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Don’t Blame Haiti’s Problems on the United States

The director of Media and Journalism at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute has written a frenetic Twitter rant against anyone who agrees with Donald Trump' alleged comments that places like Haiti are “sh*t-holes.” He says the very claim is racist, because people like Trump fundamentally believe “white people are better.”

Anti-capitalist Jonathan Katz, who is also a fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good, wrote in a series of tweets,

Lot of folks, from the alt-right to @RichLowry, think they’re making a great argument in the president’s defense tonight by noting that Haiti and El Salvador are, in fact, poor. But they’re just revealing their own racism. Here’s why:

In order to do a victory lap around the GDP difference between, say, Norway and Haiti, you have to know nothing about the history of the world. That includes, especially, knowing nothing real about the history of the United States.

You have to first of all understand nothing about the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. You have to not understand anything about the systematic theft of African bodies and lives. And you have to not understand how that theft built the wealth we have today in Europe and the US.

He goes on to say that because of Haiti’s foreign invasions, the cholera epidemic caused by the United Nations, and the exploitation of Haiti’s resources to enrich more developed nations like France, Haiti is poor and politically corrupt because of the actions and racism of the West.

In short, you’d have to know nothing about WHY Haiti is poor (or El Salvador in kind), and WHY the United States (and Norway) are wealthy. But far worse than that, you’d have to not even be interested in asking the question. And that’s where they really tell on themselves ...

Because what they are showing is that they ASSUME that Haiti is just naturally poor, that it’s an inherent state borne of the corruption of the people there, in all senses of the word. And let’s just say out loud why that is: It’s because Haitians are black.

Racists have needed Haiti to be poor since it was founded. They pushed for its poverty. They have celebrated its poverty. They have tried to profit from its poverty. They wanted it to be a shithole. And they still do.

If Haiti is a shithole, then they can say that black freedom and sovereignty are bad. They can hold it up as proof that white countries—and what’s whiter than Norway—are better, because white people are better. They wanted that in 1804, and in 1915, and they want it now.

Katz’s deranged view of why America needs to protect itself from an influx of people emigrating from underdeveloped countries is echoed by many throughout the media, as people insist on calling Trump a racist because of his alleged behind-closed-doors comment about the state of Haiti’s economy and politics.

Katz’s argument is that America is guilty for its past sins and therefore bears responsibility for Haiti’s present conditions. Somehow, according to Katz, America has become a prosperous nation, not on account of a complex web of contributions, including innovation and hard work, but by raping and pillaging third-world nations.

While no one will dispute the basic facts of Katz’s historical references regarding Haiti, we do dispute Katz’s “blame America for all the evils in the world” argument, and we dispute that Haiti is in the state it’s in today primarily because of past actions by the U.S. and European nations.

There are too many other examples of nations that have historically suffered invasions, slaughter, abuse, exploitation, slave trade, and near annihilation but have overcome to become stronger, better, and more prosperous. Just consider the history of Israel as one example.

What happened with Haiti? Maybe we can answer that without crying “racist” if we consider some facts Katz left out of his rant. These aren’t facts gathered by right-wing racists but by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2017 World Report.

Let’s first look at Haiti’s political crisis, which was “spurred by contested presidential elections in 2015,” leading “to a power vacuum at the head of state.”

President Michel Martelly’s term of office expired in February 2016, and the 120-day term of provisional President Jocelerme Privert expired in June, though he remained in office at time of writing. A new parliament took office in January 2016, after effectively shutting down in 2015, but continued protracted stalemates over presidential and remaining parliamentary elections hampered legislators’ ability to tackle pending priorities.

The crisis hindered the Haitian government’s ability to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve longstanding human rights problems, or address continuing humanitarian crises, even as a new crisis emerged. In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew, a devastating storm, hit Haiti’s southwest. President Privert estimated the losses surpassed the entire national budget and warned of an impending serious food crisis, driven by the loss of crops from the storm.

As of August, authorities had failed to assist many of the 61,000 individuals still living in displacement camps since the 2010 earthquake to resettle or return to their places of origin, and many continued to face environmental risks and the threat of forced evictions. An ongoing drought affecting much of the country pushed the number of people living with food insecurity to one-third of the population.

The government has been unstable since 2016, resulting in political volatility that has affected national finances and the rule of law.

Additionally, Haiti’s criminal justice system is despicable.

Haiti’s prison system remained severely overcrowded, with many inmates living in inhumane conditions. According to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, nearly all of the almost 11,000 inmates in Haiti’s national prison system have access to less than one square meter of space and most face 23 hours of confinement a day. Overcrowding is attributed to high numbers of arbitrary arrests and overuse of pretrial detention. According to Ban, more than 70 percent of suspects are held pending trial. Although the UN and international donors have supported several initiatives to reduce the percentage, it barely budged in 2016.

Illiteracy runs rampant with little change as money and other resources that are poured into the country are siphoned into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Approximately one in two Haitians age 15 and older is illiterate. The UN independent expert on Haiti said in 2015 that action to eradicate illiteracy is one of the top human rights priorities in Haiti.

More than 200,000 children remain out of primary school in the country. The quality of education is generally low, and 90 percent of schools are run by private entities that charge school fees that can be prohibitively expensive for low-income families.

Haiti has suffered past abuses at the hands of its own people.

The Human Rights Committee and the UN independent expert on Haiti have both called on Haiti to continue investigations into financial and human rights crimes allegedly committed during former President Jean-Claude Duvalier’s tenure as president from 1971 to 1986. They have called on Haiti to bring to justice all those responsible for serious human rights violations committed during Duvalier’s tenure. Allegations of violations include arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances, summary executions, and forced exile.

Violence against women has continued nearly unchecked in Haiti, because the country “does not have specific legislation [on] domestic violence, sexual harassment, or other forms of violence targeted at women.”

Rape is only criminalized according to a 2005 ministerial decree. In March, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women called on Haiti to expedite the adoption of a draft law on violence against women. The political crisis prevented progress towards consideration of the bill or a similarly pending criminal code reform that would address gaps in protection.

Children in domestic jobs are systematically abused as there are no labor laws to protect them.

Widespread use of child domestic workers—known as restavèk—continues. Restavèks, most of whom are girls, are sent from low-income households to live with wealthier families in the hope that they will be schooled and cared for in exchange for performing light chores. Though difficult to calculate, some estimates suggest that between 225,000 and 300,000 children work as restavèks. These children are often unpaid, denied education, and physically or sexually abused. Haiti’s labor code does not set a minimum age for work in domestic services, though the minimum age for work in industrial, agricultural, and commercial enterprises is 15. In March, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Haiti to criminalize the practice of placing children in domestic service.

 

Haiti has also suffered from its own immigration problem, mainly due to ongoing racism in its relations with the Dominican Republic — a cultural divide caused not only by difference in language but the color of skin. Haitians who had fled to the more prosperous Dominican Republic were sent back to Haiti in a massive deportation scheme by Dominican officials.

At least 135,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants working in the Dominican Republic reentered Haiti between July 2015 and August 2016, after Dominican officials deported more than 27,000 people and another 24,254 were deported without official documentation, others fled under pressure or threat. This occurred in accordance with a controversial 2015 regularization plan for foreigners in the Dominican Republic. Many deportations did not meet international standards and many people have been swept up in arbitrary, summary deportations without any sort of hearing.

Some of the poorest arrivals live in unofficial camps in the Anse a Pitres area, in harsh conditions with little or no access to basic services. Humanitarians relocated 580 families from these camps into housing in April and May 2016.

Despite efforts by the United Nations to help Haiti, an environment of squalor persists. Some might scoff at this since the United Nations likely played a role in accidently spreading cholera among refugee camps after the hurricane — something the UN has apologized for. A panel of experts from the UN found that a strain of cholera in Haiti was also discovered in Nepal. Peacekeepers from Nepal stayed in the UN camp where sewage from the camp washed into the waterways, and it’s assumed this is how the epidemic started.

Activists have sued the UN, and the United States has legally defended the UN due to its headquarters in New York. Because of this, activists have accused the United States of being complicit in the cholera epidemic that has devastated Haiti.

No doubt, Katz would look at the state of Haiti and its ongoing struggle and still blame history, as well as nations not doing enough to build a better democracy in Haiti or elevating the poor from the difficulties in which they’re living. But such blame-shifting only removes accountability and responsibility from the people themselves.

I am not going to excuse actions of the past or to say damage has not been done to a society by other countries during ruthless times. This is true not only for Haiti but for countries across the planet. Ultimately, though, every individual, every city, every nation must at some point take responsibility for themselves instead of perpetuating problems in the name of victimhood. They must look at the present and make changes for the future instead of pointing to the past.

Contrary to Katz’s hateful accusation of racism toward Haiti’s critics, the Haitians are poor not because of the color of their skin, but because a variety of other factors both within and outside their control. To call Trump a racist for his albeit coarse critique is manipulative, wrong, and counterproductive to finding real solutions to the current problems facing Haiti. It also distracts from legitimate concerns American citizens have about opening their home to immigrants from places plagued by such problems.