President Obama has once again demonstrated, in the pages of Newsweek, that he’s capable of uplifting but ultimately empty rhetoric, this time on behalf of “the Haitian people who have been stricken with a tragic history.” Which would be nice, but…. Obama doesn’t once mention our government’s role in that tragic history.
In “No, Mister! You cannot share my pain!” Jamaican columnist John Maxwell offers a brief lesson in the history of Haiti from a perspective we’re unaccustomed to hearing.
Besides offering a withering account of Aristide’s disgraceful 2004 ouster, Maxwell offers some eye-opening angles about earlier Haitian-American relations. The first was that Haiti, along with Nicaragua, was a crucial testing ground for U.S. bombers between the first and second world wars.
Long before Franco bombed Guernica, exciting the horror and revulsion of civilised people, the Americans perfected their dive-bombing techniques against unarmed Haitian peasants, many of whom had never seen aircraft before.
Might I suggest this as a thesis subject for a grad student in history: the role of the people of colonized nations as target practice? The Brits, for example, favored “experimental” bombing of their subject nations. Just one of the myriad revelations in A History of Bombing, Sven Lindqvist’s masterpiece, was that Churchill himself was an early and eager advocate of the bombing of savages in Iraq. He saw it as a “cheaper form of control” and declared himself to be “strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” Man of the Century? That’s about right.
The second interesting angle: the central role played by war hero-turned-antiwar-crusader General Smedley Butler in Haiti, who looked back late in his life to describe his activities in uniform thus:
“I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half-a-dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long….. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. … My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical in the military service.” [That’s a pretty good line!]
Butler was a fascinating character, who in 1934 claimed that he was approached by a cabal of businessmen to lead a Fascist march and to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Congressional committees looked into the allegations, found they were credible … and did nothing. I have always wondered why left-leaning wealthy young actors with clout–Affleck, Damon, Cusack, Penn–haven’t produced a biopic of the life of Smedley….
The third angle Maxwell explores, the purposeful deforestation of Haiti, featured FDR in another role. Under the Dessalines constitution, written in the early years of the 19th century, “only officially certified ‘blacks’ could own land in Haiti.” That inconvenient rule was deleted from the new constitution written for the Haitians by the occupying American regime who had swept in during World War I. Opening up Haiti to foreign ownership was …. drum roll … FDR himself, who was then assistant secretary of the Navy. After FDR opened the door, “the lumberjacks [became] busy, felling old growth Mahogany and Caribbean Pine for carved doors for the rich and mahogany speedboats, boardroom tables seating 40, etc. The devastated land was put to produce rubber, sisal for ropes and all sorts of pie in the sky plantations.”
And let’s not forget religion. Maxwell quotes Haitian performer Marguerite Laurent’s vivid description of Catholic Church collaboration with colonial terror. It evokes echoes of Avatar:
“Don’t expect to learn how a people with a Vodun culture that reveres nature and especially the Mapou (oak-like or ceiba pendantra/bombax) trees, and other such big trees as the abode of living entities and therefore as sacred things, were forced to watch the Catholic Church, during Rejete – the violent anti-Vodun crusade – gather whole communities at gunpoint into public squares, and forced them to watch their agents burn Haitian trees in order to teach Haitians their Vodun Gods were not in nature, that the trees were the “houses of Satan”.
Yup, that kinda stuff doesn’t just happen to blue people on distant planets.