Johann Hari: Suffocating the poor: a modern parable

They democratically elected a president to stand up to the rich and multinational corporations - so our governments have him kidnapped

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Today, I want to tell you the story of how our governments have been torturing and tormenting an island in the Caribbean – but it is a much bigger story than that. It's a parable explaining one of the main reasons how and why, across the world, the poor are kept poor, so the rich can be kept rich. If you grasp this situation, you will see some of the ugliest forces in the world laid out before you – so we can figure out how to stop them.

The rubble-strewn island of Haiti is now in the middle of an election campaign that will climax this November. So far, the world has noticed it solely because the Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean wanted to run for President, only to be blocked because he hasn't lived in the country since he was a kid. But there is a much bigger hole in the election: the most popular politician in Haiti by far, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He's not there because, after winning a landslide election, he followed the will of the Haitian people who demanded he take on the multinational corporations and redistribute enough money that their children wouldn't starve – so our governments had him kidnapped him at gunpoint and refuse to let him back.

But we have to start a little earlier if this is going to make sense. For over two centuries, Haiti has been effectively controlled from outside. The French enslaved the entire island in the eighteenth century and worked much of the population to death, turning it into the sugar and coffee plantation for the world. By this century, Western governments were arming, funding and fuelling the psychopathic dictatorship of the Duvalier family – who slaughtered 50,000 people – supposedly because they were "our friends" in the fight against communism.

All this left Haiti the most unequal country in the world. A tiny elite lives in vast villas in the hills, while below and all around them, the overwhelming majority of the population live in tiny tin shacks with no water or electricity, crammed six-to-a-room. Just 1 per cent own 50 per cent of the wealth and 75 per cent of the arable land. Once the Haitian people were finally able to rise up in 1986 to demand democracy, they obviously wanted the country's wealth to be shared more fairly. They began to organize into a political movement called Lavalas – the flood – to demand higher wages and higher taxes on the rich to build schools and hospitals and subsidies for the half-starved poor. This panicked the elite.

And nobody panicked them more than a thin, softly-spoken, intellectual slum-priest named Aristide who found himself at the crest of this wave. He was born into a bitingly poor family and became a brilliant student. As a priest he soon became one of the leading exponents of Liberation Theology, the left-wing Catholicism that says people shouldn't wait passively for justice in the Kingdom of Heaven, but must demand it here and now. (The current Pope tried desperately to stamp out this "heresy".) Aristide explained: "The rich of my country, a tiny percentage, sit at a vast table overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen are crowded under that table, hunched in the dirt and starving. One day the people under the table will rise up in righteousness."

On this platform, he was elected in 1990 in a landslide in the country's first free and fair election, taking 64 per cent of the vote. He kept his promise to the Haitian people: he increased the minimum wage from 38 cents a day to $1, demanding the multinational corporations pay a less insulting wage. He trebled the number of free secondary schools. He disbanded the murderous national army that had terrorized the population. Even the International Monetary Fund had to admit that over the Aristide period and just after, Haiti's Human Poverty Indicator – a measure of how likely your kids are to die, starve or go uneducated – dropped dramatically from 46.2 per cent to 31.8 per cent.

But why would foreign governments care about a small country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, with only ten million inhabitants? Ira Kurzban, an American lawyer based in Haiti, explains: "Aristide represented a threat to [foreign powers] because he spoke for the 85 per cent of his population who had never been heard. If that can happen in Haiti, it can happen anywhere, including in countries where the [US and Europe] have huge economic interests and extract natural resources. They don't want real popular democracies to spread because they know it will confront US economic interests." Oxfam called this phenomenon "the threat of a good example."

So after Haiti had experienced seven months of democracy, the US toppled Aristide. Ordinary Haitians surrounded his home, calling for his return – and they were fired on so indiscriminately that more ammo had to be sent from Guantanamo Bay on Cuba. Their bodies were left in the streets to be eaten by dogs as the advances were repealed one by one.

In 1994, the Clinton administration agreed to return Aristide to power – provided he castrate his own political program and ignore the demands of his people. They made him agree to privatize almost everything, freeze wages, and sack half the civil service. Through gritted teeth, he agreed, and for the remainder of his time in office tried to smuggle through what little progress he could. He was re-elected in an even bigger landslide in 2000 – but even his tiny shuffles towards redistribution were too much. The US and French governments had Aristide kidnapped at gunpoint and dumped him in the Central African Republic. They said he was a "dictator", even though the last Gallup poll in a free Haiti found 60 per cent supported him, compared to just 3 per cent backing the alternative imposed on the country by the US.

The human rights situation in Haiti then dramatically deteriorated, with a massive campaign of terror and repression. The Lavalas Party was banned from running again, with most of the country's democracy activists jailed. There were huge military assaults on the slums which demanded Aristide's return. A US Army Psychological Operations official explained the mission was to ensure Haitians "don't get the idea they can do whatever they want."

The next President, Rene Preval, learned his lesson: he has done everything he was told to by corporations and governments, privatizing the last remaining scraps owned by the state, and using tear gas to break up strikes for higher wages. The Haitian people rejected the whole rigged electoral process, with turn-out falling to just 11 per cent. Today, Aristide is a broken man, living in exile in South Africa, studying for a PhD in linguistics, banned from going home.

This is part of a plain pattern. When poor countries get uppity and tried to ask for basic justice, our governments have toppled them, from Iran wanting to control its own oil in 1953 to Honduras wanting its workers to be treated decently in 2009. You don't have to overthrow many to terrify the rest.

It doesn't have to be this way. This is not the will of the people, in the US or Europe: on the contrary, ordinary citizens are horrified when the propaganda is stripped away and they see the truth. It only happens because a tiny wealthy elite dominates our foreign policy, and uses it to serve their purposes – low wages and control of other people's economies and resources. The people of Haiti, who have nothing, were bold and brave enough to campaign and organize to take power back from their undemocratic elites. Are we?

j.hari@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/johannhari101

For further reading

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward (Verso, 2007)

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