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9958: Harvard Professor of Medicine Laments Human Impact of Financial Embargo on Haiti (fwd)
T h e H a i t i B u l l etin
What You Need to Know About the Region's Youngest Democracy
A Ross-Robinson & Associates Publication
Harvard Professor of Medicine Laments Human Impact of Financial Embargo on
Dr. Paul Farmer is a professor of medicine and anthropology at Harvard
University. He established a clinic in Haiti in the early 1980's and has
remained an active practitioner in the health care delivery system of that
country. Dr. Farmer is an internationally respected health expert with
professional ties not only to Haiti but to Kazakhstan, Peru, and Russia. In
this December 2001 interview, he shares his deeply felt concerns about the
human costs of the international embargo on the people of Haiti.
HRR: How long have you had a connection to Haiti and how did it come about?
PF: I first went to Haiti during the Duvalier era in 1983, but I feel the
connection is more longstanding.
When I was in college, I had the privilege of working a bit with migrant
farmworkers. Many were from Haiti, and they complained bitterly about the
conditions they endured as farmworkers in the United States. You may
remember that charges of slavery were brought against some of the U.S.
growers right around that time. I asked some of the Haitians why would they
leave their country to work in another under such conditions. (This was when
Duvalier was president-for-life). "You should go to Haiti," they said. And
so I did.
HRR: When did you first learn that the current financial embargo had been
placed on Haiti?
PF: About a year ago.
It was a shock.
I had worked in Haiti under the Duvalier dictatorship and despite the
brutality of that regime, U.S. and international aid flowed freely. Aid also
flowed under a series of military juntas famous for their oppression.
Granted, there were brief periods during these three decades in which the
violations were so spectacular that we cut off aid. But, ironically, it was
really only after these brutal and undemocratic governments were replaced by
real democracy that the United States, the OAS, et al decided to ban aid to
the Haitian government!
HRR: Based upon your first-hand observations, what has been the impact of
the embargo on the Haitian people?
PF: It has been devastating.
I am a physician, so I have been concerned largely with the embargo's impact
on the public health system. Every country has to have a public health
system, of course, and Haiti needs one more than any other country in this
hemisphere. Anyone can chart the course of the destruction and decay of much
of much of Haiti's health infrastructure over the past couple of decades, and
rebuilding it is going to take money.
Do you remember the talk of a "mini-Marshall plan" for Haiti? This was to
begin after the restoration of constitutional rule and the return of the
exiled Aristide Government in October 1994.
The entire international community made these bold and dramatic promises, but
they never followed through.
HRR: What do ordinary Haitians say about the embargo?
PF: A lot of the people with whom I live- - they're from central Haiti- -
point out the similarity between this embargo and that imposed on the Haitian
people by the United States after their revolution made them, in 1804, the
first independent black republic in the world. The United States refused to
recognize the new Republic of Haiti for some 60 years - until 1862 - in large
part because of the objections from U.S. slaveholding states.
Needless to say, Haiti was the first country in the hemisphere to ban
slavery. It was also the first in the world, as far as I know, to declare
itself a haven for all runaway slaves and former slaves.
HRR: Compare the mood of the Haitian people today with their mood at the
time of the May 2000 or November 2000 elections.
PF: As one Haitian opposition leader admitted in an interview, "Aristide
cannot be beaten in democratic elections." (This is the real reason
opposition candidates withdrew from the elections, in my view).
The parliamentary elections in May 2000 are in dispute now, but they were not
initially. At the time of those elections the mood in Haiti was good. The
people knew that they had participated in these parliamentary elections to
elect representatives that would not obstruct the Aristide-led coalition.
This coalition wants to change conditions for Haiti's poor and is supported
by the majority of Haitians. In other words, the Haitians wanted to get rid
of gridlock. And they did! They voted by large majorities for Senators,
Deputies and local officials from the party Aristide leads.
Shortly after these elections, international observers declared them a
victory for democracy and announced that they had been free and fair. Even
the OAS' initial election report said as much. It was only after the true
extent of the Fanmi Lavalas win became apparent that doubt was expressed
regarding whether or not run-offs should occur for 8 Senatorial seats.
Tragically, this position has hardened with the passing months, and when
Aristide again won the presidency by a landslide in November last year, the
screws were tightened even further.
The mood is now very grim.
It's absurd to argue that legal debates about electoral mechanisms- - whether
or not 8 Senatorial seats should go to a run-off- - justifies a complete and
crushing financial embargo on the poorest country in our hemisphere.
There are cynical politics behind these unfair, externally imposed sanctions
on the Haitian people.
This is illegal. They are doing severe harm to millions of Haitian men,
women and children.
The United States government should be ashamed for pushing these sanctions,
and the OAS has been absolutely shameful in its failure to stand in
solidarity with the Haitian people. Haiti after all was a beacon for justice
in Latin America when it overturned slavery and supported so many
independence movements throughout Latin America in the 19th century.
This has been, alas, the usual lot of the Haitian people.
HRR: Should those of us outside Haiti care about the embargo? If so, why?
If not, why not?
PF: Well, it's a basic issue of justice, certainly. And remember that the
United States and Haiti are the hemisphere's two oldest republics. I think
every US citizen should reflect on the way we've treated Haiti over the past
two centuries. Let me say that it's distressing to read all these
declarations about reparations and racism while Haiti, one of this
hemisphere's largest post-slavery societies, is one of only two countries in
the entire region under official US embargo.
This is absolutely shameful.
If the American people could observe first hand the ravages of this embargo,
they would strongly condemn it.
Do people know, for example, that the Haitian government, a very poor
government, has had to pay millions of dollars interest and "commission fees"
to the IDB for loans that the IDB refuses to release? That sounds illegal to
me. And the irony is that there are those would then criticize the Haitian
government for "caving in" to the IDB or World Bank by making these payments,
for example. To me this criticism is absurd, gratuitous and misinformed.
It's like blasting David for not using a more effective weapon against
But we should also care for reasons of enlightened self-interest because,
peace, progress, and stability in Haiti is good for the region as a whole.
These points, however, have already been much discussed by others, so I
prefer to focus on the issue of fairness. Suffice it to say that the Haitian
people cannot survive and will not tolerate the conditions that have been
imposed on them from "above". They are being crushed by the harsh conditions
imposed on them from outside the country. Just as they used to be crushed by
the unjust and unelected governments which ruled Haiti until the democratic
elections of 1990, and the overthrow of the military dictators in 1994.
Many will flee Haiti.
HRR: For those who have never given much thought to Haiti - its past and its
present, its strengths and aspirations, what can you tell us about the
country and its people that is not often reflected in mainstream media?
PF: Well allow me to say that I admire the Haitian people more than any
other. When I think about their struggle, all alone, in the late 18th
century, and then I reflect on the bitter "welcome" that greeted their
announcement of their Haitian Republic, I am humbled.
Two hundred years later, the Haitian people are still seeking the same things
they were in casting off their chains in1804 - justice, fairness, respect,
freedom from tyranny. That the Haitian people still refuse to lose hope is a
constant source of inspiration to me. I see this in my clinic on a daily
It is my view that the mainstream US media have consistently misrepresented
Haiti and Haitians. When I say "consistently" I mean for centuries! The old
forms of misrepresentation are now easy to dismiss vulgar racism. But the
new forms are no better. The idea that Haitians are violent, ignorant, and
all the other negatives fed to us by the media is quite contrary to my own
experience living and working in Haiti for twenty years. It is true that
Haitians have endured and are enduring violence and ignorance, but a lot of
it is foisted on them from outside. As a US citizen, I am particularly
pained by the human cost of American ignorance regarding Haiti. This is
particularly troubling when one considers that the United States is the main
power in the Caribbean.
HRR: Earlier this year, you, former Congressman Joseph Kennedy, and
Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University wrote an op-ed piece in the
Boston Globe on Haiti. Kindly recap the main points that were being made in
that piece. Do they still apply today?
PF: I feel that everything we said then applies - and even more so - today.
Here are three very different Americans- - a doctor who works in a charity
hospital, a Harvard economist, and a prominent member of this country's
political establishment - who not only agree but felt compelled to publicly
declare that America's treatment of Haiti has been and remains terribly
unfair. Actually, "unfair" is quite a euphemism. Now, months after that
editorial, the situation has of course worsened. The health crisis is real.
And it should be regarded as having been provoked and worsened by the
I read yesterday that there are now plans from the World Bank and the IDB to
provide health-related money to Haiti through NGOs. The rationale, I am told
is to ensure that there will not be a ZERO recorded on these institutions'
ledgers for the hemisphere's poorest country for fiscal year 2001. (You know
that many people of conscience have been condemning these institutions for
their refusal to provide funds to the Haitian government.)
As someone who has always worked with NGOs, I can tell you that more aid to
NGOs is not going to help the Haitian people rebuild their public health and
educational systems. I hope that NGOs working in Haiti will see through this
charade and support a just policy towards Haiti. It's about time that the
international community pushed one, that's for sure ?
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