In the News: The Shock Doctrine in Haiti: An Interview with Patrick Elie

by Beverly Bell. Originally posted at The Huffington Post

Patrick Elie has long been a democracy activist. Moreover, during President Aristide’s administration-in-exile during the 91-94 coup d’etat, Patrick was coordinator of the anti-drug unit of the National Intelligence Service, where he was key to exposing the collusion between the U.S. government and the military coup leaders. He subsequently served as Aristide’s secretary of defense. Here Patrick discusses how the ‘shock doctrine’ is working in Haiti, why equality is essential to rebuilding the nation, and why Haitians need to break from the vision that the international community has for its reconstruction.

The Shock Doctrine, the book by Naomi Klein, shows that often imperialist countries shock another country, and then while it’s on its knees, they impose their own political will on that country while making economic profits from it. We’re facing an instance of the shock doctrine at work, even though Haiti’s earthquake wasn’t caused by men. There are governments and sectors who want to exploit this shock to impose their own political and economic order, which obviously will be to their advantage.

One thing to watch is a humanitarian coup d’├ętat. We have to be careful. Especially in the early days, the actions weren’t coordinated at all and they overtook the goalie, which is the Haitian government. The little bit of state that’s left is almost irrelevant in the humanitarian aid and reconstruction. What is going to happen is that it’s not Haitians who will decide what Haiti we want, it’s people in other countries.

This doesn’t make sense from a moral perspective, and it also won’t work. A people can’t be developed from the outside. What’s more, in Haiti we have a very strong culture. If you ask people if they want the U.S. to take over the country, even among those who say yes: come back in ten years, and you’ll see that the same people will rise up against the occupation.

We know the Haitian government is weak, and we can’t count on it alone to lead the battle. We all, organized Haitians and our friends, have to stomp our feet and say, “No, this can’t happen. Haitians have to develop their own country.” We need help and support from others, as they say here, to grow the plantains. But they’re our plantains. Haitians have to be the ones to construct the country we need. We have to be in charge.

We have to speak of the role the international community played before the earthquake, and how that role contributed to the destruction of the earthquake: why there were so many victims and so much damage. The politics of certain foreign countries – especially the U.S. since the beginning the 20th Century and, before that, the French – have accentuated the inequality and impoverishment of the people, especially the peasantry.

The soul of the country is the peasantry, and that’s where the true resistance to attempts to put the country under foreign power lies. So foreign policies have focused on undermining the peasantry, as well as weakening the Haitian state. They [the U.S. government] destroyed the Creole pigs [on which peasants depended as their savings bank]; they destroyed local rice by putting Haitian producers in unequal competitors with American producers. That’s why small producers couldn’t survive in the countryside. That’s why the population of Port-au-Prince swelled so much, and why the houses were so poorly constructed and in places where people should never have constructed them in the first place. The result was an earthquake which should have killed some thousands of people, but which instead killed more than 200,000 people.

The peasant migration to the capitol: it’s part of our history, in which Haitians are meant to be the lowest paid manual workers. Slavery was the cheapest labor force you could get. Afterward, following the U.S. occupation of Haiti of 1915-1934, Haitians were supposed to provide the hands to cut sugar cane on the plantations. Now it’s no longer sugar cane, it’s manual labor in the textile factories. For that, it’s important to have the political regime you want, but also a peasantry who has to go to work in the factories for the lowest price possible after they can’t any longer produce enough food even to support themselves, let alone feed the nation.

I’m afraid that this vision for Haiti exists from many sources, and that this is the plan that our new friends have for Haiti. We must be very vigilant, and our friends must be very vigilant.

Politically, Haiti’s situation today is like the one after November 18, 1803. That was the big, last battle that finished the war. Haiti was a devastated country, but in that case the devastation was caused by a war of liberation. Then as now, the people were contemplating how they would construct a new political structure amidst the debris.

Independence was proclaimed on January 1, 1804. The people were confronting very powerful enemies inside and out, who opposed their building the society they wanted, which was to be built on three rocks [on which Haitian cook stoves traditionally sit]: liberty, equality, and fraternity. As soon as they took away the rock of equality, fraternity became impossible. Since there was no cohesion, we lost liberty, too.

Today, we have to put the three rocks back under the stove, or it will tip over. What this new Haiti needs today is what Haitians wanted in 1804: equality. The riches of this country are distributed in an imbalanced way. I don’t say that everyone will have exactly the same riches, but everyone has to have the same chance in life.

One thing is land. I can’t believe how some people have such a quantity of land while others have none at all, even though we are all the inheritors of [revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques] Dessalines. I don’t say that we should cut up Haiti into many tiny pieces so each person has some; that would be stupid. But it has to be used in a way that gives others a chance to live.

Look at access to education, too, where inequality manifests today as historically. Education is one of the main tools which can bring equality between citizens. For centuries, the elite didn’t let people have education. Now we’re making progress in the number of children who are going to school, but still the quality isn’t good; it’s not equal.

A country with this kind of inequality doesn’t have a chance to survive this shock.

We have to highlight these questions and insist they get addressed forcefully, so the Haiti we’re rebuilding doesn’t look like the Haiti that the earthquake just ravaged.

You know that often earthquakes provoke tsunamis, huge waves that come after the quakes that sometimes cause more damage than the quakes themselves. I’m afraid that there may be a social tsunami after this earthquake. There are people – Haitian and foreign – who, for their own reasons, can use the frustration of the Haitian people to create disorder, and then use that to pursue their own agenda. I’m not scared of the plots of Haitian politicians, but when they marry them with other governments or businessmen, it’s always very dangerous for Haiti.

I can’t accept that there is no alternative. I see one, but it will take a lot of work. It will require the Haitian people to begin organizing themselves again. It will also require a new political class to enter the scene. This political class is finished; their capacity to propose valid things is spent. For this new political class to emerge, we need youth, but youth with training – not just formal education, but political education that can take from their minds the idea that we can model Haiti on the vision of other countries, and in which we have to play catch-up. The idea of our adopting the model of supposedly more advanced countries like the U.S., that’s a choice, too, but it’s a choice of death. I would rather see us, instead of always trying to catch up, break away and make another path for our own development.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds,, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.