Dear Mr. Brooks,
In your January 15, 2010 opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Underlying Tragedy,” you present what you seem to believe is a bold assessment of the situation in Haiti and what you certainly know is a provocative recommendation for Haiti’s future. You also offer some advice to President Obama. In order to successfully keep his promise to the people of Haiti that they “will not be forsaken” nor “forgotten” the President, you say, has to “acknowledge a few difficult truths.” What follows, however, is so shockingly ignorant of Haitian history and culture and so saturated with the language and ideology of cultural imperialism that no valuable “truths” remain. Please allow us, therefore, to present you with some more accurate truths.
First, Haiti is not a clear-cut case of the failure of international aid to achieve poverty reduction. For almost its entire existence Haiti has been shouldered with a load of immense international debt. The Haitian people had the audacity to break their chains and declare independence in 1804 but were later forced by France to re-purchase their freedom for 150 million Francs, a burden that the country has had to carry throughout the twentieth century.
What’s more, the “aid” Haiti has received from its powerful neighbor to the North has never been the sort that would help the country reduce poverty or achieve meaningful development. In the early-twentieth century the principle “aid” Haiti received from the United States came in the form of a brutal military occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934. After “Papa Doc” Duvalier ascended to power “aid” meant assistance to a ruthless (but conveniently anti-communist) dictator. The U.S. gave Duvalier $40.4 million in his first four years in power, briefly suspended military and economic assistance to the dictator in 1963, but resumed shortly thereafter, restoring full military and economic aid to Duvalier by 1969. In the early 1970s and 1980s when “Baby Doc” Duvalier was at the helm, the “aid” the United States and other international agencies contributed failed to reduce poverty but did enrich foreign investors in the newly constructed assembly industry. Economic policies that the U.S. forced upon Haiti decimated its agriculture for the benefit of American farming while driving Haiti’s peasants into Port-au-Prince and other cities where they found few jobs and scarce housing. Four years after Baby Doc’s departure the Haitian people decided to help themselves by democratically electing a new leader, but the United States aided Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s
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