Historical Amnesia: Haiti and Media Presentation

Historical Amnesia: Haiti and Media Presentation

 The disaster of Haiti is well represented in Canadian media, with significant coverage in print and on television. MacLean’s magazine’s recent cover article photo is one of the very few that perhaps accidentally represents what is really happening in the news, in comparison to its usual sensational headlines. Unfortunately the article itself, while it covers the basics of the disaster and the feeble aid missions, misrepresents the country of Haiti and the historical background and context that is part of the overall disaster that is Haiti. [1] This is similar to most Canadian media.

Simply put the MacLean’s article is long on observational anecdotes, accompanied by brief out of context snippets of the political/cultural/economic situation within the country prior to the earthquake. The suggestions at the end on how to treat Haiti looking to the future are all too readily quotable without having much substance, and within that again, deny the significance of its history and how it could move forward from the here and now.

Media description

Not until the fifth page of the article and after many anecdotes do the authors describe Haiti as “Racked by poverty and insurrection at the best of times,” and now including the “utter absence of governmental authority.” No attempt is made to qualify the poverty and where and how it originated and the nature of “insurrection” is also never qualified.

Before the quake, the country suffered “intense poverty, poor construction standards, a lack of infrastructure, and social chaos”, a country with a “chequered existence, with leader after leader killed in office.” The previous US occupation (1915-34) ended with Haiti “thrown into a vortex of uprisings, instability and dictatorship that conspired to keep it the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.” Wow, it is all their own fault!

The article never asks why, yet the implication is that it is the Haitians’ own fault, that they are simply that way and have been so since “124 years after the beginning of the slave revolt.” Does no one ask why Haiti is so poor and full of disruption? The apparent truth, in my mind, is the original racism that the people of Haiti revolted against so many years ago. The republic has never escaped the yoke of the white man and the western world’s determination (and some of the local elite beholden to them) to keep Haiti an impoverished, subservient nation.

History as it should be told

Haiti began its present journey as a plantation slave state. After its successful revolt against its French overlords, the government struggled to succeed against the continuing imperial ambitions of Great Britain, France, Spain and the US. The French demanded reparations of 150 million francs, a demand supported by a larger slave state, the US, fearful of its own slaves trying to establish something similar. Haiti suffered under this forced indebtedness – it is difficult to imagine a successful revolution being forced to pay for itself – up until 1946.

This debt has compounded many times over the decades. The US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, an era in which US corporations exploited the people and the land for their own benefit, arguably benefiting the country because it improved the infrastructure, yet leaving it millions more in debt. The MacLean’s article identifies the “bloody and corrupt” rule of the Duvaliers, including the “kelptocracy” of “Baby Doc.” Yes the Duvaliers stole millions of dollars, and their support came from among others, the US, as they were Latin American stalwarts in the anti-communist hysteria of the times and as usual, increased the debt of the country significantly.

Current events

Haiti’s ‘modern’ history undergoes the same tale of financial ruin by western institutions. Once in debt, the IMF and World Bank stepped in and as is usual with their actions, demanded trade concessions and internal financial changes that not only increased the indebtedness of the country, but forced the diminution of its social infrastructure, and forced many independent farmers off their lands and into slave wage jobs in the urban centres. Formerly an exporter of rice, Haiti was forced into a position wherein it had to import cheaper subsidised US rice. None of this is mentioned in MacLean’s.

MacLean’s mentions “the succession of governments and instability that followed the Duvaliers,” but failed to mention the most important point pertaining to democracy and independence and chances of success, the elections of Jean-Bertrand Aristede. Aristede again had to weather the depredations of foreign interference, again significantly led by the US as his cause was that of a popular and socialist government, a scary idea to the Washington consensus.

For western media in general, this wilful ignorance of Haitian history is detrimental to the earthquake relief. It is detrimental because if the citizens of the western countries better understood the history, they could very well demand that the Haitian debt be forgiven, and perhaps even reversed. It is detrimental because it dismisses the comprehension in general as to why the country is so poor, a question asked but never properly answered in the media. And finally it is detrimental because without understanding the background, the future of the country can only be more thoroughly muddied and muddled.


There is no one overall solution or fix, but there are some significant areas where it can start. MacLean’s offers some platitudes and limpid arguments about what can be done, but never really succeeds with its discussion. The discussion does go into territory of protectorate, under the aegis of the UN or the US or both. The truth is finally hit in a simple statement by Roger Noriega, “I think it’s a shortcut to say we have to put it under international trusteeship. I think Haitians should be given the opportunity to run their own affairs. We need to accompany them in that process.” [2]

What a novel idea! Haitians running their own affairs! Obviously there are some difficulties with getting the country somewhat operative again, but with the US’s new occupation force already in place, controlling flights, controlling the distribution of goods, ever fearful of popular “insurrection” against the US backed elites, corporations, and rules and regulations of the IMF, it will obviously be difficult if not impossible to do.

Yes, get out of Haiti, let the popular committees set up their own government, hopefully in ever widening circles of popular democratic support. Then cancel all debt owed by the country – no one appears to be willing to step forward to do this yet. Allow fair trade, establish tariffs to help Haiti regain its fragile agricultural production and home grown businesses and industry without suffering the depredations of the IMF and the international corporations that prey on all weak countries.

Will it be easy? No…but then given a chance with unfettered aid, one never knows. Messy? Probably, no country has ever been rebuilt without difficulty and troubles, but usually only over the short term if outside interference is gone and outside support (being more than money to the elites and industries, but rather to help the social infrastructure of education, healthcare, environmental protection, and workers rights). Brutal? That possibility exists, but is most likely if the US and other western countries vie to continue their dominance over the former slave colony.

So it comes back to racism, fear of socialism, fear of losing a nation that would much rather go in a different direction than the imperial nations of today and yesterday would wish. I support all the relief efforts that are currently underway (minus the US occupation forces) and wish the best for the country. That best can only be achieved if its current status is understood in the context of its conflicted past. This is the only slave nation, a nation of blacks, that ever freed itself from white domination. It is time to step up and help the country establish the freedom it deserves without the underlying fear of a free black nation that seems to have underlain most of its historical relations with other powers.

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


[1] Michael Petrou et al. “Horror in Haiti.” MacLean’s. February 1, 2010. pp. 18-39.

[2] cited in [1]