Peace and Justice

Haiti: reflections surrounding a coup d'etat

There will be books written about February, 2004, in Haiti; and more books to come about 200 years of Haitian history culminating in the coup d'etat on February 29, 2004. Following are some of many personal views about Haiti, all written in February, 2004 by Dick Bernard, about what Haiti means to US, as in we citizens of the U.S.A.

Haiti As Metaphor:
A message to the aristocracy, bourgeosie and gilded paysans (peasants) of the good old U.S.ofA.
written by Dick Bernard February 4, 2004

Night and Day could be an apt description of the differences between present day Haiti and the United States. On the other hand, Haiti could be the miner's canary - a warning of times ahead for we comfortable Americans,

When Christopher Columbus reached present day Haiti in 1492, he found a luxuriant land, full of tropical forest. A tropical paradise. Were he to land in Haiti today, he would find an essentially defoliated landscape, subject to inadequate rainfall, with a deeply impoverished people - the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It took 500 years to go from abundance to abject poverty. What went wrong? Who's responsible? What are the lessons to be learned? And how soon must we learn these lessons?

It was many years after 1492 before Europeans took an active interest in what was to become the United States and Canada: St. Augustine, Florida (1565); Jamestown Colony, Virginia, and Santa Fe. New Mexico (1607); Quebec City (1608); the Pilgrims at Plymouth MA (1620) were the first evidences of that interest.

In 1776, the fledgling United States declared its independence from England; in 1804, after years of slave revolts, Haiti declared its independence from France. It was about the same time, 1803, that France sold to the United States what was to be called the Louisiana Purchase, essentially doubling the size of the then United States. A few months later, in February, 1804, 200 years ago this month, Lewis and Clark were preparing to embark from the small Mississippi river town of St. Louis on their exploration of the west, wintering in 1804-1805 near present day Bismarck-Mandan, North Dakota.

The Indians helped Lewis and Clark "discover" the uncharted west; at the same time the expedition leaders claimed the land of these same Native Americans for the United States.

By 1804 the despoiling of tiny Haiti was well under way; in the immense and sparsely populated U.S. it had scarcely begun.

By the 1860s in the American west, the native buffalo were already becoming scarce. It was a miracle that a few were saved, avoiding extinction. A few years later, clear-cutting loggers deforested rich timber areas to build new houses for settlers - many of our older homes are "museums" made from these trees. Reforestation? We didn't consider that: there were plenty of big woods elsewhere. By the mid-1890s immense deposits of rich iron ore were being mined in northern Minnesota. By the late 1800s, hordes of settlers (including my grandparents on both sides) took up farming on the semi-arid steppes of mid-continent, enjoying prosperity until the dust bowl years of the 1930s. The dust bowl prompted the innovation of planting lines of trees, called shelter-belts, to slow down the wind and help prevent erosion. The plains are full of these now aging, and needing to be replaced trees.

Automobiles came on the scene about 1900, and by 1930 were ubiquitous. Oil production was domestic and adequate for the early years of the automobile in this country. Except for some oil fields in Iran, there was no such thing as foreign oil until the exploitation of vast oil deposits began in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s.

U.S. Domestic oil? Depleted. The best iron ore? Long gone. Natural wilderness? Not much thought, yet.

We can, I suppose, haughtily compare ourselves with our impoverished cousin, Haiti...but if we look into the Haitian eyes' of abject poverty and desolation, and take the time to consider our own reality, when we look at Haiti, we are looking at our own future...most certainly, the future of the generations coming after us. We - all of us, from low income to wealthy - are preparing the whirlwind result of unbridled prosperity. Perhaps that will be our Armageddon. Dick Bernard 2004 "They took all the trees
and put them in a tree museum
and they charged all the people
a dollar and a half just to see 'em
don't it always seem to go
that you don't know what you've got till it's gone
they paved paradise
and put up a parking lot."

Joni Mitchell
Big Yellow Taxi
1969 Siquomb Publishing Company BMI

"Some concluding notes on Haiti, Personally" posted Friday, February 27, 2004, 6:39 a.m.

I read with great interest yesterday (February 26) the official French position that Aristide must go. In my particular newspaper there was not a single word mentioning a possibly considerably less-than-pure reason for this French position. A little review of history seems in order: in 1825, 21 years after the slaves had wrested Haiti from their French overlords, the French demanded and got a huge amount of what amounted to protection money from Haiti. "It took Haiti close to 100 years to pay off the debt, at huge cost to its citizens. Haiti was unable to fund schools, health care, or infrastructure and the logging of its tropical forests was accelerated, setting the stage for the current deforestation process." Hidden from the Headlines1, page 15. About a year ago, April, 2003, the Aristide government asked the French to pay reparations to recover what amounted to extorted money, in today's value. It has not made the Frenchmen happy. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was a year ago, and is today, the person speaking for France on the issue of Haiti. Presumably with some other government installed in Port-au-Prince, such an embarrassment as the possibility of reparations could be made to quietly go away. (More at The big boys, as the U.S., the French and others are, do not take kindly to pipsqueaks like little Haiti making demands.

  1. There is an eerie "Iraq-ness" to the present U.S. coverage/positioning on Haiti/Aristide. A year ago this month was the most intense time in run-up to the bombing of Iraq, which began March 20, 2003. Remember the expressed certainty then, and earlier, expressed by people of great power and influence, in the highest and mightiest of places, about Saddam Hussein and Weapons of Mass Destruction, and compare that with the reality of Iraq twelve months later. Then think of Haiti and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as they are being portrayed today. There is no difference in the portrayal - a setup of a 'bad-guy' scenario is actively in play.
  2. In a perverse and very strange way, Jean-Bertrand Aristide is being portrayed to be the Saddam Hussein of Haiti. It has been decided by the powers that be that he must be 'assassinated' (removed). Of course, there are very major differences: things like Weapons of Mass Destruction or menacing Armies are not at issue in Haiti - Aristide's government eliminated the Army after the 1991-94 coup. In Haiti, something else has to be made into an issue.the manufactured issue(s) is(are) likely not the real issues, in my opinion. The real issue: the poor have no right to govern themselves or select representatives of their choice. They are the ones who twice have elected Aristide as President; and three times have kept his party, Lavalas, in power. They are a nuisance.

  3. Seemingly authoritative sources seem to be as untrustworthy as anyone as sources of 'facts' about the Haiti situation. Everyone with a vested interest in the outcome has a suspect agenda. Do I? You have to decide on thing I can say for certain: I haven't and won't receive any consideration, money, 'access,' or otherwise, from anyone, for the positions I'm taking. What I see happening is a humanitarian outrage. I feel a need to speak out, and I will.
  4. As in Iraq, with its famed 'embedded reporters,' the performance of the media with stories published from/about Haiti in the last two months has generally been disappointing, if not shameful. Sometimes I wish I had no background knowledge about the situation. (My learning about Haiti began about two years ago. Before two months ago, it was rare to see any news about Haiti. You'd have to go back to the time of the 'boat people" and the coup years over 10 years ago for news about Haiti.) I remember some years ago visiting the then-brand new "Newseum" in suburban Washington DC, and first seeing the phrase "News is the first rough draft of history." I don't believe that that phrase is current anymore. Far too many people seem to be writing, or selecting for publication, news as if it IS history or, even worse, 'truth.' I have had a lot of respect for journalists in the past. There are very few journalists I respect these days.they seem to come to conclusions first, and then build their story from the conclusion.
My own knowledge base, in addition to two years of interest in this topic fueled by my close friend Paul who's been there eight times, especially includes the trip to Haiti. Our trip to Haiti was a study trip, as opposed to a work trip. While in Haiti, as best as I can count, we had substantive conversations, often long ones, with at least 14 people, less than half who were white Americans. This does not count an extraordinarily powerful three hours listening to the stories of 24 victims of torture and abuse during the coup years (most who were leaders of support and advocacy groups for abuse victims); nor does it count the time we spent with desperately ill children at the Sisters of Charity Hospital. My guess is that every adult we talked with or heard on our trip considers themselves to be at risk today as the deposed rebels declare that they are moving on Port-au-Prince.

I have had the immense good fortune of having some writings about Haiti very widely disseminated, including to major Haiti listservs. These have resulted in the usual compliments and brickbats from readers, and have immensely increased my knowledge of the country and its culture.

I have experienced the sadly dubious joys of communication with government officials in the U.S.: This included a half hour phone call on January 30 FROM an aide in a U.S. Senators office - a call in response to an early January letter I had written, a call which I deeply appreciated. (I have yet to hear from my Congressman and second Senator, who received the same communication at the same time as the other). On January 10 I also made a request for specific information about U.S. Aid to Haiti, to the Haiti desk at the U.S. Department of State. I still do not have the information, though I did get a call from a person who turned out to be the person in charge of the Haiti desk, essentially (and very diplomatically) trying to talk me out of requesting the information. I will report. I have also developed an interest in the affairs of an American funded bunch called the International Republican Institute (IRI), and its financial and other ties to American Agency International Development (AID). To date, my communication has been simply by e-mails, which the IRI PR person responds to like Ari Fleischer and his successor Scott McLellan respond to reporters questions at the White House: escape and evasion. But I do plan to pursue this angle, since the chatter is that U.S. money has long been used to undercut Aristide. I suppose I could go the CIA route, but that would be dead-on-arrival as a request. Even Congress doesn't know where and how the CIA spends its bankroll.

Haiti is an excellent learning lab. Take some time to really learn more about it.