The Haiti Files: Decoding The Crisis

JAMES RIDGEWAY (ed.). Washington
DC: Essential Books, 1994. 243 pp. (Paper US$ 10.00)

Review by Robert Lawless

The following was published in 1996 in New West Indian Guide 70:363-365.

James Ridgeway, political columnist for the Village Voice, has assembled a set of articles by journalists and scholars to counter the misleading information published in the mainstream North American press. Similarly in 1992 Schenkman Books published a book of mine titled Haiti's Bad Press (reviewed in this journal in volume 69, though nowhere cited in Ridgeway's book). By saying that Haiti has a bad press, I meant both that Haiti is presented in a bad light and that the performance of the media is inferior and sometimes simply incompetent. My book traced the historical development of the prejudices and the resulting discriminatory works of journalists, historians, travelers, authors of adventure stories, and others writing on Haiti. Little has changed in almost two centuries; Haiti remains the primary whipping boy of the white-dominated world, blamed for everything from AIDS to zombies. The theme of Ridgeway's book is that in the 1990s Haiti is blamed for choosing its own leaders.

Nothing in this book will be news to Haitian scholars; they will have already read most of the material in the original and at least heard about the rest of it. The news that the United States subverts democratic movements in the Caribbean and Latin America is, of course, not new to anyone familiar with U.S. foreign policy and the history of the Western hemisphere. The book does have an obvious function of educating those not familiar with deleterious role of the United States in the rest of the hemisphere--particularly in Haiti. Toward this end Ridgeway has organized the book into four parts.

Part One contains a piece on the historical background of Haiti written by Noam Chomsky from secondary sources, a selection from Bernard Diederich and Al Burt's book Papa Doc, and also a selection from Rod Prince's Haiti, a book also focusing on the Duvaliers.

Part Two, titled "The Players," contains 12 selections including the works of a journalist deeply involved in Haitian affairs, Amy Wilentz; a Haitian-American scholar, Michel Laguerre; and a congressman concerned about Haiti, Walter E. Fauntroy. This part gives some information on some of the members of the Haitian power elite though little to no information on the military leaders.

Part Three, titled "The Crisis," portrays the close ties between U.S. government agencies and the three-year illegal Haitian military regime. One piece that I hadn't seen was published in the London Independent in November 1993 and traces much of the anti-Aristide propaganda circulated by U.S. intelligence sources to Lynn Garrison, a Canadian adventurer closely allied with the Haitian military. This part also contains information on the disastrous pig eradication program in Haiti carried out largely by the United States in 1982 and 1983, the sweatshops of the off-shore assembly industries, the drug trafficking of the Haitian military, and the refugee question. Contributors to this part include the anthropologist/physician Paul Farmer, the National Labor Committee, the Haitian Information Bureau, Senator John Kerry, Human Rights Watch, and several progressive journalists.

Part Four is a useful 36-page chronology of events in Haiti from October 15, 1990, to May 11, 1994.

Essentially journalistic, this book concentrates on the political issues in Haiti and in Haitian-American relations. Personally I find the challenges facing Haiti to be ecological, structural, and cultural and not particularly answerable to the traditional solutions offered by governments. The volume would have been strengthen by some selections on agricultural concerns such as soil conservation, appropriate technology, and peasant access to the national political voice.

This book ends with the military's May 1994 illegal installation of the de facto supreme court head Emile Jonassaint as "provisional president." And as the Preface states, "At this writing, the immediate future of Haiti--and the intentions of U.S. policy--remain unclear" (p. vi). As we know, the U.S. military in September 1994 "liberated" Haiti from being occupied by its own army and in October helped reinstall Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti's rightful president. This reinstallation took three years but followed by only seven weeks the compliance by Aristide's ministers with the "development" programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Focusing on the traditional, neoliberal strategies of import substitution, privatization, and an export-based economy, these programs neutralize Aristide's agenda of social justice. The intentions of U.S. policy, then, have become clear: The United States will continue the traditional concerns for political stability and social order in Haiti-- and socioeconomic security for Americans. Haiti will quickly become once again an offshore assembly enclave where U.S. factories can find a docile labor force.


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