Arguably no country in the Western Hemisphere has suffered as much as Haiti over the last 200 years, and yet, there still seems to be more bad news for the country. Today’s NY Times (here) and Miami Herald (here) talk about the rather startling decision by the Obama administration to continue deporting upwards of 30,ooo Haitian immigrants that are in the US either as undocumented aliens or without the necessary visa/green card. The fact that these stories are surfacing almost exactly on the fifth anniversary of Jean Bertrand Aristide’s democratically elected government being thrown out of power by the combined efforts of the US, Canada and French, only adds to the tragedy in all of this.
The double standards of the US’s foreign policies towards Haiti has been painfully evident for decades. Cubans are granted automatic asylum under the ‘wet foot dry foot’ policy that has been in place since 1995, though in reality they have had a privileged immigration status since at least 1966. Haitians, however, have been returned by the thousands and have been forced to live in fear of deportation, even though almost all of them could claim to be escaping persecution, economic hardship, or natural disasters. Why has this been the case?
Haiti holds a special place in the history of the world, in that it is the only country where a slave rebellion actually succeeded in bringing former slaves to power. The Haitian Revolution has a massive impact on the development of the US (mostly likely the Louisiana Purchase would not have happened without Napoleon losing the prize colony in the Caribbean) and the decisions to ban the slave trade in the early 1800 by the British and others. Plenty have argued that Haiti is still being punished for its slave led revolution over 200 years later, which I personally think is true, but I find quite impossible to understand why.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere by far, and has been for decades. Unlike other countries in Latin American and the Caribbean, Haiti has been occupied by the US military or its proxies several times (1915 – 1934; 1994 – 2000; 2004 – present) in a way that is more reminiscent of the gunboat diplomacy of 100 years ago. While the US has also invaded Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989) during the last few decades, the US has generally used a mix of threats and embargoes, i.e. ‘soft power,’ or simply thrown their support behind sympathetic dictators in a range of LAC countries since the 1960s. So why does the US keep beating up on the weakest kid in school? All I can guess is that due to Haiti’s chronic instability, endemic poverty and lack of powerful sponsor, it is an easy target that can be used as a reminder of the power that the US can exert to help or to to harm its neighbors.
As for the reasons why Obama has decided to continue with this policy, I think it is another case of long term political strategy trumping an issue. As excited as I am by the budget that Obama put forward this week, he has continued to operate as if he was still involved in a political campaign for office, rather than a sitting president. In some ways, it brilliant. Obama knows that his first term is going to be littered with bad news that he is virtually powerless to stop. He was handed two wars, a massive global financial crisis, rising unemployment, falling housing prices, and a growing federal deficit, just to name a few. So, my guess is that the Haitians are a group he would rather not screw over, but at the same time won’t bend over backwards to help since he gets almost nothing politically in return.
The number of Haitians in the US has exploded over the last thirty years to around 1 million people in the US, but with the exception of Florida, most of them are in solidly democrat controlled states, such as NY or Massachusetts, or in large cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Washington DC that overwhelmingly voted for Obama. The only major Haitian enclave missing from this list is in Miami, Florida, a state that has given the Democrats nightmares long before the hanging chads of the 2000 election. My thoughts are that Obama sees more to gain by trying to win over the larger Cuban-American community in Florida, rather than doing what’s right for the Haitian community right now. If the economy was stronger or his other priorities were further along, perhaps he would be handling this differently. I don’t really know, but I imagine that it is a pretty difficult time for a large group of undocumented immigrants to be given safe haven in the US when jobs are being lost at the fastest rate since the Great Depression.
Lastly, Haiti is still reeling from the devastation of the four hurricanes that struck the island between August and September last year. CounterPunch (here) and the Guardian (here) have good background articles on how dire circumstances are in Haiti these days. Hopefully, these extenuating circumstances will stop Obama from carrying out the remaining deportation orders, but I doubt it greatly. The least that he could do is to provide more aid and assistance to help Haiti rebuild Gonaives and other cities that were almost wiped off the map last summer, help international NGOs and non-state actors expand their work in the public health sector, and allow Aristide to come back to the country and clear his name.
Time will tell, but for now it looks like the Haitians are being pushed back out to sea.