Haitians are the poorest people in our own front pond and count among the most cruelly tried wretches in the world.
Canadians live in a country the United Nations rated for years as the best, most livable place in the world. And Americans, as they have told the world over and over again, dwell in God’s own country.
Canada’s and America’s claims to the goody-goody life are valid in large measure and the rest is revolting boast.
But Haiti’s presence in my compare-and-contrast triangle is justified in full bitter measure. Every word of it is true, provable — with evidence before our eyes if we are willing to notice as keenly as we should.
Washington sent the Marines in July 1915 to “re-establish peace and order,” the State Department said at the time, stressing that the invasion “had nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past and the future.”
At the same time, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the invasion commander, Admiral William Deville Bundy, to do whatever was necessary to “protect American and foreign interests.”
The duplicity was brazen, to put it mildly. But then Haiti had pressing political problems amidst murderous fights between bands of dirt-poor peasants, killing and looting for men competing for power among ruins left by six presidents in four years — between 1911 and the 1915 invasion day.
President Woodrow Wilson, the great advocate and practitioner of self-determination, ordered this act of gunboat diplomacy with American interest in mind. Of freedom, peace and order in Haiti, there was not a trace.
I owe this thumbnail sketch of background to Wikipedia and see it as helpful to understanding Haiti’s old political baggage. Haitians don’t trust foreigners in general and specifically Americans.
The tragedy is that as much calm as possible is needed now for the billions of dollars the U.S., Canada and France poured into Haiti to bear fruit. The catastrophic earthquake last year killed some 350,000 people and left most of the population roofless and dependent on luck and charity. Without calm, all the money and effort of Haitians themselves and international organizations will accomplish nothing.
In less than a month — March 20 — Haitians will vote in a run-off presidential election.
It was nothing short of a miracle that the election could be organized and conducted in a semblance of an acceptable manner. But Canadian, American, French and Organization of American States diplomats pulled off the supposedly impossible. The first round in the contest produced a tight result that put the outgoing president’s handpicked successor slightly behind.
If anybody had set out to stage a riskier situation, he or she could not have done better. Haitian politics is a bone-dry forest waiting for the lightning.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former self-created saviour of his country, had been president in the 1990s and wants to come back from exile in South Africa — the only country that was willing to take him in and keep him away from his homeland.
Aristide was helped by international support on his road from the church to Haiti’s presidential palace. Soon enough, though, all but the noisy fringe of professional activists — professional pests, in my vocabulary — turned away from the now-defrocked clergyman and a coup removed him from office.
Amid new international protests, the “democratically elected” Aristide was brought back to power. President Clinton made it happen in the most farcical operation ever staged by the American military.
Forgive me, but the story is too good to be left unrepeated. Bill Clinton assembled an invasion force of 25,000 backed up by two aircraft carriers. Mind you, before the armada, America’s commander-in-chief ordered a U.S. navy ship carrying UN-sanctioned RCMP officers and American Marines to sail away rather than face down a stick-wielding mob on the dock at Port-au-Prince.
Haiti had suffered years of Papa Doc Duvalier’s brutal rule, bad years more when his son, Baby Doc Duvalier, continued his father’s cruel oppression and murder. A military coup sent Baby Doc to a luxurious exile in France. It also suffered through Baby Doc’s equally rotten successors.
Then it survived the return of Aristide and his ouster.
The earthquake made the cup flow over. No people, no country, deserves what Haiti got. And only such political tranquillity as can be had will allow Haitians and international aid organizations to finally make an effective material and civic repair job. Aristide may have been democratically elected and dubiously turfed out. But let’s hope he stays away from Haiti — or is kept out.
Bogdan Kipling is a Canadian journalist in Washington.