Préval urged them to send aid to his devastated country. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates rebuilding Haiti could cost as much as $14 billion. Préval warned of the approaching rainy season and made a plea for emergency shelter materials to assist the one-and-a-half million homeless Haitians.

On Saturday, Claudy Trevange was one of hundreds of Haitians waiting in line for waterproof shelter materials to be distributed by the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.

    CLAUDY TREVANGE: [translated] We sleep in the street with our children. We have no money. Our children catch colds. They sneeze.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on Haiti, we’re joined here in New York by Canadian political philosopher Peter Hallward. He’s the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment, and he’s professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex University.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

PETER HALLWARD: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, as you watch what has taken place, your book is extremely extensive about the history of Haiti. Can you put what has happened after the earthquake in this historical context?

PETER HALLWARD: Unfortunately, very easily, because the history of Haiti really, for the last — particularly the last twenty-five, thirty years — but, in a way, the history of the country really since independence, for the last two centuries — has been about maintaining the control of a small group of very wealthy, privileged people in partnership with their international backers. And the problem that they’ve faced has been how to maintain a situation, structured in terms of gross inequalities, particularly in terms of wealth, political power, this kind of thing, in the face of something like a democratic challenge, where if the poor majority, if the majority of Haitian people, who live on pennies a day, if they were able to form a political movement that could press for radical political and social changes, you know, how would you stop that? How would you contain the threats of that kind of mobilization?

And the main strategy has been to deflect political questions away from the political field itself and put them onto more like military terrain, where you can structure these questions in terms of security issues, crime, problems that basically not a political government but an army can solve. And that’s been the main driving thrust, I think, of the political situation in Haiti for the last — certainly for the last — since really since 1990, when Aristide was elected for the first time.

So what I think has happened with the earthquake is another phase in this general tendency towards turning Haiti into a kind of — a sort of police protectorate, really, where the key locus for political power is in the army or something like the army. In this case, the American army, the United Nations army, eventually perhaps a new version of the Haitian army, something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is the Haitian government in all of this?

PETER HALLWARD: Well, the Haitian government basically is the — does what it’s told, largely. So, I think it’s going too far to call it a protectorate, because there is still a thriving grassroots democratic tradition there. And when — with the last election in Haiti in 2006, there was a real mobilization of people to get René Préval, the current president, elected, very largely, I think, on the basis of the fact that he’s remembered as Aristide’s first prime minister. He was elected when Aristide stood down after his first election in 1996. And so, he’s someone who’s perceived — you know, if he’s widely called the “marassa d’Aristide,” the twin brother of Aristide, he’s seen as someone who is in that trajectory, the Lavalas movement, basically. And so, when he was — when he stood for office, late in the day, as it happens, in 2006, there was a real mobilization of people to get him elected and essentially to try and undo the coup that overthrew Aristide in 2004.

So there is a real popular — there is still a genuine grassroots democratic force in Haiti. The problem is that there’s a real disconnect between that grassroots mobilization and what the government itself can do. The government is very, very constrained. Their funding is dependent almost entirely on international support. There’s a lot of pressure around issues like keeping minimum wages low, adhering to neoliberal reforms, as they’re called, which essentially open the country up to international investment and have locked the country into a kind of systematic cycle of disempowerment and impoverishment.

And Préval has basically gone along with that. If you look at the things that he’s done in the last year, he vetoed a move to increase the minimum wage to $5 a day, so it’s locked down at $3 a day, roughly. He continued to push through a really disastrous privatization policy that’s, as we speak, is in the process of breaking up the phone company and selling that off. There’s pressure to sell off the last remaining public resources that Haiti has, the ports and other things. And he blocked the most popular political party in the country, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in elections last spring and that were —- another set of elections, more important elections, that were due to happen this month, which will be postponed now, of course. So he’s someone who has really cut himself off, in fact, really from the beginning, from anything like a mass-based popular mobilization. And as a result, I think he doesn’t have a great deal of support among at least ordinary people in Haiti now.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, I mean, the palace was seriously devastated.


AMY GOODMAN: And then, just driving along the roads in Port-au-Prince, one ministry after another just in rubble.

PETER HALLWARD: Yes. So, that, of course, that doesn’t help him. You know, that doesn’t help, of course. But -—

AMY GOODMAN: And many of the government officials killed.

PETER HALLWARD: Yes. And so, these — of course, that would cause very, very significant problems, no matter what the situation was.

But I think the more — in the longer term, at least, the more important fact is that the government was already very weak, largely because of international pressure, the pressure to cut public spending; to lay off public servants; to funnel all international investment, or at least the vast majority of it, into — not into state-based enterprises or state-based investment, things like a national health service or a national education system, that kind of thing, but instead into fragmented NGO-type projects that, in many ways, compete and sometimes replace what should be a public service, I think. So there’s been, systematically, a whole set of policies that have weakened the government, deprived it of any real capacity, for example, to collect anything like the tax revenue that it should, deprived it of a capacity to invest in the public services, even basic infrastructure like water, rubbish removal, that kind of thing.

These things have never happened, and they haven’t happened since the international community has been essentially ruling Haiti, more or less directly since 2004. You had this huge UN force there, you know, with a budget of $600-plus million a year, and they spent almost all of that money on military measures to maintain social control, political control, to pacify a population, basically, after a coup that overthrew one of the most popular governments in the world, a government that had been elected with 70, 75 percent of the vote, that was happy to organize a new set of elections with its opposition, and the international community and the small clique of unelectable political manipulators in Haiti refused to go along with this. And the result is a military solution to a political problem, having this huge UN force whose only real contribution has been to maintain a version of order in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peter Hallward. He is the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. We’ll come back to this conversation in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Peter Hallward. He is the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment.

When we were traveling through Port-au-Prince and on to Carrefour, Gressier, to Léogâne, after the earthquake, the word was coming down that the UN and US were not going to move out into what was really the epicenter of the quake until security was guaranteed, which we found shocking, because people were just covered in cement ash, scratching at the rubble, digging, trying to find their grandparents and their children and their neighbors. What about this issue of security?

PETER HALLWARD: It’s unbelievable. I mean, and your report that you filed from the hospital, you know, what was it now, ten, fifteen, more like two weeks ago, it was an incredible situation. Basically, anything that couldn’t be cordoned off behind a security perimeter was left to — was simply abandoned. People were simply left to die. So Carrefour, you know, very close to the epicenter, very poor neighborhood, as you know, packed with people, was basically just left to its own devices for — I don’t think any aid of virtually any description arrived for ten days after the earthquake. So, you know, very cynical, you know.

And this happened at every level. It happened in terms of where the rescue teams went. They went to a few places like the Montana Hotel, the Caribe supermarkets, the UN headquarters, where you had a secure perimeter, where mainly wealthy people were among the victims, and where you could work, you know, in a secure environment. And pretty much everywhere else was simply abandoned. And it happened with the hospitals. It happened with the distribution of aid. I mean, and, you know, also it happened in terms of what the international response was initially. Rather than send the help that was needed, they instead secured the airport. They sent thousands of troops, who basically did virtually nothing.

You have a situation where what is urgently required is to enlist Haitian people to distribute, you know, essential supplies — water, food and so on. Instead, you have thousands of Marines, hanging — you know, patrolling the city, with armed to the teeth, you know, for no purpose. It’s incredible. And it’s grounded in, unfortunately, in one of the fundamental structural tendencies of Haitian political life, particularly in last twenty-five years or so, when you’ve had a political mobilization of people that can only be solved, from the elite’s perspective, with military means.

And this goes right back to the history of Haiti, as, you know, it was established as a colony designed to extract a maximum amount of wealth from slave labor. And it was extremely successful at that. It was more profitable than the whole of the United States combined at the time of American independence.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

PETER HALLWARD: So, it was generating, you know, more than half — it was, by far, the largest supplier of coffee, sugar, you know, the big commodities at the time, also hardwoods, various other things. And it generated more revenue for France in the 1780s than all of the North American colonies combined. So it was really an extraordinarily lucrative, very concentrated wealth generator in the eighteenth century.

And it worked because you had a very brutal system of exploitation. Five — about five — almost half-a-million slaves, a very small number of white plantation owners, a few people in the middle. And this system worked to extract just vast amounts of profits. It was really exceptionally brutal by — even by colonial standards. It meant — the death rate was so high that by the time the Haitian slaves rose up against the system in 1791, most of the slaves that participated in that rebellion were born in Africa. You know, they never managed to create a system like they did in the southern United States, where the slave economy was self-replicating, where you could basically grow your own slaves locally. And this meant that the original security problem in Haiti, the plantation system, where you maintain order by, you know, simply massive, brutal levels of violence, had to be redesigned after the revolution, because the revolution was successful and the people who won that revolution were determined to avoid a return to the plantation system.

So in Haiti, really unlike most other places in the world, certainly among like most of Latin America, the tendency towards the concentration of big farms and the expropriation of small holdings and of peasant farms didn’t really happen in Haiti, which meant that small farmers were able to hold onto their farms, resisted tendencies that pushed them — that would have pushed them in other places into slums in the cities, where they would have been exploited, basically, in factories and so on. That happened much later in Haiti, and it only happened to a relatively limited extent.

So you then have to look at, well, how did that — and basically, in the twentieth century, there have been a couple of key episodes that allowed that process to accelerate a little bit and generated new security problems.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to interrupt, because we’ve reached Kim Ives in Haiti. Kim Ives is a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté. He’s joining us on the line from Port-au-Prince.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Kim. You’re returning now for the second time after the earthquake. What have you found?

KIM IVES: Well, things have changed a lot since we were here, Amy. There is the massive — the massive destruction that we saw, but it has begun to be cleaned up. It’s a real testament to the resilience of people.

The vultures are arriving, however. They are mostly in the form of security forces who are driving around with the mainstream media, with [inaudible] construction companies from the US, which are looking to set up.

I’m getting tremendous feedback. I’m not sure if there’s anything that can be done to resolve it, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re trying to fix it, to turn off the feedback back to Kim. But Kim, just keep talking. We’ll try to do this as long as we can. It’s been almost impossible to reach you this morning. We can hear you pretty well.

KIM IVES: I know. That’s the — OK, very good. I’ll do my best. That’s the problem here, is a lot of the infrastructure is not in place. The phones are still spotty and difficult.

But I should just say, Amy, that the horrors continue, as yesterday out at Saint Gerard in the Carrefour-Feuilles area, there was a tremendous hole in the ground where they buried 240 people. It’s not covered. The stench coming from it is tremendous. A young boy at Saint Gerard explained how the school had fallen down on his classmates, killing forty of them. And the University of Saint Gerard across the street had fallen, killing 200 students. It’s a horror.

And at the same time, the people are returning to commerce. Restaurants are opening, and airlines have started to fly again. Electricity is back on. People are trying to survive, Amy, through scavenging, mostly. You see the National Council of Equipment is distributing lots of sites, mostly schools, is what they’re starting with. You see people all over trying to get the rebar, aluminum. Copper wire is particularly prized; that sells for a dollar a pound. The aluminum sells for about seven cents a pound. So you can see — yet when we were out two days ago watching the TeleCo building being raised, the TeleCo security people came out, began to chase away the scavengers with guns, whipping them, beating them. It was a very tense scene. Nobody was shot.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim, we’re having — Kim, we’re having trouble understanding you. Kim, if you could go as close as you can to the microphone on your computer. We haven’t been able to reach you by cell phone or any other way, and we’re trying this by audio Skype, but you’re coming in and out. Maybe if you go as close as you can to the computer microphone. Kim?

KIM IVES: OK, well, I’ve got the mike right to my face now. Can you hear me OK now?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, a little better.

KIM IVES: I think it’s the [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: No, that was —-

KIM IVES: I think it’s the internet, which has -— again, is very — which is very [inaudible]. In any case, the other element you should be aware of is the response of the population, the hostility of the population [inaudible] NGOs which have come here. You see graffiti everywhere [inaudible] their presence in the country [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: Kim, we’re going to have to try this tomorrow, because it’s just not audible enough. We sometimes hear you, and we sometimes don’t. But what we do hear is very interesting. We’re going to try to get complete sentences out tomorrow. Kim Ives is a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté, joining us online from Port-au-Prince. Very difficult still to get through.

We’re also joined by Peter Hallward. His book is called Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. He talked about the vultures. He talked about contractors that are now coming in, this whole issue of who develops Haiti, and going back to what you were saying about how -— the riches that Haiti brought to France. And interestingly, that’s what increasingly depleted Haiti right through World War II. The Haitians, after declaring a republic in 1804, ultimately they agreed to pay reparations —-

PETER HALLWARD: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- to Haiti — to France.

PETER HALLWARD: Well, “agreed” is one way of putting it. The French sent their entire Atlantic fleet and put it outside Port-au-Prince, guns ready, and said, basically, “Pay up or face the consequences.” And what were — what did Haiti — what choice does he have?

And in the war of independence, one of the most extraordinary national liberation struggles ever fought, lasted for thirteen years, and it ends in the end of 1803, kills a third of the population, destroys the entire country. All the cities are destroyed, the plantations wrecked. And the country is then locked in this quarantine, not able to trade. It’s not able to generate any revenue that would allow it to rebuild. The little resources that it does have, it spends on building fortifications to block the French from returning. And twenty years of this, and the Haitian government is prepared finally to sign an agreement to pay a huge amount of money, I mean, three — more than three times, around three times the amount of money that France charged the United States when it sold Louisiana in 1803, as reparations for themselves, basically.

It’s reparations for lost — for the lost colonial and slave property to France. And yes, the money — the simple interest payments on this French debt by the end of the nineteenth century was consuming the bulk of the Haitian budget, about 80 percent of the Haitian budget. And these payments went on, as you said, until 1947.

So, that alone —- I mean, when we talk about Haitian debt, the crucial debt is the debt that is owed to Haiti. And this is a point Aristide always made. He made it in his early speeches in the 1980s. He made it in his speeches as president in the early ’90s. And then he said it again, very emphatically, in the run-up to the bicentenary of Haitian independence in 2004, that France should pay this money back and that the United States should pay some of the money that it owes Haiti. After it took over the bank, when it occupied the country in 1915, it expropriated land from tens of thousands of peasants. It ravaged the economy for twenty years. It did the same again in different ways more recently, by contributing to these two disastrous coups, in 1991 and again in 2004.

So the debt that France and the United States and Canada also owes Haiti is immense. It would be billions and billions of dollars, not as charity, but simply debt. And Aristide had the temerity to demand this as head of state. It was a policy not by a kind of fringy NGO that can make, you know, idealistic speeches and demands, but of a well-documented, serious demand by a head of state to another sovereign power that was very, very uncomfortable. France was clearly rattled by this. Chirac said, you know, “The Haitian president should consider the implications of what he’s saying more carefully.” And it’s very clear, I think, that this demand was one of the key factors that led to the French involvement in the coup in 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: And the coup in 2004, the United States and France pushing Aristide and Mildred Aristide, the First Lady of Haiti, out of Haiti on a US military jet -—

PETER HALLWARD: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — to the Central African Republic.

PETER HALLWARD: That’s right, in the middle of the night. So here’s a scenario where the government is elected with 70 to 75 percent of the vote, has a massive majority in Parliament, seventy-two out of eighty-three seats in Parliament, has all but one seat in the Senate. Aristide has disbanded the army at this point, which had been traditionally the mechanism of control, which had overthrown his government back in 1991. So you have a situation here for the first time where you have a popular movement that’s still relatively strong, despite all the violence that it had survived in the mid- and early ’90s. It has a popular president. It has clear leadership. It has a clear program. It has a massive majority in Parliament. There’s no extra-political military mechanism waiting to overthrow it. And it’s at that point that this massive international campaign starts to destabilize the government, to misrepresent it, to starve it of funds, to push it into the corner that eventually, as you say, leads to this coup d’état at the end of February 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: What would it mean now if Aristide were to return? He has said he wants to return from South Africa. The reports are he almost — it’s almost as if he was in Bangi. While it’s a friendly government, that the pressure is on for him to stay there.

PETER HALLWARD: Well, clearly. He’s been — he said this — he’s been saying this for five years or six years virtually now, that he’s ready to come back. And it’s — the first thing it would do, it would establish some continuity. So we’ve heard any number of calls for “let’s make a new start,” you know, a new Haiti, etc. This is not very helpful, I think. It’s not what people want. What people want is some continuity with its remarkable political mobilization that has had the courage to face off and, in fact, overcome military pressure.

You know, this is a popular movement that began in an uprising against the Duvalier dictatorship, that was strong enough to overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship and, in particular, to uproot, as they put it, the Macoutes, the paramilitaries that had controlled that country for decades, powerful enough to overcome that then in 1986, ’87, powerful enough then to overcome the army directly when it tried to run the country. And the crucial thing for many people in Haiti is to maintain a kind of continuity with that tradition and to remobilize it, to reengage those — you know, that legacy of hope and perseverance and courage.

Aristide represents that, fundamentally. He’s the spokesperson for that movement, for that moment in Haitian history. So, for him to return, I think, would be, first of all, a kind of an acknowledgement that this has indeed been the fundamental fact of Haitian political life in the last thirty years and that this is what has to be the priority, is to empower and enable Haitian people with their own leadership and their own priorities to set the agenda and to force the international community to do what it is told, rather than the opposite. So, Aristide’s return would be to return the most forceful, the most inspiring, the most powerful voice in Haitian politics where it belongs, back where he belongs, not to run the country, not to be the savior who comes with all the solutions, but to be the someone who can be a spokesperson for popular empowerment. That’s what I think it would represent.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think it would take for him to return?

PETER HALLWARD: A little bit of political will. A little bit of — I mean, one phone call is what it would take. The thing is, what would it force — what would it require to force that? And what that would require, unfortunately, is a massive amount of effort from people like you and me and the people in the countries, particularly the United States, Canada —-

AMY GOODMAN: Is it more important what’s on the ground in Haiti?

PETER HALLWARD: Yeah, it is, but -— of course, it is. The crucial thing is the — I think, to facilitate something like a genuine collective mobilization. But Aristide has his place in that. He’s one of many people who could contribute to that. But he is the most important person, I think, the one who has the highest profile, the person who is — who was able, has been able to do this time and time again, to find the right words to say what has to be said. This is what people appreciate about him, and to do it in ways that are not deferential. You know, one of the things that people appreciate him is that he stood up to pressure and that he stood up for people’s right to confront military pressure, for example, and to defend themselves. So he’s been a very articulate spokesman for that, for justice and for empowerment. So he’s important because of that, not because of he’s an individual, he would come and have all the solutions [inaudible]. I’m sure he’d be the first to say that’s not the case.

But that the empowerment of Haitian people, as a whole, and in meaningful ways, not in the kind of trivial ways that everyone will say, it has to be driven by the Haitian people. What does that actually mean concretely? And I think, concretely, in terms of organization, in terms of having something like a program for national change, it’s been Fanmi Lavalas, the mobilization around Fanmi Lavalas, that has been the most important development in Haitian politics since the mid-‘90s. So, to maintain a kind of continuity with that, to allow it to go forward, to allow the organization to reestablish itself, to reorganize itself — it suffered a great deal, you know, under the pressure of the last six years, in particular — would be a very important way forward. It’s simply allowing the Haitian people to use the resources that they’ve got, rather than maintaining them in a sort of state of passive, deferential docility.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Peter Hallward, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Damming the Flood is the name of his book, Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment.

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