Bill Clinton Loves Haiti
There is no Haiti without Bill Clinton. Rarely has the Republic entered the mainstream press since the January 12, 2010 earthquake without mention of the former US President. When it comes to Haiti, Clinton is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. In the days after the earthquake Clinton saturated the media with Haiti-related appearances on cable news networks, a spread in Esquire Magazine, a speech at the UN, and editorials in prominent newspapers. Clinton is the co-chair of the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti. He is the UN Special Envoy for Haiti. And he is the co-director of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a foundation involved in number of neoliberal economic initiatives in Haiti. Clinton justifies his involvement by saying he is “responding to the needs of Haitians.” But what needs? Which Haitians? And to what end?
There are very few critical appraisals of Clinton’s role in Haiti. It is easy to understand why. The liberal press is enchanted by the story of the Clintons’ “long standing commitment to Haiti” and often point to the history of their “love” for the country. The young, newly-wed Clintons honeymooned there in 1975 and are said to be enraptured by the republic’s culture and people.
However, white liberal sentimentality aside, Clinton’s oversized role in Haiti only makes sense when we remember that both the left and right see Haiti through deeply racist lenses. Haiti is locked within a myth of white liberal benevolence – how else do we explain the uncritical lionizing of Sean Penn or the now-compromised Paul Farmer, among others? While Haiti, it is presumed, cannot help its dysfunctional and incompetent self, Clinton is seen as Haiti’s CEO, its savior, its great white hope.
But Haiti has done more for Clinton than Clinton has done for Haiti.
Haiti was a policy bonanza for Bill Clinton during his presidency. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton used U.S.-Haiti policy to differentiate himself from the first George Bush, castigating his administration for not providing asylum to fleeing Haitian refugees. Once in office, he continued not only the same racist policy of forcibly repatriating Haitian—but not Cuban—refugees, but also their indefinite detention at the notoriously brutal Guantanamo prison. Clinton’s first foreign military intervention also occurred in Haiti. In 1994, he sent 20,000 troops with the official purpose of restoring democracy and returning democratically elect Jean Bertrand Aristide to power. They would remain until 1999.
But this was really not about restoring Aristide, who was deposed in a CIA-backed coup; it was not about democracy because the administration worked with the military junta that overthrew Aristide. Clinton’s policy was also not about improving the lives of Haitians. The real goal was keeping order in Haiti as a means to stem the flow of "ignorant, violent, diseased” Haitian refugees to Florida while also guaranteeing full access to the Haitian market by U.S. business interests. Most importantly, Clinton imposed crucial conditions for Aristide’s return, forcing neoliberal economic policies—including the acceptance of an IMF loan package whose structural adjustment conditionalities included the dismantling of import tariffs and the repression of a minimum wage hike—that would ultimately destroy Haiti’s economic, and political, sovereignty. By dropping import tariffs and flooding the Haitian market with cheap, US-subsidized rice, the Clinton administration destroyed Haiti’s domestic rice production. Clinton recently admitted this fact in a cynical mea culpa.
After a combination of scandals and the dispiriting 2008 presidential campaign that saw Hillary Clinton lose her presidential bid to Barack Obama, Clinton’s popularity seemed to wane. That is until early 2009 when the ever-compliant UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, called on him to be the UN Special Envoy to Haiti. Once again, Haiti came to Clinton’s rescue. As journalist Jeremy Scahill pointed out, it made no difference to many that Clinton “participated in the systematic destabilization of Haiti” by effectively subverting the democratic process and by implementing a “vicious regime of economic neoliberalism” inside the country. In fact, if there was anyone that needed to stay as far away from Haiti and Haitian politics and economics, it was Bill Clinton. But the UN needed a familiar face to legitimate its illegitimate military occupation of Haiti, and the U.S. needed to tap into Clinton’s long-standing relationship with the Haitian business elite for access to Haitian markets and labor.
Just when Clinton could not be more entrenched in Haitian politics, the January 2010 earthquake happened. One mainstream news headline captured this sentiment exactly: “With Response to Haiti, Clinton Returns to the Spotlight.” And liberal fawning over Clinton’s great relationship to Haiti shifted into high gear. With no sense of irony, Obama appointed Clinton and the second George Bush as fundraisers for earthquake relief. At the same time, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, forced the powerless Haitian government to appoint a reconstruction commission that was in theory co-chaired by Bill Clinton, but in practice is run by the U.S., especially USAID. In all of this, the blatant disregard for Haitian dignity and sovereignty, and the gross disrespect for Haitian people, are breathtaking. Nevertheless, except for a couple of underreported news stories about his problematic “relief” work or complicity in the country’s ongoing economic exploitation, Clinton remains, for most people here, Haiti’s golden boy.
It seems that he will continue to enjoy the spotlight. To add insult and irony to injury, Clinton was even recently awarded the Haitian “National Order of Honor and Merit to the rank Grand Cross” by the U.S.-selected government of Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. This was "for his various initiatives in Haiti and especially his high contribution to the reconstruction of the country after the earthquake of January 12, 2010." No wonder Clinton can go around saying he is helping “these people,” helping to “liberate them from 200 years of misery.”
But for Haitians, Clinton’s “liberation” is more dehumanization. On Monday, October 22, 2012, Haiti was in the news again as the two Clintons arrived in the northern city of Cape Haitian to inaugurate the new Caracol Industrial Park. This park, funded with $124 million from US taxpayers (along with $105 million from the Inter-Development Bank), and located far away from the earthquake site, is a new factory complex designed to turn Haitians into sweatshop labor for foreign companies. The main tenant is the South Korean company, Sae-A Trading, which is supposed to pay Haitians a mere $3.65 a day to make products to ship abroad. This park was not well received by Haitians and other activists. But what’s most egregious is that it was built on fertile farmland that was scheduled for environmental protection and displaced hundreds of peasant farmers. As the blog, “Let Haiti Live” rightly argues, Caracol is basically “replacing durable economic activity with dependence on foreign factories.” But for the Clintons and their cronies like Sean Penn and Haitian puppet president, Michel Martelly, that’s exactly what they want for Haiti.
It is Haiti that needs to be liberated from Bill. Bill Clinton is no friend of democracy, fairness, and Black self-determination. His priorities in Haiti are self-serving. At best Clinton will amass great personal wealth and social capital as the front man for the U.S. and European business elites’ neoliberal economic exploitation of the island. At worst, he will continue to be celebrated as the benevolent liberal face of racist U.S. imperialism. Neither of these scenarios bodes well for Haiti.
Meanwhile, Haiti will continue to work for Bill Clinton.
Jemima Pierre can be reached at BAR1804@gmail.com.