Yesterday the people of Haiti, among the poorest in the world, witnessed the start of a high-profile visit by former US president Bill Clinton and UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon. It is billed as an attempt to turn round the island’s fortunes. The population could do with more than celebrity visits, however.
Tropical hurricanes last year left nearly 800 people dead and caused damage estimated at $1 billion. Several UN appeals for $108bn in humanitarian assistance fell on deaf ears. Tensions are running especially high as February 29 was the fifth anniversary of a CIA-sponsored coup against former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
Aristide, a slum priest, won a landslide victory in the 1990 Haitian presidential elections, in defiance of death squads and military coups. Dr Paul Farmer, a renowned infectious disease expert at Harvard Medical School who is accompanying Clinton, has outlined the story of how the United States and France undermined Aristide after his election.
Despite efforts by the United Nations forces to discourage Haitians from commemorating Aristide’s forced eviction, the Lavalas movement founded by the former president organised a demonstration of up to 10,000 people. Mass arrests of young males were carried out in neighbourhoods where support for Lavalas remains strong. The September 30 Foundation organised a major contingent plus protests around the world to demand the return of Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, a Haitian human rights activist who disappeared in 2007.
Last week university students barricaded themselves inside a building and clashed with police and UN peacekeepers demanding an improved curriculum. And, ahead of Clinton and Ban Ki-moon’s visit, a Brussels-based conflict watchdog, Crisis Group, warned that urgent support amounting to £3 billion was needed. The UN security council is to visit the island as soon as the two leaders depart.
Haiti’s closeness to the Guantanamo base in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola, makes it a strategically sensitive place. The island’s unique history makes it a powder keg within the Caribbean. It was the first island in the Caribbean to gain independence from its colonial masters which it did in 1804 as a result of a slave rebellion headed by the legendary Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines’ forces defeated 30,000 French troops sent by Napoleon Bonaparte and abolished slavery.
Haitians have invested hope in Clinton’s visit because the former president ordered a US military-led intervention in 1994 to bring back Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But the 9,000 strong United Nations mission, the fifth on the island since 1993, has come under strong criticism from Haitian campaigners such as the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network. Accusations of brutality and even rape abound on independent websites such as Upping the Anti.
In past decades, the United States, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank insisted that in exchange for badly needed loans, Haiti should open its economy to global competition. This saw a country that once exported rice and sugar become a net importer, as Haitian farmers could not match the prices of a subsidy-supported US rice producers. Whether the election of Obama makes a difference to Haitians remains to be seen.
A World to Win secretary