After/Shock: a Haitian American Historian, the Politics of Aid and Pan Americanism after Haiti's Earthquake

I have been reading my page proofs for more than a week now. In a few short months my book, From Douglass to Duvalier: US African Americans, Haiti and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964, which examines diplomatic, commercial, cultural relations between the US and Haiti through the lens of Pan Americanism, will finally arrive in select bookstores. Other copies will land on library shelves, ready to collect dust. I’ll set aside a few more to give to my parents, Haitian immigrants who came to the United States in 1969 for a chance at a better life. I realize that the arrival of page proofs is a joyful moment that academics cherish, yet my heart is heavy. My hopes for a brighter future have been compromised because of the recent earthquake in Haiti.

I write now from a space of contradiction and discomfort. Straddling the prickly worlds of the professional and personal, the theoretical and practical, I need space to grieve for a number of family and friends who were killed by the earthquake, time to figure out how my partner and I can possibly help a number of relatives who, like 1.5 million other Haitians, remain homeless at this moment. At the same time, my academic training and my position as a professor — which has prepared me to examine Haiti in its historical context and to critique the disturbing media images and commentary on Haiti that now bombard us — forces me to be distant, speculative and objective at times when I care not to be. This impasse, though maddening at times, ironically proves necessary for me to make sense of this tragedy.

What has become apparent over the past week is that the response to the earthquake in Haiti has produced another Pan American moment within global discourses of militarism and humanitarianism, international cooperation, and security. For many Haiti is often viewed within the West in similar ways to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Congo as a failing or failed state, but without the mineral resources those nations possess. Pan Americanism, born from the routes of 19th century diasporic connections and migration patterns also maintains complicated roots in Caribbean and Latin American foreign policy: it has paradoxically proven useful for Washington officials in spreading a US-styled democracy that stresses mutual cooperation, egalitarianism and non-intervention amongst American nation-states while implementing what Eric Roorda has called “gunboat diplomacy, military occupation and dollar diplomacy.” Caribbean and Latin American intellectuals and state officials often deploy this ideology in order to access US foreign assistance programs, challenge US military aggression and political and economic intervention, and reframe the legacy of European colonialism in the region. In spite of a history of direct challenges to a US-styled Pan Americanism by Caribbean and Latin American peoples, US-based aid and credit organizations, policies and programs that are ideologically rooted in US Pan Americanism (i.e. FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, Harry Truman’s Point Four Program, NAFTA, Inter-American Development Bank and USAID) continue to shape economic aspirations in the region. These programs have indeed fostered some improvements in Haiti and other Caribbean and Latin American countries. For example, in August 2009 I volunteered at a summer camp in Petit-Goâve, Haiti, which was sponsored by a Boston-based Haitian hometown association — the Haitian Organization for the Advancement of Petit-Goâve (HOAP). I remember that the smooth wooden desks and benches at the school bared the stamp of USAID. However, it is critical to note that these same inter-American bodies easily found within the Washington D.C. grid of avenues named after US states, often fail to critique US foreign policy, structural loan programs and a history of underdevelopment due to US occupation (Haiti 1915-34, 1991), military aggression, US financial receivership and political meddling in the Caribbean and Latin America since the turn of the 20th century.

The world has responded to the earthquake that has devastated Haiti’s capital city with a mammoth humanitarian effort, yet there is some concern by Haitians in the diaspora, leftist intellectual circles and even French state officials that humanitarianism is being supplanted by US militaristic maneuvers and Washington interventionist politics. Why has the Obama administration opted to administer its humanitarian effort primarily through the Department of Defense (The Pentagon) instead of with non-military-based institutions? Why has the US Air Force taken over the control tower at Toussaint L’Ouverture airport? Alain Joyandet, a French official who is leading relief efforts in Port-au-Prince, admitted to having an altercation with a US Commander in the air-traffic control tower over the flight plan for a French evacuation flight, “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti,” he insisted. Meanwhile, the Swiss branch of Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) echoed Joyandet’s statements, concerned that “hundreds of lives were being put at risk as planes carrying vital medical supplies were being turned away by American air traffic controllers.” Although there are reports of US and Canadian military bringing unloaded weapons to Haiti, Canada’s committed 2000 soldiers possess strict “rules of engagement to defend themselves as well as United Nations and local police” according to General Natynczyk, Chief of the Canadian Defense forces. What are these rules of engagement? What national security implications does this scenario in fact have for the US and Canada? What repercussions do those directives have for members of the Haitian diaspora? In spite of moratoriums on deportation of Haitian illegal migrants in the United States and the Bahamas, one wonders what we can do about a pervasive culture of fear of Haitian migration in the US and the Caribbean? These are some of the questions with hemispheric implications that continue to trouble me as I follow the tragic aftermath of the January 12th earthquake.

By the second week of 24 hour news coverage of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, I was tempted to turn off the television. I became convinced that the Anderson Coopers, the Katie Courics and the Sanjay Guptas of the world would continue to prove incapable of helping me manage the contradictions of US militarism and humanitarianism. What do we gain by following Dr. Gupta on Twitter? Nevertheless, I had to watch. I had to situate Haiti in its historical and its American context. My work on Haiti, along with a good support network and John Coltrane’s music, is facilitating the healing process. At the same time, some of the incredible academic literature on Haiti has helped me to understand that it remains critical to deconstruct myths about Haiti, to critique the gruesome display of dead and wounded black bodies that proliferates in media coverage, and to move beyond the focus on Port-au-Prince as the singular focus of the devastation. The earthquake rocked cities further to the south like Léogâne, Jacmel and Petit-Goâve though these places are mostly ignored in televised news coverage. Finally, as I think about the earthquake in Haiti, international aid organizations and projects structured by newfangled forms of Pan Americanism, I hope that Haitian people — and people sympathetic to their plight — will work to compel US politicians — through transnational initiatives in education, diplomacy, health and business — to make good on the principles of mutual respect, cooperation, non-intervention and cultural exchange set forth so forcefully in their stated positions regarding Haiti.

This paper was originally delivered at “Haiti in Context: Perspectives on the Current Crisis”a roundtable/teach-in organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU, January 20, 2010.

Millery Polyné is an Assistant Professor of African American and Caribbean Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His book, From Douglass to Duvalier: US African Americans, Haiti and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964, will be published in May 2010 by University Press of Florida.

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