Despite news coverage and renewed scholarly attention in the past few years, the nation of Haiti continues to struggle to improve its political, economic and social situation. Humanitarian aid and international intervention have failed to make sustainable change over the past twenty years. In this paper, I seek to explore both the underlying issues in transnational relations that impede Haiti and the exclusion of Haiti and Haitians that has omitted them from the domain of human rights since the nation’s inception. By ‘exclusion,’ I refer to the fact that Haiti has struggled to attain productive international relations and has repeatedly contended with exploitation by foreign governments. Over its history, Haiti has been shunned from international trade and politics, and yet other nations–most notable the United States–have coercively exploited Haiti’s land and people. Even when other nations have claimed to aid Haiti, their practices have usually been extractive or self-serving. Presently, international aid has left Haiti with a shaky infrastructure and ruined economy. Haiti needs money and resources to build sustainable democratic government and economic foundations; its struggles echo its colonial past, and its challenges reflect issues suffered by many post-colonial nations attempting to move away from the vestiges of oppression.
The US rejection of Haitians reflects fears about invasion and security that recur in the Western imagination around displaced persons. In this discussion, I will used the term “displaced persons” to refer to both refugees who leave Haiti for the US and to those who are made homeless within Haiti, either by political conditions, war, or natural disaster. These two groups are related in the causes of their displacement and the way they are treated by governments and NGOs; therefore, I am discussing both in this paper based on these commonalities, despite their many differences (I am in the process excluding the wealthy/elite minority of Haitians, many of whom live abroad already or can travel with much greater ease; i.e., who have options during times of crisis). Many refugees in camps would doubtless emigrate if they were able, and many Haitians who have sought asylum in the US would likely have stayed in Haiti if they could have done so safely. Displacement and asylum–seeking have both been caused by political turmoil, foreign incursion, and natural disasters, and both disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized of the nation.
I suggest that Haiti embodies the “insecurity” and silencing of its displaced citizens in the view of other states; as individuals can be rejected by officials, troubled nations can be minimized and excluded through humanitarian and political acts. To demonstrate this, I first review Haiti’s history in the context of postcolonial exclusion and oppression, delving into the long-term effects of colonialism and how they manifest in individuals’ lives. I go into some detail in recounting Haiti’s history in order to convey the full extent of Haiti’s exploitation by other nations and by a small hegemony of political leaders (in order to limit the scope and length of this paper, I do not address the positive agency, successes, and resistance of Haitians against oppression and hardship; such a perspective would be another paper’s worth, if not a book, of material).
After an exploration of Haiti’s history with the US and Europe, I discuss the modern-day effects of this colonialism, exclusion, and neo-colonialism. First, I examine the “body of the refugee”: the universalizing, silencing, and depoliticizing of displaced persons as subjects. Next, I discuss the issue of Western suspicions of real and potential refugees as they manifest in policy and popular imagination and how these suspicions manifest in treatment of displaced persons. This topic meshes with a discussion of the problematic side of humanitarianism, both practical and theoretical. Although international humanitarian aid provides much-needed services, it also destabilizes, capitalizes on victims for its own agenda and undermines the discourse on human rights. “Charity” also contributes to the US trend of normalizing and excluding Haiti and other nations, appeasing any sense of guilt or obligation despite a failure to offer sustainable aid. The focus by the US and the international community on humanitarianism places the emphasis on altruism and optional or voluntary assistance to nations like Haiti, as well as to displaced persons. This framing distracts from the issue of widespread human rights violations, both by the nations that produce displaced persons and sometimes by the NGOs and nations that render aid. The narrative of failed states and displaced persons as unable to speak for themselves, along with the Western rhetoric of “freedom” and “progress” imparted by the US render Haiti and nations like it virtually unable to leverage their own agency and build self-sufficiency.
History: Colonialism & Oppression
It would be misleading and imprudent, as well as minimalize Haitians’ agency, to directly blame or implicate the US and Europe in Haiti’s many difficulties. However, the correlations between colonizer/colonized, white/non-white, and West/Global South are visible in Haiti’s history, and the detrimental policies of the US and Europe are apparent. This exploration of Haitian history is meant to bring to the forefront the major themes and events regarding displacement and exclusion and to relate them to the present situation. As the only slave revolution to succeed in creating an independent state, Haiti holds a unique and symbolic place in history. The two-and-a-half centuries of oppression, struggle, and exploitation in Haiti are important to examine in order to understand Haiti’s current situation. To ignore its history, as many popular media sources do, is to suppress the legacy of colonialism and to exculpate the US and Europe from any role in Haiti’s problems.
The Haitian Revolution has been “rediscovered” by scholars in the past several decades as a topic of interest. As the only slave revolution to succeed in creating an independent state, it holds a unique and symbolically laden place in history. The French colony of Saint-Domingue, which would become Haiti, provided over 60 percent of France’s colonial earnings during the eighteenth century, largely in sugar.[i] However, maintaining the highly productive system of plantations required a steady influx of African slaves throughout this time. Colonial rule included public torture, mutilation, and executions as punishment and discipline to prevent slaves rebelling or running away. There was a class of free people of color and mulattos who came to own land and wield power in the country; however, they were far removed from the slaves and the poor of the island. Thus, by the slave rebellion in 1791, the rural people of Haiti were accustomed to a life fraught with cruelty and precarity.[ii]
In the era of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, how did the growing slave-driven colonial system reconcile with the concept of the “universal rights of man”? In order to cope politically and philosophically with this growing disparity, Europeans developed a rhetoric of “scientific” racism which grew in sophistication and legal elaboration through the eighteenth century.[iii] In earlier times, Locke and Hobbes had proposed indenture and forced labor for the idle and criminal on the streets of Europe, and indentured servitude and convict labor were commonplace regardless of skin color; “freedom” and rights were reserved for those with land and assets.[iv] However, by the mid-1700s, race became a determining factor in one’s inherent civility, intellect, and character. By the turn of the nineteenth century, in the eyes of whites, the Creoles and free blacks of Haiti were not equal to whites, and the slaves of Haiti were surely not deserving or, moreover, capable of self-governance.[v]
Thus, the Haitian Revolution “entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened.”[vi] The slaves’ revolt and fight for emancipation by the free people of color between 1791 and 1804 challenged the political and racial certitudes that allowed Europeans to continue the slave system–and, indeed, robbed France of a major source of its wealth.[vii]
In the ensuing centuries, the Haitian Revolution would be “silenced”; outside of Haiti, it would not appear in accounts of history or politics. Those who did address it would make various claims: that it was inspired by whites and by the French Revolution, or that it was in any of a number of ways unimportant, irrelevant, or nonexistent. Its very nature, and the challenge it presented to the Western narrative of superiority, made it unacceptable. In recent decades (though truly begun with Haitian historian C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins in 1938), scholarship by both Haitians and Europeans/Americans has attempted to address the silences, the sources and lack thereof, around the revolution.[viii] Such inquiries illuminate Haiti’s present and the role of other nations in its struggles.
Silences in history accrue: history is witnessed, communicated, written down, interpreted and ascribed significance. In order to give voice to silenced histories, one must reflect on the meaning of events.[ix] The unprecedented events of the Haitian Revolution resulted in silences that would be replayed over the next two centuries. Through the nineteenth century, Haiti struggled economically and politically, encumbered by exclusion by the United States and Europe. France finally ended efforts to retake the country in 1825–and presented Haiti with a 150-million-franc indemnity.[x] Haiti was bankrupt, so in order to begin paying France, it borrowed from a usurious French bank. Haiti spent 120 years putting up to 80 percent of its tax revenue toward the loan. Schuller pointedly summarizes the effects of this: “When Western Europe and North America were building railroads, cable lines, irrigation systems, sewage systems, schools and hospital, Haiti was paying off France because of an economic institution France later self-righteously condemned as a ‘crime against humanity’ in 2001.”[xi] Thomas Jefferson rejected Haiti’s efforts at diplomacy, being unwilling to compromise the US alliance with France or further unsettle the slavery debate in the nation. Indeed, Congress passed a “gag rule” forbidding discussion of Haiti for the “peace and safety” of the United States.[xii] Britain’s abolition debate raged in the 1810s and 1820s, with the press frequently citing Haiti.[xiii] However, the new nation was largely ostracized and feared by the slave-holding and colonialist nations. Buck-Morss suggests, “If we allow the Caribbean insurgents their due, Western civilization itself dissolves into a history of the porous and unbounded space in which the insurgents acted.”[xiv] Unfortunately, this space was in many ways bounded: by the racism of the nations around it and by its colonial past. In Trouillot’s view, behind the archival, political, and economic ignoring of Haiti by Europe and the US “is the lingering impossibility, which goes back to the eighteenth century, to considering the former slaves as the main actors in the chain of events described.”[xv]
Internally, Haitians were unable to remove themselves from the structure of the plantation system. In order to maintain the military and their own power, Haiti’s early presidents needed to revive Haiti’s economy and generate capital. To do this, Toussaint L’Ouverture reinstated the plantation system and coerced the freed slaves into continued labor. Fatton claims that due to colonialism, Haiti never achieved a stable government with citizens’ interests at the forefront.[xvi] This pattern resulted in leaders whose goals were short-sighted and self-interested. The legacy of a controlling elite was passed down to the light-skinned elite who had been property owners before the revolution. By the 1810s, President Alexander Pétion dismantled the plantation system and allotted farmland to citizens. However, while peasants received enough land for subsistence, the wealthy and mulatto class received far larger parcels.
Economic and political power in Haiti would continue to be sharply stratified by a socioeconomic structure based in colonialism.[xvii] While some framed this as a holdover from an earlier system, an un-modern state, others such as Susan Buck-Morss assert that European capitalism was inspired by the Caribbean slave system; its ‘efficient’ methods would be reproduced in industrial settings throughout Europe over the next century and a half. Buck-Morss suggests that “What made colonial slavery modern was its capitalist form, extracting maximum value by exhausting for land and labor to fill an insatiable consumer demand” for sugar, rum, coffee and tobacco.[xviii] The rest of the nineteenth century would see suppression of discourse about workers’ rights and enfranchisement throughout Europe and the US.[xix]
By 1915, international financial investments in Haiti and the political turmoil of World War I allowed the United States to justify invading and occupying the country. The US replaced the Constitution, removing many individual rights, and placed the Marine Corps in charge of local government and administration as well as policing, lasting until 1934.[xx] There was little question of the rationality of putting whole populations under the control of soldiers, many of whom were young, inexperienced, and brought up in racist environments.[xxi] They implemented taxes on citizens and tariffs on goods, which disproportionately affected the poor. The US administration instituted kovés,forced labor crews, to build roads and other infrastructure projects. To acquire this labor, marines abducted peasants and the urban poor from their homes. They also applied laws against vagrancy and “magic” in order to give soldiers leeway to arrest individuals and sentence them to the kovés. These Haitian prisoners were forced to work tied together in gangs under armed guard. They could be shot or tortured for trying to escape, and many died from malnutrition, disease, and abuse.[xxii] From 1920 to 1921, the Senate held hearings based on reports of Marines torturing and executing Haitian peasants almost at random, yet, little reform resulted. Haitian resistance to this invasion persisted throughout; the Haitians persistently and creatively subverted marine control. However, the US experience in Haiti produced the image of Haiti similar to the nineteenth-century view of Africa: Haitians were docile, yet could become savage and murderous; they wanted to work, yet practiced “voodoo” and black magic. These depictions were published as pulp memoirs by marines and featured in popular culture from the 1920s onward, including the earliest “zombie” films.
Economically, the US displaced Haitian farmers to use their land and build large corporate complexes. Many Haitians who were not already forced to work turned to migrant labor to sustain themselves. These factors resulted in thousands of Haitians becoming internally displaced. The US occupation weakened Haiti’s infrastructure and undermined its self-sufficiency, both economically and politically.[xxiii] Socioculturally, it demoralized and traumatized a generation of Haitians who spent twenty years unable to call their land or work their own.
From the 1930s to 1950s, Haiti’s government continued to work closely with the US and ceded further farmland for large-scale projects such as rubber plant cultivation. Such initiatives further displaced Haitian citizens and were by and large unsustainable and unsuccessful. In 1957, Francois Duvalier became president. His rule through 1971, and that of his son Jean-Claude Duvalier from 1971 to 1986, would be known internationally as one of authoritarianism and terror.[xxiv] Although previous regimes had been far from democratic, the Duvalier era was particularly cruel and saw a massive rise in refugees fleeing Haiti. The international community, willing to exploit Haiti’s economic potential, staunchly ignored the political atrocities taking place. The World Bank, USAID and other sources funded the corrupt government. “Papa Doc” Duvalier invested it in the tonton makout, secret police who killed over 30,000 Haitians. “Baby Doc” Duvalier promised to make Haiti “the Taiwan of the Caribbean,” bringing in US clothing factories. However, these factories would shut down by 2005 when the WTO re-opened the market on Chinese textiles, leaving thousands of Haitians unemployed.[xxv]
Only when thousands of Haitians began seeking refuge in other nations, including many fleeing to Florida in boats, did any pressure come to bear on the Haitian government. From the early 1970s to 1980s, Haitians arriving on US shores were detained and most were quickly deported. Private interests put pressure on the US government, and by the early 1980s, the Coast Guard was being used to ‘escort’ Haitian vessels back to Haiti, preventing Haitian refugees from requesting political asylum. Despite some outcry over the potential illegality of this policy, it continued until the US/UN intervention in Haiti in 1994.[xxvi]
In the mid-1980s, the US demanded that the Haitian government kill off the entire population of Haitian black pigs in order to reduce the risk of ‘swine fever’ (H1N1) spread. The native pigs were essentially the sole assets of many rural Haitians, so this initiative further impoverished them, soon compounded by reduced agricultural tariffs. The US then tried to introduce the American species of pink pig to Haiti, where it could not survive without expensive shelter and care.[xxvii]
The US flew the Duvalier family out of Haiti in February 1986, at which point the military junta took over.[xxviii] Despite the oppressive circumstances, a grassroots democracy movement developed, with priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide emerging as a presidential candidate in 1990, despite vocal US opposition. He was in office only 8 months when CIA- and International Republican Institute-funded troops staged a coup.[xxix]
From then until 1994, Haiti experienced widespread violence and chaos committed by militias and criminals (zenglendo) surviving the Duvalier regime. Those who had created the grassroots democracy movement and supported the election of President Aristide in 1990 were systematically tortured, raped, detained, and murdered. The murders claimed up to 20,000 lives of government members and civic leaders. The US and the Vatican acknowledged the coup government as legitimate, despite the mass murders reported by organizations such as the Human Rights Watch.[xxx] Tens of thousands sought asylum in the US, and 300,000 were internally displaced out of a total population of seven and a half million.[xxxi]
During this period, NGOs and their assets were increasing exponentially. They began to supplant the Haitian government after 1995, when the Republican US Congress mandated USAID to fund only NGOs and not the Haitian government. Elite donors were able to manipulate funds toward anti-Aristide, anti-democratic forces. In 2004, with Aristide still in power, an “armed insurrection” wielding US-made M16’s took over the country. Their leader, Guy Philippe, claimed support from the US. The US ordered President Aristide’s personal security to stand down and escorted the president out of the country on a military airplane.[xxxii] At this time, numbers of Haitian refugees surged again, but again the US detained and deported the vast majority of them, this time classing them as “economic migrants” and not “legitimate” political refugees.
Brazilian MINUSTAH forces arrived in 2004 to implement long-term “peacekeeping”. The next few years saw a dramatic rise in crime and unemployment as landlords and corporations rented their buildings at inflated prices to NGO staff and MINUSTAH troops. The 2001 Patriot Act led to American-born criminals with Haitian parents being deported to Haitian prisons–over 30 per month. Over 500 prisoners escaped the Haitian National Penitentiary in February 2005; this is tied to the high rate of kidnappings that ensued, as many reported the kidnappers speaking English and targeting lower- and middle-class people with little to offer as ransom. Over 600 people were kidnapped in 2005.[xxxiii]
The state of Haiti was brought back to the forefront of the US/European consciousness by the 2010 earthquake that devastated Povrt-au-Prince and the western side of the country. Approximately 810,000 people were relegated to IDP camps, 40 percent of which did not have clean water sources by 2011.[xxxiv] 600,000 more Haitians migrated to rural areas, where environmental degradation limits their opportunity to subsist. Mass internal displacement and shaky infrastructure remain daily life for many Haitians.
Perpetuating Insecurity: The Body of the Refugee
Haiti’s history has left scars on its landscape and its people. Ann Stoller refers to this as “imperial debris”; the alterations to environments, infrastructure, culture and individual lives under colonialism do not end with de-colonization.[xxxv] Rather, without active change and discourse, they remain. Often, they perpetuate inequality among the former colonized, and the injustices of poverty, clientelism, and exploitation are passed on through generations. Haitian scholar Erica C. James describes the trauma Haitians have undergone, societally and personally, as “insecurity”. This insecurity is “both an existential state reflecting the disordering of individual embodied experience and a collective sociopolitical condition the effects of which cannot be contained within national borders.”[xxxvi] It is an ontological concern for control over one’s bodily, daily security and also one’s communal, social life; a sense of vulnerability correlated with disrupted relationships, physical hardship, systemic violence, and postcolonial, postauthoritarian states.[xxxvii] The experience of surviving the violence of the past several decades, especially the early 1990s, deeply traumatized many Haitians. Additionally, as noted in Haiti’s history, most of the people of Haiti live in poverty; it has no substantial middle class and a small politico-military upper class. Therefore, much of Haiti’s population is vulnerable to crises and has few resources during such times–nor do they have access to health and human resources to ameliorate the state of “insecurity”. This insecurity often manifests both emotionally and physically, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and is an added burden to the many who struggle to support themselves and their families in the current economy.
These are the kinds of daily difficulties that displaced persons are already facing when trying to qualify for humanitarian aid or political asylum. When they approach international NGO officials or US immigration administrators, they then face a host of assumptions, stereotypes and expectations that have been created in the shared imaginary of agencies and Western nations.[xxxviii] Liisa Malkki discusses the quandary of refugee “purity,” the state of unadulterated victimization or suffering that is subconsciously expected by officials.[xxxix] If refugees are not visibly wounded or clearly impoverished, they are viewed as less “worthy” of aid. If an individual assert their agency, if their narrative changes or does not fit the “story” that an agent expects or is used to hearing, the refugee is likely to be rejected. Malkki explains that “All this added up... to the barely noticeable but nevertheless powerful constitution of the real or true refugee–an ideal figure of which any actual refugees were always imperfect instantiations.”[xl]
Refugees and displaced persons thus inhabit a world in which they are expected to perform to this Platonic, ideal concept of “the refugee”. This very space is insecure: the terms ‘refugee,’ ‘asylum’ are “politically and epistemologically... field[s] of power.”[xli] They denote protection, but also confinement and quarantine. Agents’ treatment of refugees perpetuates the state of insecurity they have already experienced, and agents fail to realize they do not ‘get the answers they want’ because of the environment they themselves engender.[xlii] Those who ‘screen’ refugees and displaced persons convey to researchers[xliii] that refugees’ stories are barriers to “the facts”: personal stories are “generally rejected by their administrators as too messy, subjective, unmanageable, hysterical–as ‘just stories.’”[xliv]
Theoretically, “stories” and narrative have gained increasing cachet in the past twenty years. However, questions of silence and representation go beyond questions about ‘text’ and ‘discourse’: these are voices of real humans whose futures and quality of life depend on whether they are heard.[xlv] Yet often these voices are reduced to trivialities in issues of refugee policy. Trouillot, in writing about silence in Haitian history, observes that “the power to decide what is trivial–and annoying–is also part of the power to decide how ‘what happened’ becomes ‘that which is said to have happened.’”[xlvi] Those who saw or experienced an event are not by any stretch considered authorities or credible witnesses–when they are otherwise marginalized individuals. Similarly, in both the past and the present, Haitians have been excluded from writing and sharing their own version of events due to lack of literacy–first in French, now in English as well. Their own language, Kreyol, is often framed as a derivative or “pidgin” language.
Thus, in addition to a visual performance and producing acceptable narrative, displaced persons find that they are also trapped in silence. Internationally, Haiti has been silenced for over two centuries; its history, legitimacy and economy rejected by the US and Europe. Individually, Haitian and other refugees and displaced persons find that they are expected to perform visually and narratively–but never to express their own history and experience. In Western media, images of displaced and suffering people vastly outweigh any quantity of text quoting or describing them, although officials and “experts” are quoted talking about them.[xlvii] Even the most well-meaning journalists and activists often reinforce subordination, unequal boundaries, identities and subalternities.[xlviii] From UNHCR’s own Refugees magazine to TV news, over the past 50 years the cohesive image of the displaced person as an individual who is unable to authoritatively or reliably relay their own story to those who control their circumstances. The displaced cannot represent themselves or cannot be trusted to tell the truth–or even to know the truth. Experience of war, famine, and devastation are superseded by “expert” knowledge of official spokespersons.[xlix] From the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, Haitians have been represented by whites’ writing and images, usually (and similarly to Africans, etc.) as primitive, impoverished, diseased, superstitious, and otherwise suffering a lack of European civilization. The only authentic way they can present themselves is physically, as their words are disregarded and suppressed. Regarding the 2010 earthquake, James states, “the biomedicalization of social, economic, and political insecurity appears to be one of the few means by which Haitians receive political recognition.”[l]
Silencing goes hand-in-hand with another process: dehistoricizing. Through their treatment by governments and NGOs, refugees are relegated to an extra-political, extra-national limbo, where their agency and humanity are limited.[li] The absence of voice and individuality given them by the media reduces them to universalized figures. They are compelled to trade their autonomy or their life’s context for aid.[lii] Displacement and asylum “leach the histories and the politics of specific refugees’ circumstances. Refugees stop being specific persons and become pure victims.”[liii] These victims, having no pasts, also have no political perspective. This serves humanitarian agendas, as many governments and NGOs maintain neutrality and eschew political activism or opinion. Refugees must be an apolitical body, accepting of aid and silent about their experiences, in order to minimally disturb the process of “politics as usual” in the world outside. Humanitarianism itself, in order to continue, is at odds with refugees’ historicity and political existence.
Further regarding silencing and Haiti, Buck-Morss observes, “Something in the official order… contradicts its own sense of moral right. But because the authorities who speak for the whole tolerate, practice, and benefit from it, this order continues. The truth, available to conscious perception, is at the time ‘disavowed’…”[liv] Trouillot too asserts that this process of silence is not incidental or haphazard; it is an active process imposed on individuals who understand or embody events that cannot be accepted by those in power.[lv] Silencing is “a major reason why these agencies [NGO’s] fail in places like Haiti… Haiti’s decline [is] the result of collusion between local and foreign elite groups.”[lvi] Haiti, geographically and historically so close to the United States, still contains stories and histories that the US does not wish to acknowledge. (It is, then, perhaps less surprising that refugees even farther in space and culture from the US can be so easily put out of mind, e.g. Rwanda and Burundi, Sudan, where the combined death toll exceeds that of the Holocaust).
U.S. Security & Suspicion
The silencing of refugees and of Haiti is somewhat paradoxical or ironic in light of the vast amount of money, time, and effort that have gone into international aid, intervention, journalism, politics and administration. If refugee aid and policy are not meant to facilitate refugees’ agency, why does the US continue to address this issue in the same way?[lvii] There are two overlapping issues here: one, that of US exceptionalism; and two, that of insecurity in the US imaginary.
Buck-Morss suggests that the current US-European discourse on human rights parallels the Enlightenment theories on slavery; “political collectivities proclaim themselves champions of human rights… then deny these to a whole list of enemy exceptions… death and destruction legitimated by reason or progress.”[lviii] Similarly, Trouillot claims, “Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. To acknowledge resistance as a mass phenomenon is to acknowledge the possibility that something is wrong with the system.”[lix] Inherently tied to US actions violating the rights of Haitians, both in Haiti and as asylum-seekers, is the US’s sense of a right to do so, to disregard its own law when it pertains to certain people and then to assert that there is no contradiction.[lx] Furthermore, out of anxiety, the US is compelled to do so; secure nations, in seeing nearby states as ‘unstable’ or ‘failed’, “adopt modernist discourses of ‘nation-building- to justify interventions to restore order.”[lxi]
Papastergiadis frames this anxiety as the “invasion complex,” a collage of “associations woven between deep vertical fears based in historical racism, and wide-open horizontal anxieties around globalization and the nation-state’s failure to control global flows.”[lxii] As discussed above, the history of Haiti is linked with the history of the US’s enlightenment philosophy of freedom and equality, and with its history of slavery. There is at once a discourse about slavery and racism in the US, and at the same time a suppression and relegation to the past.[lxiii] The USA and Haiti share this centuries-old “vertical” fear as well as the tension of the “flow” of refugees. The national imaginary perceives a threat from globalization, from subversive or uncivilized immigrants and refugees “invading” or “overwhelming” the United States, “taking” jobs and eroding public values. In crossing borders, refugees become suspect and disorderly beings.[lxiv] In order to allay this exaggerated fear of the refugee-as-Other, the state constructs stronger boundaries (material and psychological) and often becomes aggressive–while projecting aggression onto the refugee. Any resulting violence that victimizes the refugee is denied by the perpetrating state; furthermore, the intrinsic humanity and human needs of the refugee will be denied to maintain the collective imaginary boundary between “us” and “them”.[lxv] Thus, the very time when a people experiencing insecurity most need asylum is also the time when they are most likely to be regarded with suspicion and mistrust. The most desperate political refugee may become the most likely to be labeled an “economic migrant” and deported due to their very need to breach boundaries.[lxvi]
Asylum-seekers and those who receive aid must also assuage US fears by meeting nebulous criteria of neo-liberal democratic, capitalist ideals. Espousing and expressing gratitude for these ideals brings the ‘insecure,’ suspicious state back into the realm of security.[lxvii] Mimi Nguyen critiques the subjectification imposed by the US through “the gift of freedom.” This ‘gift’ is the outcome of intervention into violent or chaotic states; these states are ‘given’ a particular type of liberation–and told by the US and others that it is liberation. International intervention and aid are similarly related to the “civilizing mission” of colonialism and the “gift of freedom”; these are methods of rejecting guilt or blame for resource extraction, domination, and human oppression. “Liberal empire claims an exception to wage war, and to pardon its own crimes.”[lxviii] The newly “freed”, civilized or aided nation is thus indebted to its savior(s)–a debt it cannot hope to repay. The displaced are the anomaly and, as discussed herein, also not reasonable or credible regarding their own lives; therefore they cannot lodge any substantive protest if they feel they do not need this type of “freedom”. Nguyen states that this process re-creates “structures of race and coloniality.”[lxix] It diagnoses or identifies displaced persons, among others, as anomalous or exceptional. As such, they are subject to “aid” and rules meant to bring them into “normality”: the ideology of “natural” Enlightenment progress toward Western neo-liberal capitalism.
Humanitarianism v. Human Rights
Humanitarianism in the form of NGOs and international aid has provided needed help to millions in crisis. However, for the purposes of this paper I will be discussing how international aid to Haiti and nations like it can perpetuate problems. The structure and underlying philosophies of humanitarianism have shifted into a realm in which they absorb human rights responsibilities from states, delay sustainable infrastructure development, perpetuate corruption, and reiterate stereotypes and myths that harm refugees and displaced persons.[lxx]
NGOs themselves represent a network of processes and relationships; they can facilitate or impeded civic development, as the case of Haiti demonstrates. NGOs invariably act as intermediaries between donors and refugees/IDPs. The key issue in Haiti is which NGOs and which program strategies incorporate Haitians’ self-expressed needs and effectively distribute services based on this input, versus those which perpetuate imperialist power structures.[lxxi] As NGOs have proliferated and been drawn into the global political economy, the emphasis on performance-based or ‘results-driven’ management means these organizations are restricted to those activities and strategies that will satisfy donors and be easily converted into positive statistics.[lxxii] This is not even to account for those which are corrupt and serve to fund illegal operations or line the pockets of directors and staff.
States, including the US, are frequently failing to uphold their obligations to protect human rights and to initiate international discourse about their violation. Despite being signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many nations fail to address or, indeed, themselves perpetrate human rights violations. The UNHDR was passed in 1948 largely in response to the atrocities of World War II. However, episodes of genocide, ethnocide and mass murder by governing bodies have occurred since without official or substantive censure.
Humanitarian aid voluntarily steps into this gap, attempting to feed, shelter, and care for the displaced without invoking politics. However, NGOs and aid groups are unable to rectify the core problem or entirely ameliorate the results. Instead, states manage to avoid responsibility while NGOs compete for donations and resources to continue their work. When funding wanes, displaced persons are left without food, medical care, or other necessities.[lxxiii] Aid organizations, Fadlalla attests, represent refugee situations as “fantasies of rescue and salvation that often obscure histories of colonial and post-colonial encounters and the increasing global inequities underlying violent realities of poverty, conflict, and dislocation.”[lxxiv] Issues of gender, race, ethnicity, politics, and the past and future of refugees are erased in the brief pictures of refugees put forth by humanitarian organizations.
The nature of humanitarianism, Ticktin writes, is “about the exception rather than the rule, about generosity rather than entitlement… when taken to the extreme, [it] entails selling one’s suffering, bartering for membership with one’s life and body.”[lxxv] Furthermore, even compassion can be an impediment; compassion by definition breaches rationality, logic, or negotiation, bypasses politics for empathy–thereby skirting around the very realm of law, as Arendt observed.[lxxvi] Fadlalla summarizes, “Discourses of faith and compassion therefore explain harsh economic realities and governments’ obligations in the language of moral humanitarianism and compassion that gloss over state failures, global inequalities, and socio-economic injustices.”[lxxvii] The refugee becomes real or human only in the framework of charity. They receive aid because of compassion, not because they are individuals who are entitled to protection.
The international “community” has created a universalized concept of “victimized” displaced persons and with it, an imagined global court where injustices proclaimed by activists and NGOs will be heard and rectified. In reality, media exposure of refugees brings no such justice. The focus on sympathetic ideals and “humanity” draws attention away from where it is truly needed: creating locally and internationally accountable bodies to address rights violations and social injustices.[lxxviii]
Displaced persons lose their humanity in this process. They may be alive, but they are not ‘people’; fleeing from failed states, they are not ‘citizens’ of any nation. Their rights and suffering lose clout and context to both the public and officials meant to aid them. Their deaths become numbers that we cannot conceive of as real. To truly empathize with such mass suffering is disabling–“burnout” and “compassion fatigue” are frequently-heard terms in NGO’s, and high staff turnover is expected. Nonetheless, the current state of refugee screening and IDP aid cannot be condoned. Refugee scholars such as Liisa Malkki emphasize that in order to protect refugees and displaced persons, those accountable to them need to be involved in a process of listening to them. She explains that this is not to reduce the importance of humanitarianism, but rather to affirm that because it is essential at the present time, it must be subject to rigorous interdisciplinary study.[lxxix] Additionally, Fadlalla observes that activists need not support the mainstream or hegemonic processes of neo-liberalism or neo-colonialism.[lxxx] They can present a counter-narrative and use globalized perspectives to create senses of solidarity, even when they cannot directly affect policy. Buck-Morss asks, “What if every time the consciousness of individuals surpassed the confines of present constellations of power… this were valued as a moment, however transitory, of the realization of absolute spirit? What other silences would need to be broken?”[lxxxi] We are enjoined to recognize that the only way to reconcile the past is in the present, and that the past is intricately connected to our present. While neither this philosophical shift nor any simple changes in policies can change the state of Haiti or the trajectory of displaced persons’ lives, re-examining these patterns is essential in even beginning to address issues of social justice and postcolonialism. This also means acknowledging that aid needs to be reconceived, and that humans all have histories and agency.
Haiti’s transnational relations have been beleaguered by exclusion through the past two centuries; the main victims of this have repeatedly been the poor and rural residents of Haiti. The result or resort has often been displacement. In the present day, internally displaced persons receiving international aid and international refugees seeking asylum are subject to a variety of processes that suppress their agency. Many who have survived political persecution or injustice are silenced and de-historicized in the apolitical sphere of displacement. They are expected to be victims, to show gratitude, and not to protest violations of their human rights. Similarly, the nation of Haiti as a whole has been subject to silencing, exploitation, and dismissal by other nations beginning with its creation as a nation of freed slaves. Former colonizing nations continue to exercise ideological or cultural authority over previously colonized nations.
In situations of displacement and international aid, scholars from a variety of disciplines have called for critical examination of the historical and sociocultural processes underlying these situations. A connection between administrators and displaced persons needs to be made through historicity, not an appeal to compassion or human nature. This approach requires facing and relinquishing long-held stereotypes, beliefs, and sacred ideas about humanity, history, victims, charity, and justice. Presently in Haiti, NGOs serve as a parallel state, continuing the process set in motion in the colonial era by the United States and France. International intervention has continually served to exclude, extract from, and capitalize on Haiti. Neither the US nor the international “community” has an interest in truly aiding Haiti in becoming self-sufficient–rather, it has been to their advantage multiple times to keep the nation insecure and impoverished. The cost in human suffering as a result has been immense. Haiti is frequently cited as “exceptional” as well as “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”[lxxxii] There are lessons to be learned from both monikers. To many, Haiti is an exception that is best forgotten or brushed off; as the only state created by freed slaves, its history is steeped in dangerous ideas. It is best to be thought of in tandem with poverty and chaos. To others, as this paper seeks to demonstrate, Haiti’s exceptionality lies in its struggles against forces which continually seek to silence and exclude its people.
Additional Works Consulted
C Bohmer and Amy Schuman, Rejecting Refugees: Political Asylum in the 21st Century (New York: Routledge, 2008).
N. Myers, “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 357:1420 (2002): 609-613.
M. Schuller, “They Forgot about Us!” Gender and Haiti's IDP Camps, Interview and Translation. Meridians 11:1 (2011), 149-157.