by Mitchel Cohen
Hardly a day goes by at the US Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, without some kind of demonstration by the 14,000 Haitian refugees interned behind barbed wire fences and armed guards. Whether singing for the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (who was overthrown by a US-funded military coup in 1991 eight months after winning election with 67 percent of the popular vote), chanting against the inhumane and crowded conditions, wearing white to symbolize their demand for political asylum, or escaping from the camps en masse and trying to swim away from the brutalities of the US military into Cuba proper, the refugees are now in a constant state of rebellion.
On September 6, refugees stormed the fences, hurling rocks at guards and managed to break free of the confines of the base for a short while before being recaptured. On August 22, some 1,000 people broke out of two of the seven internment camps and mar ched to the center of the base protesting the better treatment given to Cubans and demanding political asylum and the return of President Aristide. Instead of negotiating, the military imprisoned 736 demonstrators in isolated barracks for four days. On th e morning of August 13, more than a thousand refugees at several camps began demonstrating against the living conditions and continued imprisonment. Singing and chanting slogans, at least 120 refugees, perhaps as many as 300, escaped from one camp. They c limbed over the rows of razor wire fences, dove into Guantánamo Bay, and tried to swim to freedom in Cuba. Some of the refugees clashed with armed soldiers in full riot gear. Twenty troops and 45 refugees were injured. Military officials locked up 330 peo ple who took part in the protests.
That the men, women and children interned at Guantánamo since late June feel compelled to assert their humanity should come as no surprise. Haitian refugees have been brutalized and imprisoned for decades by the US government. Just last year a Federal judge ordered Guantánamo closed because of the "outrageous, callous and reprehensible" treatment of some 300 refugees imprisoned for nearly two years because they, or one of their family members, tested positive for HIV. The judge's ruling followed a campaign by the refugees themselves, AIDS and anti-intervention activists, Haitian groups, students and legal workers to shut the camp.
While other countries around the world regularly accept refugees, Washington decided that the 20,000 people who fled the terror of Haiti in June and July were too much to handle. (Malawi, for instance, one of the poorest countries in the world, took in more than one million Mozambicans in the late 1980s.) So the Clinton administration re-opened Guantánamo as an internment camp and dumped the Haitian refugees on the inhospitable tarmac of a disused airfield.
In fact, of the 24,000 Haitians intercepted in international waters by the US Coast Guard from 1981 until Aristide came to office, only eleven (out of 24,000!) were granted asylum; the rest were shipped back. (By comparison, 75,000 Cuban refugees were picked up in that same period. All 75,000 were granted immediate asylum.)
As if that was not enough, US officials harass the refugees in a bid to get "voluntary repatriations" back to Haiti. They've hired interpreters with long-standing ties to the Ton Ton Macoute death squads to terrorize the refugees, and keep them under control. The food is rancid, health care facilities are poor, and people have no clothes or shoes. Refugees who demand better conditions are denied food or arrested and placed in steel 5 x 6 foot cages. To further isolate the refugees and hide the problems at the base the military has barred outside communication, including contact with families in the US or Haiti. (By contrast, the names of the Cubans at Guantánamo have been published in the Miami Herald so that relatives can get in touch.) In letters smu ggled out of the camps, refugees report rapes, as well as sexual blackmail and harassment by US soldiers. As one US soldier said to the New York Times (Aug. 30, 1994): "I hate them. It's like I'm in a concentration camp." Too bad he doesn't consider how the refugees must feel.
It was late Spring, 1939. Hitler's armies had for two years already begun their conquests. All over Germany the gestapo were rounding up Jews and hauling them off to concentration camps.
Anti-fascists in the US lobbied the government to raise immigration quotas in order to let in Jews fleeing fascism, to no avail. Too many powerful US corporations and businessmen supported the nazis; they found the economic climate within Germany good for business and liked the idea of Germany fighting a war against the Soviet Union. The billionaire and extremely anti-Jewish DuPont family of Wilmington, Delaware plotted a coup against the presidency to prevent the US from opposing the nazis. President Franklin Roosevelt bowed to their pressure and refused to increase the quotas, just as he refused to allow aid shipments to the loyalists fighting fascism in Spain.
In early June of 1939, a ship, the SS St. Louis, was intercepted by the Coast Guard and prevented from docking. On board were more than 930 Jewish refugees. They were not allowed to disembark in the US. The ship was forced to turn around. Jews were con sidered the scum of the earth, pawns in an international power play. No one wanted them. Following the US's lead, country after country rejected the ship's human cargo. In fact, in those years, only Serbia, alone among the so-called civilized nations, welcomed Jewish refugees while Croatia fought alongside the nazis, which is of no small consequence in weighing the civil war raging today in Yugoslavia. With no place to dock, the SS St. Louis was forced back to Europe. Many of the refugees later died in na zi concentration camps.
The first wave of refugees from Haiti began with the arrival of the boat Saint Saveur on December 12, 1972. From the start Haitians, who were fleeing the brutal Duvalier dictatorship whose family had run Haiti for 30 years with the financial and military assistance of the US, were treated differently than the mostly white Cubans, who flooded into Florida, New Jersey and New York in much greater numbers beginning in the late 1950s. The refugees were met by charges in the US press that "Black Haitians" would be taking away "American" jobs, going on welfare and sapping "our" resources. No one talked about the role of the US in creating the conditions forcing people to flee. We heard much of the need to pay off the compounded interest on the debt to the ba nks, welfare for the rich, but the debt that we in the US owe to colonized people around the world for their sacrifices and exploitation on which our wealth is built has never been much of an issue.
The island of Hispaniola, of which Haiti now occupies the western half, has its own long history, before being divided by European powers. It was there that Christopher Columbus traveled after first setting ashore in the Bahamas in 1492. There, the native peoples, the Arawak, discovered Columbus on their beach as he claimed the land in the name of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, who, suffering a delightful day murdering Jews at the Inquisition, salivated at the promises of gold, plunder and conquest Columbus dangled before them and so funded Columbus's venture.
Enter the IMF, International
Modern day imperialists are more sophisticated. They kill with their wallets, creating huge swaths of poverty and famine that appear to be "natural" and beyond human control. Exploitation and land enclosure, not genocide (except in occasional circumstances), is their ambition. So in 1981, when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank instituted a new "structural adjustment program" for Haiti, none of Columbus's language was evident. But the results were the same.
This particular structural adjustment program was designed to uproot one-third of the rural population growing food for local consumption and to force the peasants off their land and into urban areas, lands which their families had cultivated for hundreds of years and which had sustained them. These lands were to be turned over to agribusiness conglomerates producing export crops, forcing the migration of the rural population to urban areas, a mass rip-off enforced by the "newly-trained" Haitian milita ry. Thousands of impoverished, hungry and persecuted Haitians boarded leaky boats and fled, attempting to cross the harsh 800-mile passage to Florida.
Far from being unanticipated, the mass migration was exactly what US/UN strategists had planned. Through "international" organizations such as US Agency for International Development (USAID), the IMF and the World Bank, Haitian agriculture was to be in tensely corporatized and made dependent on exports to US markets; and the displaced and desperate rural population would serve directly as cheap laborers in Florida and Haiti and as a "reserve army of labor" to be used by capitalists and large landowners to drive down wage demands and unionizing efforts of American, Haitian and Dominican workers.
All of this was made possible, of course, by prior US intervention. The US intervened militarily in Haiti 24 times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even before developing the capacity to "structurally adjust" Haiti's economy to the requirements of US capital, various US administrations took pains to establish US military might in the region, which would ensure ongoing and future economic exploitation. The government planned a military base for Mole St. Nicholas, at the northwestern tip of Hai ti overlooking the Windward Passage. It established a military base across the northern end of the passage in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (Cuba, along with the Philippines and Puerto Rico, was itself part of the plunder taken by the US in the 1898 Spanish-Ameri can War.)
In July 1915, the US dispatched thousands of Marines to Haiti. The military occupation lasted 19 years and treated the Haitians with utter brutality and racism, introducing coordinated air-ground bombings into modern warfare. The Haitian patriotic resi stance, known as the Cacos, was crushed. US soldiers assassinated its leaders, including Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, Charlemagne Peralte and Benoit Batraville.
US Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips described the Haitians as "an inferior people [unable to] maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French or to develop any capacity of self-government entitling them to international respect and confidence." Smedley Butler, a US Marine Corps Major at the time, prided himself in having "hunted the Cacos like pigs." (Years later, Butler would become Commandant of the Marine Corps and, after reconsidering the role of the US in world affairs and in repressing Haitians, among others, he became an ardent opponent of US imperialism. In fact it was Butler who, selected by the DuPonts to lead a fascist coup to overthrow the US government, immediately reported the plot and turned in the conspiracy to the US Congress.)
During the Marines' occupation of Haiti, thousands of peasants were jailed, tortured and maimed. US forces killed as many as 50,000 Haitians and disarmed the majority of its citizens while establishing a new Haitian police force and army to oversee corporate interests in that country and repress the popular movement.
The US occupation laid the foundation for a century of political and economic domination of Haiti. US capitalists seized control of Haiti's banks. US officials changed a 100-year-old Haitian law that prevented foreign ownership of land and began seizin g hundreds of thousands of acres, throwing thousands of people off the land. They legalized the land grab and exploitation by writing it into a new constitution. The occupying army reinstated the corvée, the hated system of forced labor, and chopped down the forests to construct a road through central Haiti, so that the new plantations could bring their products to port and export them to the US. The US officials censored the press and arrested political dissidents, trying them in military courts. Many we re executed.
Another Word for Nothing Left to Loot
Every economic intervention by the United States is accompanied by political repression. In recent times this dirty truism has been sanitized by the sterile language of the "free market." "Intervention" itself is such a clean word. It conjures up image s of expert jewelers tinkering just slightly with some high-class Swiss watch in need of fine tuning, "adjusting" some malfunctioning mechanism, "professionalizing" the military and "democratizing" civil society to set things right. With "intervention" we hardly feel the upheavals it causes in people's lives, the long fingers of imperialism reaching up through the ancient dust, the blood-soaked memories that leak through daily life and permeate all interaction and relationships, but rarely reach the board rooms of General Electric, Capitol Cities, or the Tisch real estate empire, the owners of the NBC, ABC and CBS networks respectively.
Every American "intervention" in Haiti has taken place in collusion with the Haitian bourgeoisie and big landowners while keeping Haiti in poverty, illiterate and under a perpetual reign of terror in order to extract millions in profits and maintain economic and political control. Consequently, the distinction made by the government between political and economic refugees is, in Haiti's case (as well as in many others), purely a ruse to hide the consequences of the US's own policy, which, when it comes to the government's own actions does not distinguish between economic and political, and the earthquakes it causes in people's lives.
In the early 1970s and again beginning in 1981, new US policy decisions created conditions in Haiti that caused thousands of Haitians to take to the sea. The US, already amassing immigrant laborers from Southeast Asia, México, El Salvador and other con sequent victims of US imperial wars, and controlled by the new Reagan-Bush government (which spearheaded a sector of capital competing with the mostly banking and petroleum-based Trilateralists, who have different strategic interests), intensified rounding up the refugees.
As with the 1939 boatload of Jews from Nazi Germany (some things never change!), the US refused to grant the new wave of "boat people," as they were then called, safe haven. While the Jewish refugees were refused entry and turned away, the Haitian situ ation is even more despicable: they are being incarcerated in detention camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and then deposited directly into the arms of the very fascists they had fled.
An Unholy Alliance
Despite the repression at Guantánamo, people living in the United States have heard little about what is happening. Of course, the Clinton administration has tried to isolate the refugees from the outside world. But just as important, many organization s that claim to advocate for refugees support the Clinton administration's ludicrously named policy of "safe haven." The American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Jewish Committee, Church World Service, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the National Immigration Forum, TransAfrica, and the US Committee for Refugees, among others, endorse capturing Haitian refugees in international waters and taking them to a prison. "We strongly support the safe haven policy," says the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. Safe Haven is "a human response to a very difficult problem," argues Archbishop McCarrick, the head of the US Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Service.
For seven months of President Aristide's tenure, there were no Haitians applying for political asylum in the United States. Since February 1992, when President Aristide was overthrown, more than 60,000 people have applied for political status at US Emb assy sites in Haiti, the only channels the US government has set up. (Imagine requiring Jews in wartime Germany to apply for asylum in offices near gestapo headquarters.) Even though they followed every procedure, however dangerous, less than 2,000 have b een granted asylum here.
Recent revelations in the press that many of the top Haitian coup conspirators have for years been on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency, as the left had been saying all along, should come as no surprise. The US created, trained, financed a nd supplied the Haitian army. According to Gen. Raoul Cédras, the head of the 1991 coup against popularly-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 75 percent of the Haitian army has been trained by the Pentagon. The fascist attachés and Macoutes bloodying the stre ets of Port-au-Prince today are funded by the US government.
President Clinton, continuing the policies of the previous administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, verbally professes his good faith and sincerity in restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and democracy to Haiti. His administration proposes intervention of US/UN troops to "professionalize" the Haitian army and police, which will, supposedly, protect human rights and bolster democracy. He would like it to appear that the US is poised against the murderous Haitian army.
The actions of the US government, however, offer an entirely different picture: one of drug trafficking, crimes against humanity, and diplomatic double-dealing and treachery. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 26,400 pounds of cocaine enter the US each year via Haiti, with the junta's collaboration and profit-taking, military personnel advised, trained, funded and kept in power by the United States. Beginning with a few hundred "advisers" and under an international organization (the UN), the US plans to "re-train" the Haitian army and police, not to indict the death squads and drug traffickers, but to crush the popular movement and bolster allegedly "moderate" elements in the business sector who are opposed to "radical" reforms (like increases in the minimum wage). The US insists that Haitian generals who have made millions in the drug trade be included in a government of "reconciliation"; that Haitian refugees, fleeing for their lives, be picked up by the Coast Guard and handed over to the police in Port-au-Prince, where they are often tortured, raped and murdered; that the Haitian peoples' cries for justice be met with "amnesty" for the putschists, death squads, and drug kingpins; that when the Haitian military is denounced for hum an rights abuses, it calls President Aristide's mental health into question; that when the Haitian people call for the demobilization of the military, the US responds by sending Green Berets, FBI police trainers and tens of millions of dollars in "technical assistance" to forge a more "efficient" counter-insurgency army.
Despite the fact that the US clandestinely supported the coup in Haiti and has consistently attacked President Aristide, some still argue that US/UN forces are needed to stop the Haitian military from butchering people. Human rights groups, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others who might oppose US military interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation are now openly calling for intervention. Erstwhile peace groups (Pax Christi is one example among many) have stupidly joined in the cl amor for military intervention in Haiti, under the illusion that the United Nations, which has helped bring the whole situation to the terrible point it is now at, is somehow an independent and benevolent world force and not simply a cover for US and Trilateral international interests.
But any US/UN military intervention in Haiti will be used to crush the popular movement, not the putschists or the bourgeois interests that put them in power. Activists in the US must oppose all US/UN plans for intervention of any sort in Haiti. Support the popular movement, not intervention, shut down the IMF, the World Bank, and USAID, and target those corporations in the US that are making millions off of slave labor in Haitian "export zones." There are plenty of things we can do right here in the U S that will help bring down the fascists in Haiti. Military intervention is not one of them.
Much of the information about the situation in Guantánamo is taken from research done by Dan Coughlin, of the Haiti Anti-Intervention Committee: 755 Fort Washington Station, NYC 10040; (212) 592-3612.
Mitchel Cohen is a founder of the Red Balloon Collective and, since 1969, has edited the magazine of the same name. For more info, write to the author at 2652 Cropsey Ave., #7H, Brooklyn, NY 11214.
[Update: A series of USAID briefing papers obtained by The Village Voice reveal some of the US plans for Haiti. State-run assets are to be sold to investors, including Haiti's main port, the telephone company and the Port-au-Prince airport. Plans also exist for delaying the elections scheduled for December in order to build a pro-US constituency in Haiti through voter-registration drives by organizations with ties to the Democratic and Republican parties.]