From AIDS to Aid, an (Un)Humanitarian Story in Haiti

New Media Fellows 2013

By Sokari Ekine

January 28, 2013

Also published at Pambazuka News and Black Looks

The third anniversary on January 12, 2013, of the earthquake in Haiti was marked yet again by a flood of new reports, opinions, facts and figures: a repetition of the past two years in terms of the lack of progress in reconstruction, the use and abuse of Haitian people by NGOs, failure to provide housing and other basic amenities for the hundreds of thousands who remain in the camps and the exploitation of workers in the new “open for business Haiti” proclaimed by President Martelly.

To try to understand the logic of the present Western (imperial) relationship with Haiti, it is necessary to go back to 1804 and the founding of the Republic. Readers might well say that was 208 years ago and surely irrelevant now, but a close examination will show a surprising consistency in the subjugation and exploitation of Haitian people underpinned by blatant and paternalistic racism and overall fear of the power of the black masses.

The story begins in 1825 with France’s demand for an indemnity payment of 150 gold francs as recompense for the loss of its plantation economy, including slaves, in  exchange for diplomatic recognition and thereby the ability to trade. The debt, which was not fully repaid until 1947, cost Haiti as much as 80 percent of its national revenue. Debt continued to pile up as a result of borrowing to pay back the French debt, and new debts were incurred during the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934, a period which consolidated the United States’ imperial domination of the country.

A new constitution abolished a law prohibiting foreign land ownership and thereby allowed U.S. companies to purchase huge tracts of land, displacing an estimated 50,000 peasants.[1] In addition, a $40 million loan was provided along with the takeover of the national bank and treasury. The cycle of new debt for old has continued to the post-earthquake period.

In 1934, the United States ended its occupation, but not before it had created two militarized forces, the National Guard and the gendarmerie, which would be used to keep the population under tight control by successive dictatorships until the brief presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.[2] Further loans of $250 million were provided to the Duvalier regime, and $158 million to the U.S.-backed government of Henry Namphy, both by the World Bank. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) also lent $110 million to the Haitian government prior to Aristide’s presidency, yet only agreed to lend his government a mere $12 million.[3]

This clear distinction between democratically elected leaders and U.S.-backed unelected leaders has persisted: In 2003, the IDB agreed on a loan of $200 million, the majority of which was only disbursed after the kidnapping of President Aristide on February 29, 2004. Aristide puts it like this: “The reason is very clear: when it’s people who are serious, who will spend money for the country, these foreign banks hold on to the money. When it’s thieves who will misuse the money, with their acolytes, no problem.”[4]

Haiti was not the only Caribbean island subjected to U.S. intervention and imperial power. Nearby Cuba was briefly under direct U.S. control, and Cuban independence was only granted on the condition that the United States retain rights to operate a military base at Guantanamo Bay.

In fact, since the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898, U.S. policies towards Cuba and Haiti have been intertwined in a mix of human subjugation, material exploitation and vagrant disregard for international law.[5] Much of this has been couched in the language of humanitarian intervention, similar to the post-earthquake period.

Who can forget the audacious U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983, which was preceded by various attempts at economic strangulation? Again, the justification was a “rescue” mission as well as a preemptive strike lest Americans be taken hostage--even though there was no evidence to suggest this might happen.[6]

The three Caribbean nations that have either attempted to set up or have successfully established autonomous governments for and by the people have been victims of U.S. terror.

A. Naomi Paik also makes the point that the “simultaneous renewal of the Guantanamo lease and the end of the Haitian occupation [in 1934] are not isolated events.” On the one hand, the United States required a permanent naval base in the eastern Caribbean, and, on the other, an assembly line of cheap, resistance-free labor and for this a pact was made with Jean Claude Duvalier and subsequently his son “Baby Doc.” The result of the violent regime of Duvalier was thousands of refugees fleeing to the United States. Paik explains the logic behind the U.S. hostility toward Haitian refugees, which was a double-edged sword--thousands of black bodies on the shores of the United States and the fact of its own “friendly” self-interested relationship with a brutal dictatorship. The United States attempted to shy away from this fact by claiming the refugees were “economic" rather than political – in reality, a meaningless distinction.

”This distinction, no matter how specious, nevertheless legally justified U.S. nonrecognition of Haitian refugees, a nonrecognition that essentially made the Haitian refugee into a political impossibility. The United States could not sustain its relationship with the regimes that fostered political and economic violence and simultaneously acknowledge the fact that thousands of Haitians feared for their lives in their own country. Its action in dealing with Haitians in Haiti and in its own territory, and in the waters between the two countries, were rooted in a logic of self-interested violence that disregarded Haitian lives,” Paik observes.[7]

The specific policy towards Haitian refugees was known as the Haitian Program and entailed “multiple state agencies collaborating” to deport Haitians already in Florida and to discourage others from leaving Haiti. In her essay, Paik cites a number of legal petitions by the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami that expose blatant disregard for international and humanitarian laws and the biased decisions by U.S. courts. Haitian refugees were singularly excluded, being described as a threat to the (U.S.) community’s well-being. Eventually, during Reagan’s presidency, the Haiti Program was extended to include “interdiction” of refugees by the U.S. coast guard in international waters, which is illegal, and later detention without due process at Fort Allen in Puerto Rico. The justification for the illegal interception of Haitian boats in international waters was configured as a humanitarian intervention that would save Haitian lives.

“Interdiction exemplifies how human rights advanced U.S. nationalist and imperialist interests," Palk explains. "A Janus-faced policy, it utterly denied Haitians the possibility of finding refugee from violence while simultaneously casting its mission as humanitarian investment in saving Haitians from the dangers of open waters.”[8]

Though the United States made it plain that its 1915 invasion was to protect its financial interests, such as the Haitian American Sugar Company, HASCO,[9] subsequent interference, occupation and policies towards Haitian refugees have been presented under the guise of “humanitarian” intervention. Saving Haitians from the open seas, from disease (HIV/AIDS) and from themselves has hidden the truth behind, on one hand, the fear of thousands of Haitians “invading” U.S. shores and, on the other, the opportunity for a cheap labor force just a few hundred miles away. It was only during the democratically elected presidency of Bertrand Aristide that the number of Haitian refugees significantly decreased, only to rise again after the September 1991 coup which forced him into exile in the United States. It was at this time that thousands fleeing Haiti were sent to Guantanamo Bay, and again Haitian boats were intercepted in international waters and forced to return. Those who refused were hosed down and forced off the boats.[10]

Working in parallel with the Haitian Program, the United States was also busy supporting the military junta of coup-maker General Cedrac and inventing and facilitating ways to suppress Lavalas, the party of Aristide, and prevent his return. The suppression was brutal from the start.

Peter Hallward reports: “…to steady their nerves, ordinary soldiers received up to $5000 a piece. As crowds gathered in defense of the government [Aristide] the army opened fire, and kept firing. . . . The soldiers shot everything in sight. They ran out of ammunition so fast that it seems the U.S. had to re-supply them with night-time helicopter flights from Guantanamo. At least 300 people were killed in the first night of the coup, probably many more.”[11]

The strategic importance of Guantanamo is displayed both as a detention center and as a launching pad to terrorize Haiti and no doubt any other Caribbean nation that dared to create an autonomous government. But it was with the detention of HIV+ and suspected HIV+ Haitians that the Haitian Program really came into its own. As Paik points out, the detention of HIV-positive Haitians by the United States at Guantanamo is not just part of the historical “[neo] imperialism in Haiti” but also a continuation of a racist discourse that sees migrants and in particular migrant black bodies as “carriers of contagion.”[12]

The marking of Haitians as carriers of AIDS goes back to the early 1980s, when the “Center for Disease Control (CDC) identified four high-risk groups, known pejoratively as the 4-H club – “homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians.” This was the first time a disease was tied to a nationality, but not the first time black bodies have been tied to racist notions of deviance and contagion [13] and of being a threat to whiteness.

The justification for imprisonment of HIV-positive Haitians was humanitarian – to provide them with “shelter, food and medical care.” In reality, they were being detained in dehumanizing conditions with inadequate water and maggot-ridden food, and forced to take blood tests. Those diagnosed as HIV-positive were isolated, and often men and women were misdiagnosed. Women were forced to have birth control injections and in some instances their children were sent to the United States while they remained in the camp. Trauma was among other illnesses reported, and many detainees were found to have head injuries from beatings. One U.S. official on hearing complaints about the appalling conditions responded that they were going to die anyway.

The immediate reaction of the United States following the 2010 earthquake and the subsequent “restoration policies” need to be seen in the above historical context of exploitation, subjugation and U.S. domestic immigration policy. The decision to prioritize security over real humanitarian need saw the deployment of troops throughout Port-au-Prince in the immediate days after the earthquake; the consolidation of NGO rule (they provide 80 percent of basic public services) [14]; the consolidation of the Free Trade Zone and the creation in January 2011 of a mega assembly line in Caracol (PIRN).

The deal was signed by the “Haitian government,” the U.S. Secretary of State (on behalf of U.S. taxpayers), Korean textile manufacturer, Sae-A Trading, and the IDB. With the sweep of a pen, 300 locally owned plots of land were converted into an industrial park. A report by Haiti Grassroots Watch provides some of the reasons behind PIRN, which also affects U.S. workers:

“Ultimately, in the case of the PIRN at least, US taxpayers are making it easier and cheaper for foreign and local clothing and textile companies firms to set up (sweat-)shops in Haiti, lay off better paid workers in the US and other countries, and increase their profits. If Levis and the GAP can get their clothes stitched in a place that pays US$5.00 a day rather than US$9.00 an hour (approximately the lowest wage paid in US-based clothing factories), with new infrastructure, electricity, UN peacekeepers to provide security, and tax-free revenues and other benefits, why not?”

What’s in it for the main investor, Sae-A Trading? Massive profits from the HELP Act which allows textiles to enter the United States from Haiti, tax-free, and a United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement that gave new meaning to the manufacturing methods of JIT (just in time).

The location of the industrial zone at Caracol also has serious environmental impacts, as explained in a report by Alter Presse. Apart from the loss of farming livelihood to some 1,000 farmers who now constitute cheap production labor, archeological sites will be destroyed, “water appropriated, polluted and made more expensive,” and destruction of farmland means the workers will be forced to ”buy subsidized US food.

Most recently, there have been a number of mining contracts issued to multinational mining corporations. These have just been rejected by the Senate who have asked that the companies 'cease exploitation':

"We can't sit and just say everything must stop. We must take a resolution to tell the Executive this is the position of the Senate of the Republic, the Haitian Parliament on this issue. Everything must be done within regulations. We can not resolve a wrong with a wrong but in the meantime...

"We would like to know the value of the mines in Haiti, we must get this, because we must know what we have - because it's everyday that they are telling us that this country is a poor country, their presence here is humanitarian but there is nothing being done and then, all this time, we are full of resources. And the people who are principally concerned don't have any information on this."

Photo: Waterdotorg (Flickr)

In "Haiti’s Gold Rush," Jacob Kushner writes for Guernica Magazine that “mineral explorers have long suspected Haiti could be sitting on a large gold deposits.” A number of Haitians interviewed, however, say the local people in the northern mountains and elsewhere have always known there was gold in the ground and that U.S. and Canadian mining exploration companies have been testing the region on and off since the 1970s. Permits have been given to two Canadian companies, Majescor (to explore 450 sq kilometers), and Eurasian (1,770 sq kilometers). Two U.S. companies are also involved: VCS Mining have rights over 700 sq kilometers and Newmont Ventures have the largest share. As of December last year, mining permits were given to Majescor and VCS Mining.  

The deal for the mining corporations is the gift from Haiti to multinational capital:

Since 2009, Haiti’s government ministers have been considering a new convention. This would allow Eurasian, Newmont’s business partner, to explore an additional 1300 square kilometers of land in Haiti’s north. But according to Dieuseul Anglade, Haiti’s mining chief of two decades, unlike previous agreements, this one doesn’t include a limit—standard among mining contracts worldwide—on how much of a mine’s revenue the company can write off as costs. Without any cap, a mining company can claim that a mine has an unusually low profit margin, allowing it to pay fewer taxes to the Haitian state; Anglade opposed these terms, and was fired in May.”

Kushner also points to the poor environmental record of Newmont; for example, in 2010 a cyanide spill in Ghana killed fish and destroyed drinking water. There are also questions around the number of possible employees and the conditions under which they would work.

Given the environmental and social devastation of other resource-rich regions such as the Niger Delta, DRC and Ecuador, and the weakness of the Haitian government, rule by NGOs and an overall carpetbagger mentality, it is hard to imagine mining bodes well for local people.

An investigation by Haiti Grassroots Watch found that behind the mining contracts lay “backroom deals, players with widely diverging objectives, legally questionable “memorandums”, and a playing field that is far from level.”

The hills in the Cap Haitian region are the hills of the revolution. They are also the hills where the indigenous people of Haiti, the Taino, were slaughtered by Christopher Columbus and other white settlers. These are now the hills owned by foreign multinational mining corporations. President Martelly’s slogan “Haiti is open for business” should include the line “going for a song.”

Humanitarian aid in Haiti has always been aid in the interest of the donor country, whether it be to keep Haitians off U.S. soil or to exploit their labor on Haitian soil and make even more money for companies in donor countries. It has never been about the Haitian masses.

I have very briefly attempted to outline a few complex historical events in the hope that those interested will seek out further reading such as the following sources used in compiling this piece:

Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, The Earthquake and the UN by Justin Podur 

Haiti – Haitii? Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization by Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti by Jeb Sprague

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward


  1. A. Naomi Paik  “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo: Legacies of US Imprisonment of Haitian Refugees, 1991-1994”  published in Radical History Review Issue 15 /Winter 2013].
  2. Justin Podur [2012] “Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, the Earthquake and the UN Occupation”, Pluto Press, 2012
  3. Jean-Bertrand Aristide [2011]“Haiti-Haitii! Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization”, Paradigm
  4. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti-Haitii!
  5. A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo”
  6. Terry Nardin and Kathleen D Pritchard “Ethics and Intervention: The United States in Grenada, 1983” [] 
  7. A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo”
  8. A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo”
  9. Justin Podur [2012] “Haiti’s New Dictatorship”
  10. A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo”
  11. Peter Hallward “Damming the Flood: Aristide and the Politics of Containment”
  12. A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo”
  13. A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo”
  14. Justin Podur [2012] “Haiti’s New Dictatorship”