The Subtlest Cut

It’s difficult to know how to react to this rather strange piece of writing that appeared in a recent issue of Time magazine. Written by the photojournalist James Nacthwey, and titled Haiti: Out of the Ruins, it is a remarkable exercise in historical amnesia and imperial erasure. Nacthwey, a man who has a long history white-washing American wars and violence, claims that: 

They [the Haitians] continue to endure their history — a crescendo of privation and hardship, matched by strength, pride and dignity. Their nation was born in the conquest of slavery; it has been shaped by poverty, struggle and faith.

No, not quite.

Even a cursory study of modern Haitian history reveals the heavy and frequently racist hand of America in Haitian history. Their deprivations are not divine retribution or ill luck, but in fact manufactured by over a hundred years of American machination and intervention in Haitian politics, economics and society. We Americans remain afraid of confronting our role in the pathology that is Haiti, and our assiduous efforts to undermine the nation, and in particular, its recent democratic experiments under the leadership of Jean-Bertrande Aristide.

Many have forgotten, and certainly no news organizations has reminded us, that democratically elected Jean-Bertrande Aristide was forcibly removed from power as recently as 2004 and sent into exile. The mercenaries that many in the USA celebrated as ‘liberators’ were likely trained and armed by the USA and possibly with the support and collaboration of France. But these questions remain unasked and certainly unanswered.

James Nachtwey’s piece joins this convention on erasing our presence, influence, and manipulation of Haitian society, politics and its economy. Paul Farmer has spent decade working in Haiti, and penned a piece in the London Review of Books soon after Aristide’s recent removal. Titled Who Removed Aristide Farmer not only gave us a quick lesson on America’s deep engagement, entanglement with Haiti, but also asked some difficult questions about America’s role in Aristide’s overthrow.

Far from being a history, as Mr. Nacthwey seems to believe, that has been shaped by poverty, struggle and faith (can there be a better collection of cliché’s about Haiti?), the Haitian have had to deal with the all powerful presence of a callous neighbor, as Paul Farmer tells us:

By the late 19th century, the United States had eclipsed France as a force in Haitian affairs. A US military occupation (1915-34) brought back corvée labour and introduced bombing from the air, while officials in Washington created the institutions that Haitians would have to live with: the army, above all, which now claims to have the country ‘in its hands’, was created by an act of the US Congress. Demobilised by Aristide in 1995, it never knew a non-Haitian enemy. It had plenty of internal enemies, however. Military-backed governments, dictatorships, chronic instability, repression, the heavy hand of Washington over all: this state of affairs continued throughout the 20th century.

But we would not know this from the Time magazine piece, which in the grand tradition of American populist journalism, attempts to reduce other nations to ‘natural’ pathologies for which we, Americans, our NGOs, and in particular our benign military are a force of divinely sanctioned goodwill. Mr. Nachtwey’s piece speaks in near biblical awe of the presence of so many ‘concerned’ and righteous aid organizations that have now descended onto the country:

The earth shrugged, Haiti collapsed, and the world responded. “Compassion fatigue” was exposed as the straw man of cynics and ad salesmen. Epic catastrophe was met with epic generosity, without benefit of untapped oil reserves or geopolitical gain.

The sheer selflessness of the world is quite remarkable to see. Our role and posture in Haiti has been reduced to that of ‘angels of mercy’ with a carefully constructed ignorance of other ‘angels’ that we have sent down there in the past. I once again quote from Paul Farmer’s piece:

Among those released by the rebels (in 2004) is the former general Prosper Avril, a leader of the notorious Presidential Guard under both Duvaliers. Avril seized power in September 1988, and was deposed in March 1990. A US District Court found that his regime engaged in a ‘systematic pattern of egregious human rights abuses’. It also found him personally responsible for enough ‘torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ to award six of his victims a total of $41 million in compensation.

The US started protecting Avril shortly after the 1994 restitution of Aristide. In November that year, the then secretary of state, Warren Christopher, relayed to the US ambassador intelligence reports that the Red Star Organisation, under Avril’s leadership, was planning a ‘harassment and assassination campaign directed at . . . Aristide supporters’. This information was not passed on to the Haitian authorities. In December, the Haitian police, acting on their own information, sought to arrest Avril at his home. Immediately after the police arrived, US soldiers turned up and tried to dissuade them from making the arrest.

The rebel leader Guy Philippe received training, during the last coup, at a US military facility in Ecuador. When the army was demobilised, Philippe was incorporated into the new police force, serving as police chief in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas and in the second city, Cap-Haïtien. During his tenure, the UN International Civilian Mission learned, dozens of suspected gang members were summarily executed, most of them by police under the command of Philippe’s deputy.

Philippe fled Haiti in October 2000, when the authorities discovered him plotting a coup with a clique of fellow police chiefs. Since then, the Haitian government has accused him of masterminding terrorist attacks in July and December 2001, as well as lethal hit-and-run raids against police stations on Haiti’s central plateau. Last month (March 2004), Philippe’s men bragged to the US press that they had executed Aristide supporters in Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince, and many have indeed been reported missing.

In fact, these extra-judicial executions of Aristide’s supporters was the subject of a story that writer Malcom Garcia and I did in 2005. He described our experiences in a piece for The Virginia Quarterly Review called Descent Into Haiti.

Mesnal Delarge's sister reacts after seeing the body of her brother who was shot and killed while marching in a pro-Aristide rally in Port au Prince.  The Haitian National Police has frequently fired upon peaceful demonstrators, often right in front of MINUSTAH (UN Forces in Haiti) troops

Mesnal Delarge’s sister reacts after seeing the body of her brother who was shot and killed while marching in a pro-Aristide rally in Port au Prince. The Haitian National Police has frequently fired upon peaceful demonstrators, often right in front of MINUSTAH (UN Forces in Haiti) troops. Copyright Asim Rafiqui 2005

Despite spending over a month working from inside the slums of Cite Soleil and Bel Air, we failed to find an American magazine prepared to publish our work. This despite providing reports from Harvard Law School & Global Justice Center (2004) and the University of Miami School of Law Haiti Human Rights Reports (2004 & 2006) that corroborated our experiences. Time magazine not only rejected my work, stating that they were not really focusing on Haiti at the moment,but just a few weeks later sent a photographer to Haiti who embedded with the UN troops and provided a from-behind-the-helmets view of what was happening in the country.

Brazilian UN soldiers patrol the streets of the dangerous Cite Militaire neighborhood with a local informant masked to protect his identity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dec. 28, 2005. This dangerous neighborhood is controlled by armed gangs.  Photo by: Antonin Kratochvil / VII

Brazilian UN soldiers patrol the streets of the dangerous Cite Militaire neighborhood with a local informant masked to protect his identity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dec. 28, 2005. This dangerous neighborhood is controlled by armed gangs. Photo by: Antonin Kratochvil / VII

And no, his work or his capabilities within the country were not better than mine. I just had the ‘wrong’ side of the story.

Behind our tears, our beautiful words and our moving tributes to ourselves and our generosity, hides a terrible reality that speaks to our involvement and entanglement with this troubled nation. Pieces such as this one in Time magazine remind me that we are still not prepared to see ourselves with an eye that is engaged, honest, critical and difficult. We are still unable to get past a near infantile idealization of ourselves and our role in the worlds we step forward to conquer, dominate and control. This is not about accusations, about ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, but about a critical completion of history and facts, and a courageous acknowledgment of our role in the lives of others and their role in the privileges that we enjoy and celebrate.

An American who is not afraid of such a critical eye is Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. A review of their reports will reveal the situation in the country under the tutelage our allies. In a recent article he pointed out that:

First of all, Haiti is poor and impoverished because of a long history of U.S. domination and oppression. U.S. Marines invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934. The U.S. seized land and distributed it to American corporations. And the heroic resistance that arose against the U.S. was brutally crushed. Starting in 1957 the U.S. propped up the pro-U.S. dictatorial Duvalier governments—first Papa and then Baby Doc—and the murderous Haitian military, along with the Tontons Macoute gangs that terrorized the people. After popular uprisings ousted these dictators the U.S. maneuvered and intervened—opposing any forces that threatened U.S. interests and working to keep a puppet government in power. In 2004, the U.S. was directly involved in overthrowing the popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (See “The U.S. in Haiti: A Century of Domination and Misery.”) Through all this, the economic and social structures of Haiti have been distorted and geared toward serving the needs of foreign, especially U.S., investments. All this is why Haiti is so poor and dependent.

Beautiful words, soft and lulling niceties, cannot and should not mask history particularly if we are committed to changing things for the better and avoiding the horrors that we inflict and those that we definitely do not want to have inflicted on us. There are many fine works on Haiti, on American and its deep relationship to this country, and about the subtle and overtly heavy handed ways the two nations have relied on each other and suffered because of each other. I list some of my favorites here. Perhaps Mr. Nachtwey can find a moment to read a few, for after all, as he himself argues in this piece:

As a photojournalist, I’ve been involved in documenting the history of the past 30 years, and much of my work has focused on wars, conflicts and social injustice. It’s been fueled by anger, driven by the belief that if people are informed, they will be inspired by compassion and will share a sense of outrage at violence, aggression and the unacceptable deprivation of fundamental human rights.

Knowledge, information, history and understanding indeed. But it will come not just from taking pictures during orgasmic moments of deprivation and suffering, but from a deep, critical and honest engagement with facts, histories, and political realities. It will come from facing our deepest fears of looking deep inside ourselves and realizing the darkness that resides there and the role we have had, as a super power, as an imperialist power, as the single most powerful economic and capitalist force in the region, in distorting the lives and futures of our neighbors. Peter Hallard helps us do just this in a recent piece in The New Statesman called The Land That Wouldn’t Lie where he points out that:

The decision taken by US and UN commanders in charge of the disaster relief effort, to prioritise military and security objectives over civilian-humanitarian ones, has already caused tens of thousands of preventable deaths. Plane after plane packed with essential emergency supplies was diverted away from the disaster zone, in order to allow for the build-up of a huge and entirely unnecessary US military force. Many thousands of people were left to die in the ruins of lower Port-au-Prince, while international rescue teams concentrated their efforts on a few locations (such as the Montana Hotel or the UN headquarters) that could also be enclosed within a “secure perimeter”.

These are not about accusations, but about intellectual and critical rigor and the truth. White washing our crimes, our engagement, our schemes and our very specific and targeted protection of geopolitical gains in Haiti, does not serve the interest of truth, and certainly does not serve the goal of stopping these crimes in the future.

So, in my own little humanitarian effort, here are some recommended readings:

Farmer, Paul Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights & The New War On The Poor

Farmer, Paul The Uses of Haiti

Wilentz, Amy The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier

Hallward, Peter Damning The Flood: Haiti, Aristide & The Politics of Containment

Readings more historical, taking us back to the moment of Haiti’s revolution and independence include:

James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

And of course, the absolutely brilliant set of historical novels by Madison Smartt-Bell, each of which is a tour-de-force of American writing

Smartt-Bell, Madison All Souls Rising

Smartt-Bell, Madison The Stone That The Builder Refused

Smartt-Bell, Madison Master Of The Cross Roads



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