30 September 2004 Edition
BY FINIAN CUNNINGHAM
HAITI is an object lesson in how the mainstream media operates to complement elite Western power interests.
The Caribbean island of eight million people is suddenly in the news again because bible-like hurricanes and floods have killed over 700 people.
Other countries in the region have also suffered storm-related deaths but nowhere on the scale of Haiti. The death toll is neighbouring Dominican Republic, by contrast, was only around 20.
The `explanation' for the difference in casualty rate, we are told by the media, is because Haiti is "largely deforested" and therefore more prone to violent flooding.
The previous `focus' on Haiti was last February when its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in a coup led by machete-waving gangs and forced into exile.
The picture we get, therefore, from the news media is that Haiti is some God-forsaken basket case, lashed by endemic corruption, violence and storms whose only hope lies in the intervention of civilised Western democracy in the form of a benevolent US.
The so-called independent media reflects the policy objectives of Western governments and financial/economic elites.
That is why nothing of Haiti's present privation and suffering is comprehensible from the media coverage.
To uncover Haiti would mean uncovering the political forces wielded by Western governments to subjugate people. Better, therefore, that Haiti stays in the dark as far as the mass of people are concerned.
So what is the bigger picture? Far from being a pathetic basket case racked by relentless misery, Haiti and its people have a proud history of democracy and freedom. But its people's full potential has and continues to be thwarted by Western powers.
This was where Columbus first landed in 1492, proclaiming it Hispaniola and wiping out the native Taino and Arawak people.
The island later became a possession of France, serving as its richest colony, meaning the poorest for the inhabitants. The deforestation that the media reported is indeed a major factor in present day flood hazard but what the media has not said is that this deforestation was caused by the French, who turned Haiti into a slave plantation for agro-export.
What the media do not also tell us is that this year marks a remarkable bicentenary in world history. In 1804, the African slaves of Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture rebelled and defeated Napoleon's armies, proclaiming an independent republic. It was the first republic to be established by enslaved African people.
Haiti's blow for freedom also benefited the liberation of a nascent US. The military victory of the former slaves was a devastating blow to French, British and Spanish colonial power.
But Haiti's independence was "rewarded" by US invasion in 1917 and occupation until 1935. During this time, the country was subjugated to serve the needs of US corporations and emerging Western consumer capitalism and its fetish for cheap food and goods.
Until the early 1990s, Haiti was kept in its servile role by the US and Western-backed dictatorships of 'Papa Doc' and 'Baby Doc' Duvalier. But the regime was eventually overthrown by years of courageous grass roots resistance. In spite of immense US and European support for Duvalier, Haitians won back their democracy, led by former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
After decades of corruption and death squads, Aristide ushered in an amazing transition to a demilitarised society whose priority was focusing resources on the poor majority.
Tragically, there followed a litany of subversion and wrecking by Western powers. The US and France in particular used every political mechanism to deny foreign aid and finance to the country. These powers insisted that Haiti — the poorest country in the world — should use 90% of its cash reserves to pay back debt incurred during the decades of corrupt Western-backed dictatorship.
At the same time, the US and France were bankrolling opponents of Aristide. These comprised of the minority but powerful landowners and business class, which had worked hand-in-glove with Duvalier and his Western backers.
With supreme arrogance, the Bush administration accused Aristide government of lacking legitimacy.
Under relentless pressure, the government of Aristide collapsed and the president remains in exile. For the time being, the democratic freedom of the Haitian people has been restrained. But as Louverture and Aristide have noted, this movement for freedom is like the roots of tree that will continually grow despite successive attempts to cut it down.
One way of hastening this freedom is for people in Western countries to understand how their own governments operate to suppress democracy, not only abroad but at home as well.
Haiti is a classic case study and has special resonance with the struggle for democracy in Ireland. This is not just because we too have buffoonish characters with the sobriquets 'Papa Doc' and 'Baby Doc'.
Like Haiti, Ireland's history and society has been warped by the cynical, ongoing meddling of an imperial power whose pre-eminent responsibility for violence and instability is conveniently concealed by the mainstream media.