This is the last in a four part series leading up to the 10th anniversary of the February 29 2004 overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government in Haiti.
Why did Canada help overthrow Haiti’s elected government? That’s a question I heard over and over when speaking about Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, a book I co-authored with Anthony Fenton. Most people had difficulty understanding why their country — and the U.S. to some extent — would intervene in a country so poor, so seemingly marginal to world affairs. Why would they bother?
I would answer that Canada participated in the coup as a way to make good with Washington, especially after (officially) declining the Bush administration’s invitation (order) to join the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham explained: “Foreign Affairs view was there is a limit to how much we can constantly say no to the political masters in Washington. All we had was Afghanistan to wave. On every other file we were offside. Eventually we came on side on Haiti, so we got another arrow in our quiver.”
It is also worth noting that at the start of 2003 the Haitian minimum wage was 36 gourdes ($1) a day, which was nearly doubled to 70 gourdes by the Aristide government. Of course, this was opposed by domestic and international capital, which used Haiti’s lowest wages in the hemisphere as a way to beat back workers’ demands in other countries. Canadian capital was especially hostile to raising the minimum wage. One of the largest blank T-shirt maker in the world, Montréal-based Gildan Activewear was the country’s largest employer after the state, employing up to 8,000 Haitians (directly and indirectly) in Port-au-Prince’s assembly sector by 2007. Most of Gildan’s work was subcontracted to Andy Apaid, who led the Group 184 domestic “civil society” that opposed Aristide’s government. Coincidentally, two days after the coup, Foreign Affairs stated “some Canadian companies are looking to shift garment production to Haiti.”
It is also clear that some Canadian mining companies saw better opportunities with a post-Aristide government. In 2007, reported the Toronto Star, “Another Canadian-backed company recently resumed prospecting in Haiti after abandoning its claims a decade ago. Steve Lachapelle — a Québec lawyer who is now chair of the board of the company, called St. Genevieve Haiti — says employees were threatened at gunpoint by partisans of ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.”
Another reason for the intervention came out of the contempt, heightened during the country’s 200-year anniversary of independence, directed at Haiti ever since the country’s 1791-1804 revolution dealt a crushing blow to slavery, colonialism and white supremacy. The threat of a good example — particularly worrisome for the powers that be, since Haiti is so poor — contributed to the motivation for the coup. Aristide was perceived as a barrier to a thorough implementation of the free market agenda, particularly because of his opposition to the privatization of the country’s five remaining state-owned companies. The attitude seems to have been, “if we can’t force our way in Haiti, where can we?”
But one must look at the history of Canadian foreign policy to fully understand why Canada helped overthrow the elected Haitian government.
The Canadian government, from its beginning, was part of the command and control apparatus of the world economic system. At first Canada served as an arm of the British Empire, but given the country’s location as well as racial and economic makeup, it quickly became intertwined with the USA. Canada’s role over the past six decades, as assigned by the dominant power, has typically been some sort of “policing” operation, usually called peacekeeping. Since Canada has primarily been a “policing” rather than “military” power one must look to the language of policing to discover the motivations for our Haitian policy.
Over the past decade there has been much discussion of something called “pulling our weight” in external affairs. In laymen’s terms this means spending more of the country’s resources on defending and expanding the ability of Canadian capitalists in particular, but also for the system in general, to make a profit around the world. While the less sophisticated neoconservatives simply call for more military spending and a pro-U.S. foreign policy, the more liberal Canadian supporters of capitalism have been busy creating an ideological mask, called the “responsibility to protect” that will accomplish the same end.
The “responsibility to protect” is essentially a justification for imperialism using the dialect of policing instead of the old language of empire and militarism. It says there are “failed states” that must be overthrown because they do not provide adequately for their own citizens and because they threaten world order. This is the international equivalent of the “zero tolerance” (also called the “broken window”) strategy of the New York City police department. The policy is to aggressively police petty crimes in order to create an environment that discourages more serious law breaking. In the same fashion, the international community should go after “failed states” not because they threaten other countries with invasion but since they create an environment where “crime” may thrive. (Noam Chomsky has used the Mafia analogy to explain the less sophisticated, older imperialist version of this policy. Any and all challenges, even minor ones, must be met with violence until “order” is established. The “responsibility to protect” differs in form but not in substance.)
The coup in Haiti was a Canadian-managed experiment in the use of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Aristide was overthrown precisely because Haiti is so unimportant to the world economic system and because cracking down on it is the international economic equivalent of the New York City police cracking down on graffiti writers. Once again Haiti was an example to the rest of the world, a message from the world’s rich and powerful: “We, the 0.01%, run the world in our interests and you better listen to what we say.”