In his recent cover story (June), Aseem Srivastava refers to food riots in Haiti. A cursory acquaintance with Haiti’s history tells us that the riots had to happen. How right John Dewey was when he said, “Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Haiti occupies the western third part of the island called Hispaniola, and no country in the western hemisphere is as poor as Haiti today. Haiti’s poverty would have surprised the red-skinned Taino people, who lived on the island before Columbus landed on it in December 1492. It would have surprised Columbus, as well. He recognised the land’s prodigious fertility. It would have surprised the French and the Spaniards too, who learned about the island from Columbus. After fighting long wars, the French got Haiti, and the Spaniards got today’s Dominican Republic, on the other end of the island. The French referred to Haiti as the ‘pearl of the Antilles’. It was their wealthiest colony, rich in cotton, coffee, indigo, sugar and the labour of an unknown number of African slaves.
A slave rebellion that began in the last decade of the 18th century ended when Haiti was born and slavery was abolished – for the first time in the western hemisphere – in 1804. It would have ended sooner but for Napoleon Bonaparte, who was so impressed by Haiti’s riches that he dispatched a 30,000-man army to get the place back. It would also have ended sooner if the US government had not sent Napoleon several hundred thousand dollars by way of support. The expedition failed, but only after much of Haiti was destroyed.
A single example will suffice to illustrate the role the US played in Haiti’s 20th-century history. The example starts when the brutal military dictatorship of Francois Duvalier ruled Haiti, when the US Navy effectively blockaded the island. It did so to stop its people from running away, an act that contravened the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. When the country held its first free election, in 1990, Uncle Sam had a candidate, an ex-World Bank employee, Mark Bean, run for the president’s post. Sam bankrolled Bean’s campaign. But Haiti’s poor were unimpressed, and Bean ended up with just 14 percent of the vote. His US-unsupported opponent, Jean Bertrand Aristide, received a huge majority.
How did the US react? First, it lifted the blockade, so that Haitian victims of Aristide’s terrible rule could leave and then, when a coup got rid of Aristide some months later, they put it back in place again. Aristide spent four years in the US before he and democracy were allowed to return – along with the World Bank and structural adjustment. The adjustment wasn’t aimed at benefiting the country’s peasants and slum-dwellers directly. It was aimed at freeing the local business class (most of them of German, French English and US descent) and foreign investors from excessive governmental regulation. Their liberated entrepreneurial energies would raise the economy via export driven trade, low-cost local labour and the lifting of import tariffs.
The prescription spelt goodbye to Haiti’s rice farmers, as Srivastava wrote. It also turned the screws on the Haitian poor. The poor lacked minimal protection from the other half of structural adjustments, the removal of subsidies on basic goods that could soften potential inflation. The possibility that inflation can happen when a lot of investment flows into a very poor economy over a short period of time seems obvious enough. The squeezed domestic rice farmer was forced to turn to export. US agribusiness and investors benefited from that. But the farmer could not possibly compete with US agribusiness: 40 percent of the profits of that business flowed from Uncle Sam’s subsidies, subsidies which have gone up under George W Bush. But Haiti had failed to feed itself, and it has been declared a ‘failed state’.
John Dewey’s observation generalises today, to the planet.
My eggs, your omelette
Regarding Mritiunjoy Mohanty’s piece on the politics and economy of modern India (April) was quite impressive. The assumption that capitalism is the cure to all of the modern world’s evils has certainly been challenged from many quarters. The liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 1990s might have solved some of the country’s problems, but there simultaneously emerged another issue: the vast number of people whose eggs had been broken while making someone else’s omelette. Since then, this fact has been hidden or distorted by successive governments.
China has already faced similar problems. Nepal, lodged between two giant neighbours, now has much to learn from the developments is these countries, particularly at this particular historical crossroad. After all, Nepalis are currently taking the first few steps towards a better Nepal, after a decade of standstill due to conflict and political stagnation. The country has limited options, and a step in the wrong direction could lead to a very bleak future.
S P Sharma
After being exposed to Bollywood films for over 20 years, one looked askance at recent review, “Brave New World” (June). It is a farfetched idea indeed to equate commercial Hindi movies with demystifying, through its expressive visual treat, “capitalism’s impact on relationship”. For that matter, schooling the audience on the “values of solidarity and helping each other out in times of distress”, doesn’t strike this reader as a plausible motive of Bombay’s filmmakers. Sometimes, one reads more into a film than what is truly there. Such is the power of the silver screen, perhaps; and moreover, people certainly don’t cringe from celebrating mediocrity.
G Narasimha Raghavan
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)