“We are Here Because You Were There”

By D. Alissa Trotz

Alissa Trotz is Editor of the Diaspora Column

Last week, in meetings with lawmakers to discuss a bipartisan deal addressing immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and several African nations, US president Donald Trump commented (in remarks later verified by several present) “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He also specifically targeted Haitians, asking “Why do we want people from Haiti here?”

Donald Trump’s racist remarks add up to the view that Black and Brown people are not welcome in the United States. They came on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, which took hundreds of thousands of lives. CARICOM – of which Haiti is a full member – issued a statement in which it “condemns in the strongest terms, the unenlightened views reportedly expressed”. In Barbados, the Clement Payne Movement has drafted a statement declaring President Trump persona non grata in the region. Other groups, like the US based Haiti Action Committee, issued a reminder to redouble efforts to “stand in solidarity with TPS (Temporary Protected Status) and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients as well as all refugees and immigrants under attack.”

On mainstream US cable networks, CNN’s Anderson Cooper offered an emotional tribute to the Haitian people in which he described his visits to the country in the aftermath of the earthquake. Also on CNN, Ana Navarro angrily denounced President Trump as a racist. Numerous commentators rehearsed the inscription on the Statue of Liberty – Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free – as a direct rebuke to the sentiments expressed by the current administration on immigration. As important as these claims for migrant rights are at the moment, they also reproduce for the viewer the fantasy of the American Dream, that the United States is a country to which folks from backward countries yearn to go, a land of opportunity for all who simply need to learn to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (what of the Haitians who have moved to the US and are still catching their tails trying to make ends meet? They are made invisible in these model minority Haitians made in America narratives). This kind of response sidesteps the question of why Haiti can be dismissed as a “shithole” country, why, as poet Jean-Claude Martineau remarks, it is the only country in the world with a surname (Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere).  It sidesteps the realities that force Haitians to leave. In Brother, I’m Dying, Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat pays tribute to her elderly uncle who despite having a valid US tourist visa was held in a detention centre in Miami where he collapsed and died. The distressed response of Danticat’s father says it all, “He shouldn’t be here…If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here” (p. 251). And in an interview available online, the late A. Sivanandan, UK based Sri Lankan man of words and director for years of the formidable Institute of Race Relations, reminds us that “we are here because you were there.”

This latest attack on a sister country in the region sent me back to a column I wrote after the 2010 earthquake, where I drew on former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s response: “The tragedy has genuinely moved a significant number of people, particularly those in which that quality is innate. But perhaps very few of them have stopped to consider why Haiti is such a poor country…why not analyze the realities that led Haiti to its current situation and this enormous suffering as well?” I also noted an interview in which then Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph responded to the American televangelist Pat Robertson’s statement that the disaster was the result of the pact that Haitians had made with the devil in return for an end to slavery under the French: “I would like the whole world to know, America especially, that…when the slaves rose up against the French and defeated the French army, the US was able to gain the Louisiana [purchase] for fifteen million dollars, that is three cents an acre. That is thirteen states west of the Mississippi, that the Haitian slave revolt in Haiti provided America. Also, the revolt of the rebels in Haiti allowed Latin America to be free. It is from Haiti that Simon Bolivar left with men and boats, to deliver Gran Colombia and the rest of South America. So [the] pact the Haitian has made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is”.

In his column carried last Friday in Caribbean News online, Ron Sanders also reminds readers that “Haiti paid a very high price for its assertion that black people were born free, entitled to freedom and the right to fight for it.” Its independence constitution at the turn of the nineteenth century promised Haitian citizenship to anyone opposed to slavery, offering the world a radical model of belonging and humanity based on ethical and political principles of freedom and justice. For this, Haiti faced American and French sanctions (the US, where slavery was not abolished until 1865, did not even recognize Haitian sovereignty until 1862). Haitians were forced to ‘compensate’ France for the ‘loss’ of enslaved peoples and plantations. We should call this what it was, reparations for imperialists, which as Sanders underlines amounted to “90 million gold francs, which the country did not finish repaying until 1947.”

As I noted in the 2010 diaspora column, this Caribbean island has been subjected to a long list of punishments that include various occupations of Haiti, most recently the US occupation of 1994 and the United Nations Stabilization Mission of 2004;  “the financial institutions that bankrolled the Duvalier dictatorship for years because the government obeyed the bidding of foreign investors, but then withheld monies from the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he attempted to stand up to them; the governments (French, American and Canadian) that engineered the kidnapping and removal of Aristide in 2004, the bicentennial of Haitian independence.”

In condemning Donald Trump for his racist description of Haiti as a ‘shithole country,’ it is therefore crucial that we do not lose sight of past US administrations which might not have openly used such language, but whose policies have continued to bankrupt this island economy. In fact the earthquake was seen by many as an opportunity for US business to cash in. The 2010 column commented on a joint op-ed by former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that appeared in the New York Times: “The title, A Helping Hand for Haiti, is telling. An excellent translation of this classic case of doublespeak can be found in a recent interview with journalist and author Naomi Klein, who talks about disaster capitalism, where profiteering scavengers prey on crises and the weaknesses they engender in affected countries to impose their own pro-business, anti-poor agendas. As one egregious example of this, Klein pointed to a conservative American think tank the Heritage Foundation, which posted the following notice on its website less than 24 hours after the earthquake (it has since taken it down):  ‘Amidst the suffering, crisis in Haiti offers opportunities to the U.S. In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti´s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the image of the United States in the region.’  In other words, disasters are big business.”

Let us not forget that in the aftermath of the earthquake, it was the Obama administration that continued to push for more free trade, more export-oriented factories, policies that have repeatedly proven to be against the interests of the Haitian working peoples.

Donald Trump’s comments, and the recent US administration decision to end safe haven in that country for tens of thousands of Haitians, are therefore just the tip of the iceberg.  On Friday, Edwidge Danticat wrote a message on Facebook that captures the long history of resistance in the face of centuries of imperial efforts to break the spirit of the Haitian people. Titled ‘Today We Mourn, Tomorrow We Fight,’ we carry it in full:

“Today, like many of my fellow Haitians and Haitian-Americans, I planned to mourn the dead. I planned to do my mourning quietly and in small doses. I planned to stay busy so I wouldn’t spend the whole day in pain. I planned to check on the children in my family who lost their father and baby brother in the catastrophic earthquake eight years ago. I planned to write notes to friends and family members who were rescued from the rubble by their neighbors. I planned to get through a panel at a literary festival without breaking down in tears. I planned to hold my two daughters a little bit tighter tonight, especially my youngest who was the baby I kept in my arms to keep myself from curling up in a fetal position each time I saw a child being pulled from under a school or house on my television screen. Instead, because the President of the United States, who seems determined to insult Haitians every chance he gets, has said that Haiti—along with “Africa”—is a shithole, I must also lament yet another insult to our dignity.

“A few weeks ago, it was “All Haitians have AIDS.” This week we are from a shithole country. Haiti is not unacquainted with racists or white supremacists. We defeated our share of them in 1804 when we became the world’s first black republic. Haiti is not a shithole country. It is a country that, for example, if France hadn’t grown tired of fighting, it would have never sold 828,000 square miles of land to the US, from the western banks of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, nearly doubling the size of this country. Alexander Hamilton said that the Louisiana Purchase would have never happened were it not for the “courage and obstinate resistance of the black inhabitants” of Haiti. We are also the country that the United States has invaded several times, preventing us from consistently ruling ourselves. If we are a poor country, then our poverty comes in part from pillage and plunder. In the 1980s, the US government—claiming that Haitian pigs had swine fever—participated in the extermination of nearly every native black pig, which represented some families’ entire life savings. These same farmers were then “encouraged” to buy the pampered pink pigs of US farmers. This is only one of many examples I could list.

“We are also a country where great art, music, and literature have risen from these and a slew of other woes. We are entrepreneurs, big and small, dreamers, workers. We are a country that created people like my father, who drove a taxicab in Brooklyn, sometimes sixteen hours a day, so that my three brothers (two teachers and an IT specialist) and I could have a better life. We are the country that eight years ago lost over 300,000 people whose lives and memory we should be commemorating today, rather than trying to hold our heads up wherever in the world we happen to be. Apparently, the President’s remarks came out of a discussion about Temporary Protected Status, during which he is reported to have said “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” Mr. President, so many have tried to take us out before. Eight years ago, the earth itself tried to take Haiti out. Yet the courage and obstinate resistance of Haitians remain. We survive, and when given the opportunity, we THRIVE. To borrow a slogan that many Americans of different backgrounds have been using since the beginning of this presidency, today we mourn, tomorrow we fight.”

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