[14 June 2007]
I saw things that people are never supposed to see, that are just inhuman—bodies that you just see. I mean, their daily life is to walk by a body being eaten by a dog because it was killed the night before. It is a setback that is multiple decades backwards. Everything is broken and everybody knows it. -Thomas Griffin
The world is in a state of crisis. Perhaps this is always the case. And because crisis is a seemingly permanent state, we find ourselves oblivious to much of what goes on around us. We limp from tragedy to tragedy in our personal lives, in the lives of our communities, and on the world stage. The sheer volume, the constant and overwhelming flood of information (and disinformation) concerning these tragedies perforce makes us blind to a large portion of the suffering that is actually taking place in the world.
At the moment, on the international stage, the denizens of the world are so obsessed with the developments (or lack of developments) in Iraq and the abominable conditions in Darfur (the latter even earning recognition on American Idol, thus cementing its status as a visible cause) that we are able to ignore countless other areas in the world that require our attention. For all of the hopes surrounding the notion of a “global village”, there are surprising gaps in our awareness. In our efforts toward globalization (with all of its various implications and contradictions), there remain countries that find themselves the victims of those efforts and the key to that victimization lies in a long history of structural neglect, abuse, distrust, and indeed racism.
Haiti is but one haunting example of the costs incurred by the continuing development of the world powers; Haiti is an object lesson in the current process of globalization, which requires that the advancement of some cultures comes at the expense of the basic human rights of another.
Photo from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
What is remarkable about Nicolas Rossier’s 2005 documentary, Aristide and the Endless Revolution, is that it makes this object lesson so clear. Although the overall slant of the film seems to be pro-Aristide, there are enough critical voices included here to afford the viewer a balanced view without capitulating to an illusory appearance of objectivity. True objectivity concerning an ongoing problem illuminated through such recent events as Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s 2004 ouster from his presidency simply is impossible. So many of the “facts” here are intangible and therefore easily manipulated that the mere act of sifting through them and presenting them in a coherent manner requires taking a position, thereby eschewing the vaunted objectivity ideally sought in the work of a documentary filmmaker. In other words, there is no solid, “objective” ground on which to stand. All presentation is, by its very nature, interpretation. Rossier, however, allows conflicting voices to present their understanding of the facts and thus emphasizes the very real consequences of ideological struggles.
The fascinating thing about this particular documentary is that, despite its ostensible subject (the eponymous deposed president), the film engages the more important and pressing issues that underlie Aristide’s presidency and his removal; that is, it engages the structural position of Haiti within the world economic and political structures (with all of their rich historical baggage) to reveal this small country’s peculiar and largely tacit role within the everyday lives of the citizens of the world powers. Here Aristide emerges as an effect of the larger problems that plague Haiti. He might be integral to the solution of those problems or he might simply have furthered them, depending on who is speaking to the camera at any particular moment within the film, but the documentary consistently utilizes Aristide as a prism through which to glimpse the horrifying contradictions and turbulences that suffuse Haitian society.
Haiti’s troubles are deeply rooted in its history. Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (the western third of which comprises modern Haiti) in December 1492, claiming the territory for Spain and establishing a small Spanish colony. When the native population began to die off owing to disease and abuse, the Spaniards imported African slaves to continue the quest for gold. Over the course of the 16th century, Spain lost interest in Hispaniola. France declared ownership of the western portion of the island in 1664 and it quickly became one of the world’s richest colonies through the exportation of coffee and sugar.
August 1791 saw the beginning of a slave rebellion in the north that quickly spread throughout Haiti, coming under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. After a protracted series of struggles with France, Haiti officially declared its independence on New Year’s Day 1804, making this country the fruit of the only successful slave rebellion in world history. It was a dangerous precedent and from the beginning, Haiti was held at arm’s length by other nations (including the United States, fearing similar rebellions within the slave populations of its southern states).
Furthermore, in 1833, France refused to recognize Haiti’s independence and threatened to reassert its control over the small country. It thereby extorted a payment of 150 million francs from Haiti; this payment plummeted Haiti into severe debt, devastated the economy, and is at least partly responsible for the continuing poverty of the majority of the nation’s citizens.
During the 19th century, Haiti was controlled by a succession of rulers until the United States began its occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The US imposed a constitution on the country, thus centralizing power, but it also placed severe pressures on Haiti’s already fragile economy. Groups of guerillas mounted attacks against the US-controlled government and, in response, a standing army was created. Unfortunately, the hostilities between guerilla groups and the army have plagued the remainder of Haiti’s history, with both sides committing acts of depredation against the impoverished civilian population.
From 1946 to 1986, Haiti found itself under the thumb first of Dr. Francois Duvalier and then of his son. Mired in corruption and human rights violations, the Duvalier regime finally collapsed beneath a popular uprising. Now the various factions of Haiti erupted, opening the way to unimaginable strife and violence. The United Nations helped to arrange for a popular election in ‘90. The United States put millions of dollars behind their preferred candidate, former World Bank official Marc Bazin. But out of the turmoil rose the immensely popular candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest whose calls for social reform found great sympathy among the poor of the many slums. Aristide won the election with 67 percent of the vote, becoming the first democratically elected president of Haiti (or the second depending on the authority cited).
Shortly thereafter, a coup d’etat carried out by the Haitian army deposed Aristide who went into exile in the United States. He was finally returned to power in 1994 and disbanded the army (a popular move that may have been a fatal mistake). He was then succeeded by his former secretary of state, René Préval (according to the Haitian constitution, a president may not serve consecutive terms). Aristide ran again in 2001 and again was swept into office, this time with over 90 percent of the vote. In February of 2004, violence once again ripped through Haiti and on the 29th of that month, Aristide left the country, escorted by US Marines. The United States Government claimed that Aristide resigned of his own accord. Aristide insists that he was kidnapped.
Why should a president as overwhelmingly popular with his people be deposed twice within the space of 15 years? Why should the United States want to prevent a man from governing as the result of a democratic process? The problem was that, for many of the members of Haiti’s wealthy elite and foreign interests (including but not limited to the United States), the wrong people voted. Many US corporations (Disney and Walmart are mentioned in the film) rely upon manual labor conducted in Haiti where workers earn less than 50 cents a day. The Haitian elite depends upon such wage-slavery in order to maintain its affluence. The minimum wage was 38 cents a day and there are many citizens without work at all.
Aristide offered the poor hope—not for wealth, but merely for a more dignified form of poverty. He wanted to raise the minimum wage to a dollar a day, to establish a literacy program, and (most controversially) to convince France to pay back the 150 million francs they extorted from Haiti (now valued at over 21 billion dollars). The foreign powers responded in 2000 to Aristide’s government by withdrawing all financial aid, thereby creating a full-scale economic embargo. To make matters worse, the Inter-American Development Bank (IBD) offered Haiti several hundred million in loans but withheld disbursement and then attempted to force Haiti to pay interest on the sums they never received.
But the root of the problem was not simply Aristide’s calls for reform. Rather it was the idea that the dispossessed poor were to be empowered through popular suffrage. The elite and the Haitian bourgeoisie were not uncomfortable with the notion of democracy, but rather with its real-world results. They claimed that they feared that Aristide was manipulating the masses. However, it is not clear that such was the case at all. Indeed, Aristide seems to have worked in good faith to rectify the perceived irregularities in the senatorial elections that troubled his critics. The root of the problem is a simple one. When a country has a structural history of inequality, when the rich minority lives parasitically upon the dispossessed poor, it is only natural that this minority should perceive the masses as easily manipulated and incapable of the rational decision-making processes upon which democratic government ostensibly depends. One man’s faith is another’s misguided ideology.
This is not to say that Aristide was necessarily the right person to occupy the presidency of such a troubled country. This issue is explored further in the extras included with the film. The DVD includes a text interview (within the DVD-ROM menu) with economist Alex Dupuy and another with the directory of the film. There is a helpful timeline of Haitian history, placing the events depicted in the documentary within the larger scope of Haiti’s historical dilemma. However, the extra most worthy of attention is the filmed interview with Aristide himself. This was the first interview Aristide gave after his 2004 departure from Haiti. It is a revealing document.
As the interview demonstrates, Aristide is a charismatic speaker but he relies upon such vague assertions and so many appeals to conspiracy (without seeming to have a clear understanding of what actually took place) that one cannot help but question his ability as a leader. He is given to a rather simplistic notion of government and politics, presents slogans in the place of thought, and seems to have little understanding of what his office demands. In this, he is perhaps no different from a great many other politicians and holders of power in other countries throughout the world (including, I fear, my own—the United States).
However, he was not the president of one of these countries but rather the president of Haiti, a country occupying a precarious historical and political position that demands more than the catchphrases bandied about by the common run of politician. His critics may be correct in their assertions that he was the wrong man for the job but they are wrong to think that the transition to true democracy can be anything but a complex upheaval. A country does not simply lift itself out of the mire of so much corruption and deprivation and murder simply through one popular election.
The real crime is not the removal of Aristide, but rather the removal of power from the tenuous grasp of the population of Haiti. Democracy is a messy affair. It will take Haiti decades (maybe centuries) to pull itself out of its historical position of world victim. Such a reversal of the country’s fortunes will require the utmost assistance from the international community. The people of Haiti deserve as much.