Canada’s involvement in Haiti is usually described as humanitarian. But according to Roger Annis, a trade union activist who has travelled twice to Haiti, the consequences of Canadian foreign policy aren’t all they’re chalked up to be. In an interview with photographer and journalist Darren Ell, he describes the impact of these policies.
Roger Annis is a member of Vancouver’s Stopwar.ca coalition and the Canada-Haiti Action Network. He was in Haiti in August, 2007.
Darren Ell: Could you share your impressions of Haiti from your last mission? And what is Canada’s role in the current situation?
Roger Annis: We saw what I would describe as an economic and social calamity. The words can’t be used strongly enough, and it’s certainly what Haitians themselves tell us.
Unemployment is maybe 70 to 80 per cent of the population. Half of Haiti’s children don’t go to school. Basic municipal services, like sewage and garbage disposal, aren’t available. Haiti’s health indicators put them at the poorest in the world, not just the poorest in the western hemisphere.
[Haiti is] poor, and it remains poor, and if anything it’s getting worse. And much of this has to be traced, I think, back to the events of February 2004.
Haiti’s sovereign and elected government was overthrown in a coup d’état, which involved small numbers of heavily armed and financed right-wing Haitian paramilitaries, combined with the intervention of Canada, the United States, and France. Those three countries invaded Haiti on February 29, 2004, and accomplished what the [paramilitaries] couldn’t, which was the overthrow of the elected government.
Haiti’s entire system of government and social infrastructure was shattered. It wasn’t just the removal of the elected president, but the shattering of social infrastructure and a democratic government committed to social reform. Aristide’s government doubled the minimum wage, it was building housing for the poor, it was expanding school and healthcare facilities – under great duress and not at the pace they would have liked – but nonetheless these reforms were real. Aristide was turning the country outwards to the world – it was under his leadership earlier that Haiti recognized Cuba diplomatically for the first time.
All of that came to a halt in 2004. So I think the countries that were responsible for the overthrow of the government share a great burden of responsibility for the current calamity.
DE: Did you see evidence in your 2007 trip of lasting effect of the calamity of 2004?
RA: Yes. We were there three and half years after the coup – and it’s like time has stood still. Nothing has changed. There are no economic projects of any substance. We travelled on the main national and secondary highways, and they’re in a very bad state of disrepair.
Health care is unavailable to the majority of the population, and for those who do have access, it’s very inadequate. Whatever was achieved during president Aristide’s government, it’s either stood still or gone backwards. And the anger and frustration that the Haitian people feel stems from that – they feel they were making progress, and there’s nothing to indicate that things will change now.
DE: What did you see in some of the cities you visited, like Port-de-Paix or Gonaives?
RA: We set out for one week in the north in the country. Our first stop was in Gonaives….We were shocked by what we saw. Gonaives was hit by Hurricane Jeanne in September 2004 – that was six months after the coup d’état. Because the coup had shattered the whole social and political infrastructure, there was no system of civil defence in place to deal with the incoming hurricane. As a result, 2,500 people died, and 1,000 went missing. The city was under water for weeks. Health care facilities were only airlifted in by the Red Cross days after the [hurricane] struck.
The devastating consequences of the hurricane were very much a product of the coup. There was no municipal or civil power in place to deal with it. But then what was shocking for us was to see that not much had changed since then. The city is a disaster zone, it looks like a war has been fought there. Rubble in the streets, damaged buildings and roadways that haven’t been repaired. Of course it also has all the other problems of cities in Haiti – no jobs, little electrical service, no clean drinking water through the municipal water service.
Pretty tough sight, very visible evidence of the complete neglect the Haitian people have been facing over the last three years.
Now in the case of Hurricane Jeanne, 3,500 people dead or unaccounted for – when this kind of humanitarian catastrophe happens it is a result of negligence, of criminal negligence on the part of the political authorities. Just as we saw in New Orleans, so too in Gonaives, Haiti.
But that was the nature of the coup d’état. It stripped away Haiti’s ability to govern itself and have a government that’s responsible to its population.
DE: What about the justice system in Haiti?
RA: The Haitian national police act as a law unto themselves, they arrest people without warrants under charges that are specious. There’s a recent [Human Rights Watch] report that’s been issued on the conditions in Haiti’s prisons. Six thousand prisoners are being held, and 80 per cent of them have never seen a judge. Haiti’s law requires that anyone put into prison must see a judge within 48 hours in order to determine whether the person’s continued incarceration is warranted. And of course, the system is predicated on the idea that you have a speedy trial once you get in trouble with the law.
All of that is broken down, and this should be of great concern to Canadians, because Canada prides itself on two things that it’s doing in Haiti. One is financing the Justice Ministry of the Haitan government; that is, the very ministry that doesn’t have the resources to process the people that find themselves in trouble with the Haitian national police.
Canada has also been assigned by the United Nations Authority to train the Haitian National police, and they’ve been doing this for the past three years with a police force in Canada drawn from the RCMP and the municipal police forces in Quebec. So they’re the ones that are training this agency that doesn’t want to abide by Haiti’s civil code or by the constitution. So one has to ask the question, what exactly is it they’re being trained for by the Canadian police, and why is the Canadian public unaware of what appears to be the complete failure to accomplish what it’s there to do?
DE: How much of this type of material is available to Canadians through the media?
RA: Well, next to none…the coup itself was presented by the media in a very distorted fashion. The argument was that President Aristide was an unpopular leader who was responsible for gross human rights violations. Therefore, the population wanted him out of power and benevolent countries like Canada came along to help. That was not the case at all…. This was a government committed to social reform, and those that wanted to keep Haiti as a source of cheap labor and cheap national resources wanted this government and this president out of the way.
DE: Prior to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, Haiti was the prime recipient of Canadian international development aid. Now it is second-highest. And yet we hear nothing about it. What is the impact of aid in Haiti?
RA: I think for Canadians, Haiti is the canary in the coal mine. It should be sending an alarm to thinking Canadians that something is wrong and broken in the aid system. First of all, aid has been used directly as a political weapon against the sovereignty of the Haitian people and their will to have positive social and economic reform. The government of president Aristide, who came to power immediately after the elections of 2000, was faced almost immediately with the cutoff of aid by the three big powers in Haiti, which are Canada, France, and the United States.
Now, much of that money was diverted towards charities and nongovernmental organizations to build them up as alternatives to the sovereign government. And so today, something like 80 per cent of the services that would normally be delivered by a Haitian government are delivered by charities and non-governmental organizations.
This is becoming a source of increasing anger and frustration for the Haitian people. We hear lots of stories from people while we were there of the claims and the promises that are made of foreign aid, but in fact the actual programs never bring about any meaningful results for the people, whether it’s in developing irrigation systems to assist agriculture, building better roads, building schools and hospitals and so on.
Only a fraction of the money that the Canadian’s development agency says that it’s spending in Haiti actually reaches the Haitian people. In some cases, it’s used directly to subvert the sovereign authority and now there’s the money that simply gets paid in salaries and lifestyles for people that sign on to the NGO system, be they Canadians or Haitians. It’s a broken model.
I think there is an alternative. In March, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, came to Port-au-Prince for 36 hours, and Cuba’s parliament was also involved in the meetings. They signed extensive programs for economic and social development. Venezuela will build Haiti’s first oil refineries. It’s committed road-building equipment and expertise to help to repair Haiti’s roads, Cuba and Venezuela will contribute funds and resources to schools and medical facilities. That’s the kind of aid that Haiti and any underdeveloped country should receive.
It’s not getting that from the likes of Canada, U.S., and France. I hope that the positive example that Venezuela and Canada are setting will shame governments like the U.S. and Canada into providing some real and meaningful assistance, because certainly what’s going there now is not Canada’s committed $520-million to Haiti over the next five years.
DE: What does lacking sovereignty mean for a country like Haiti?
RA: Haitians don’t have sovereign control over their country. Their sovereign government has been overthrown, and this is just the latest in a long chapter. Haiti, of course, fought a very noble and brilliant war for independence and to abolish slavery [from 1791 to 1804], but they were never given the opportunity develop economically, almost from the get-go.
After their independence in 1804, they were shunned by the rest of the world, they were not allowed to have normal economic relations with the rest of the world. And when France, for example, offered to extend diplomatic relations to Haiti in 1825, it was done under the condition that Haiti pay indemnity for the loss of the slaveholder’s property. Haiti was occupied for 20 years by the United States from 1915 to 1934, and when the United States left, they left in place a military system that would keep the country beholden to U.S. interests.
This is why their country is as poor and underdeveloped as it has – they’ve never had the sovereign freedom to develop the country along the lines that the majority of the people want, which is a society of social justice.
Darren Ell is a photographer, independent journalist, and MFA student at Concordia University. He has been working in Haiti since 2006 and will be presenting an exhibition of his at the MFA Gallery, 1395 René-Levesque Ouest, in the last two weeks of September 2008. More of his work can be found at citizen.nfb.ca
The Daily originally reported that the coup had happened 3 years ago. In fact, the coup happened 4 years ago. The Daily regrets the error.