Abuses of Haiti

An extended review of The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer. Published in Transition, Issue 66.


Americans are a uniquely kind, generous, and idealistic people. This must be true, because it is repeated every day in our newspapers, by our politicians, and around our dinner tables. We pride ourselves that ours is a land of opportunity -- a country of immigrants to which the poor and oppressed may come and, with hard work, become prosperous Americans.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher summed up this view concisely, if dutifully, at the close of a Senate briefing on refugee policy. "There is a great American tradition of providing refuge to the persecuted," he said. "This tradition goes back to the founding of our nation. It links generations of Americans to one another. It reinforces our democratic values. Indeed, it is part of our national identity."

If our attitude toward the rest of the world can be faulted, say columnists and commentators, it is only because we are sometimes too generous and too idealistic. We send food to starving peasants who for some reason continue to starve. We send peacekeepers (or the Marines) to troubled countries, and peace fails to appear.

How, then, could a country such as ours justify its shabby treatment of Haitian refugees? How could we justify intercepting the boats in which, over a course of years, desperate people were fleeing violent repression, only to send the occupants back to face further repression?

Well, the argument went, we were stopping the boat people for humanitarian reasons. The boats were unseaworthy (that's why we burned them once we'd taken the people off) as well as overcrowded. Intercepting those boats meant saving their occupants from drowning. "For Haitians who do seek to leave Haiti, boat departure is a terrible and dangerous choice," said President Clinton shortly before his inauguration, justifying his decision to continue returning refugees to Haiti.

Furthermore, State Department officials and others argued, most of these Haitians claiming to be political refugees were nothing of the kind. If they were, then why were so few of them granted political asylum by US immigration authorities? No, they were economic refugees, and therefore unworthy of special consideration. They were heading to the US because they were poor and wanted to be rich. But after all, we had poor people of our own to look after. We had no obligation to let in more. And in the end, the best thing we could do for Haitian refugees was to promote democracy in Haiti. For a country as powerful as ours, that surely wouldn't take long, and once we had done it there would be no reason for more Haitians to leave.

This line of argument cannot stand up to a closer look, and Paul Farmer's book The Uses of Haiti gives it a much closer look. Farmer is a physician and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who has worked with the Haitian poor since his first visit to Haiti in 1983. The winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1993, he used the money to endow a small annual grant for others who work on behalf of the poor. Farmer is also a trained anthropologist with an in-depth knowledge of Haitian history and politics. This gives him the rare ability to look at Haiti's condition on the levels of both international relations and village life.

The Uses of Haiti illustrates the power of this approach. The first half of the book presents a tightly reasoned, well-documented account of Haitian-American relations over two hundred years, with an emphasis on how Haiti has served the US as a compliant trading partner, a source of cheap labor, and as "stereotypical other," "confirmation of one's worst racist theories," and "all-around whipping boy." In the second half of the book, Farmer tells the stories of three Haitians he has known through his work in rural Haiti.

Yolande Jean, the subject of one of these accounts, was one of the thousands who fled Haiti during the bloody crackdown that followed the September 1991 coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. She and her husband had been involved in community organizing and a literacy campaign, and therefore became targets of the new regime. Yolande was arrested, beaten, and tortured, in the course of which she suffered a miscarriage. Once she was released she left her children with a relative -- her husband was in hiding -- and fled on a boat. "We hadn't even reached the Windward Passage when American soldiers came for us. But we thought they might be coming to help us." Instead, "They burned all of our clothes, everything we had, the boat, our luggage, all the documents we were carrying." (Yolande was able to hide some papers in her pockets, though others were seized.) She and the other refugees were then taken to the US military base at Guantánamo Bay.

Yolande Jean's case for political asylum, Farmer notes, was "airtight."

She was a longstanding member of an organization targeted for political repression; she and her husband had been arrested and tortured; and she had managed to preserve key documents proving this. In fact, Yolande Jean was one of those few refugees who passed scrutiny. As a bona fide political refugee, U.S. law provided her safe haven. There was one problem: Yolande, like all the refugees, had been tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Yolande Jean and some others who had tested positive for HIV were taken to a special camp, where they were reinterviewed and required to pass more stringent requirements for refugee status. Living conditions were even worse than elsewhere on Guantánamo.

We have been asking them to remove the barbed wire; the children were playing near it, they were falling and injuring themselves. The food they were serving us, including canned chicken, had maggots in it. And yet they insisted that we eat it. Because you've got no choice. And it was for these reasons that we started holding demonstrations.

In response, they began to beat us. On July 18th, they surrounded us, arrested some of us, and put us in prison, in Camp Number 7 ... Camp 7 was a little space on a hill. They put up a tent, but when it rained, you got wet. The sun came up, we were baking in it. We slept on the rocks; there were no beds. And each little space was separated by barbed wire. We couldn't even turn around without being injured by the barbed wire.

Against her wishes, Yolande Jean and others were given injections of what turned out to be the contraceptive Depo-Provera. "I began having heavy bleeding, I bled for three months, lost weight."

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 gave hope to the detainees, as well as to Haitians in their own country. Clinton and Al Gore had referred to the Bush policy on Haiti as cruel and inhuman, and promised to end forced repatriation. But as soon as the new President took over, he announced that the existing policy would continue, at least for the time being. In response, Yolande Jean led a hunger strike among the detainees that lasted for fifteen days, and ended when soldiers raided them at four AM and beat them with nightsticks. Yolande was placed in solitary confinement.

By this point, she had lost hope. "Don't count on me anymore," she wrote to her family in Haiti, "because I have lost in the struggle for life.... We will meet again in another world." Finally, a federal judge ordered that Yolande Jean and the other "bona fide political refugees" should be released. On April 8, 1993, she reached the United States.

The policy that brought the Haitians to Guantánamo, their treatment at the hands of the US military, and the subdued coverage of that treatment in the US media, all revealed an attitude toward Haitians that was at odds with the benevolent role in which we saw ourselves. The idea that many Haitians might be encouraged enough by Clinton's election to take to the sea was alarming to many Americans. Farmer quotes headlines such as "South Florida braces for Haitian time bomb" and cites a Newsweek poll in which 20 percent of those surveyed said Haitian immigration should be made easier, while 55 percent thought it should be harder. "After a decade during which less than half of one percent of applicants were granted asylum," Farmer says, "one wonders how much more difficult it could be."

What accounted for this unwelcoming attitude? One reason was that the US prefers to receive refugees from "enemy" countries such as Cuba rather than from countries like Haiti whose governments have traditionally been our clients and allies. The very existence of thousands of Haitian refugees suggested that things were worse there than the US government and media had admitted, and to honor the refugees' claim for asylum was to recognize that fact.

Another important reason was almost embarrassingly obvious, and has been reiterated by Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, by the Congressional Black Caucus, and by columnists such as Derrick Z. Jackson of the Boston Globe, the author of some of the most damning critiques of US policy on Haiti. Unlike most asylum-seekers, the Haitians were black, a fact which strongly influenced the political decisions made about them. Before moving on to talk about what kind of racism was at work here, how it operated, and what purposes it served, it is worthwhile to stop and acknowledge the continuing power of color, and to admit how much more improbable Yolande Jean's story would be if she and the others on her boat had not been black.

"The problem of the twentieth century," in W.E.B. Du Bois' famous phrase, "is the problem of the color-line -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." Racism is such a basic fact of our lives, so essential to any serious discussion of education, crime, housing, employment, and culture, that it is almost impossible to imagine a time before racism. Still, Basil Davidson, a preeminent historian of Africa and author of The African Slave Trade, has argued that during Elizabethan times and before, racism as we know it today did not exist. It developed, he maintains in the essay "Africa and the Invention of Racism," only after the middle of the seventeenth century, when the demand for African slaves in the New World began to swell enormously. Racism came about as a way of justifying the slave trade by dehumanizing its victims.


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