Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Haiti: The New Comedians

While the world's attention was diverted by the gaudy spectacle of Haitian affairs this weekend, a humanitarian disaster was quietly unfolding on the presidential debate stage... Sorry, bad joke. I guess there is just something about the awful precision with which patterns in U.S.-Haiti relations repeat themselves, time and again, year after year, that invites a mordant satire -- though it is a satire without laughter, a sarcasm without mirth. Even Haiti's deadly natural disasters (a poorly chosen term for them, for their consequences are always most unnatural), of which Hurricane Matthew is only the most recent instance, tend to inspire ridicule-- not, to be sure, of the island or its people or the victims of catastrophe -- but of the pretensions of the false friends who always descend upon Haiti after the fact, from the ranks of both native political and military cadres and former colonial occupiers, bearing empty ameliorative promises and in the end thieving as much as they bestow. The protagonist, Brown, of Graham Greene's The Comedians, provides an example of such gallows humor in the face of environmental catastrophe. He observes, apropos a new literacy campaign announced by the brutal Duvalier regime in Haiti, under which the novel is set, that "No details [of the campaign] were given. Perhaps he was depending on a satisfactory hurricane. Hurricane Hazel in '54 had eliminated a great deal of illiteracy[.]"

The headlines about Haiti over the last month have made for a fresh series of such punchlines without jokes. The fact that a new and devastating hurricane -- Matthew, this time, rather than Hazel, but the comedians might see the family resemblance -- struck the island nation a mere handful of weeks after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it would shortly resume expedited removal proceedings against Haitian arrivals at the border, explaining, as they put it, that "the situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis"... the fact that news of this DHS policy change and of the new humanitarian emergency that so quickly revealed it for the cruel farce it is were both drowned out by the boisterous distraction of this particularly obscene chapter of American political history we seem to be passing through at the moment... such incidents cry out for the wit and fury of a Voltaire to record them. "Lisbon is in ruins," he wrote in 1756, "while in Paris they dance!" Today he might have contrasted the scenes in Port-au-Prince and Washington. Oh that I might channel that same mocking rage before the sight of our own national frivolity in the face of our suffering neighbors. Let me have a taste of that same "ironical lightning" (Masters). "Let my words turn into sparks." (Piercy).

-- To explain -- the administration has had a standing policy since the 2010 earthquake of not prioritizing Haitian immigrants for deportation. This meant they could still be removed from the interior under ICE's usual priorities for enforcement, but new arrivals were at least not immediately placed into expedited removal (the system whereby all undocumented immigrants apprehended within a certain radius of the border can be returned summarily to their countries of origin, without a removal proceeding before an immigration judge, assuming they do not express a fear of persecution upon their return).

It was a policy executed in deference to the humanitarian catastrophe that struck Haiti in 2010, and to the demands of ordinary conscience and decency, which tend to look askance at returning people to such a calamitous situation after they had just endured a life-threatening voyage across the open ocean and god knows what other terrain to reach the United States. It was a partial recognition that there might be people coming from Haiti who stand in need of humanitarian protection in the wake of the 2010 disaster, but who probably wouldn't be able to pass a full gauntlet -- unaided, as always under our immigration law, by counsel at the expense of the state -- of credible fear interviews and removal proceedings to establish that they fit the precise and narrow definition of a refugee under international law.

On September 22nd, however -- a bare two days after the Obama administration hosted a Global Leaders Summit at the U.N. on the topic of international assistance to refugees -- DHS declared that things were going well enough in Haiti that they could now "resume regular removals." Henceforth, if you couldn't pass the full battery of asylum screenings, you would be sent back home across the ocean.

This decision did not come during any period of remarkable tranquility and prosperity in Haiti's history, at least none that was evident to the outside eye, but in the midst of an electoral crisis and ongoing power vacuum (triggered in part at least by the most recent U.S. meddling in Haiti's democracy), in the course of which high office has been filled ("or rather, made vacuous," George Eliot once quipped, under very different circumstances) by an interim president. It comes during the lead-up to long-heralded presidential elections which, according to some media accounts, threatened to spark political violence, and which have since been delayed (yet again). Now there is a new humanitarian disaster in Haiti that has cost hundreds of lives and meant a devastating loss of livelihood, infrastructure and housing for thousands more.

DHS could not have known, of course, that its callous change of policy would be rendered so much more odious still -- and so quickly -- by Hurricane Matthew. But they could of course have reversed themselves once the storm hit, citing the altered circumstances. They haven't done so, at least not yet, and not a word has been breathed suggesting they have plans in that direction. The usual advocates have been calling for such a reversal, of course, but there is little public attention being paid to the issue-- even though Salon.com's headline "Deportation to Disaster Zone" would seem to be a striking and easily-comprehended enough sound byte to describe what is going on. The New York Times has meanwhile reported cases of Haitian families who have been separated from one another by finding themselves on opposite sides of the administration's new orders: "Among the families that have been divided since the policy took effect, more than a dozen include pregnant women separated from their partners [...] There are even cases of mothers’ being separated from their teenage sons[.]"

Yet when I went in search of some petition to sign or some online "urgent action" to take on the issue, I came up empty. I had to generate my own on Change.com, and, as I am not really sure how these things work, I have managed to attract very few signatures so far. (But perhaps you, dear reader, will be one of them?) Where is the rest of the public outcry about this? It is such a basic thing. Surely DHS could be moved to reverse course on this, under concerted pressure. We are not asking, after all, for that which has never been heard of nor seen before. All this requires is a simple about-face on a recent and hastily adopted policy shift. It just means returning to what had already been standard DHS practice for six years.

The administration no doubt chose its timing precisely, in order to avoid a more substantial backlash about the new policy. There was nothing about life in Haiti, as mentioned above, that made September 2016 a more plausible date on which to begin safely deporting people back to its shores -- but there is much about life in the United States the past few months that has made it easy to slip something by the American public unnoticed which we'd normally find reprehensible. (There was a similar craftiness displayed in the timing of the ICE home raids against Central Americans last year, which occurred over the holidays, when most people who would ordinarily care were at home with their families, and too busy to pay attention to the removal that was taking place of other people from their homes and families). Fall of 2016 is the hour of national distraction. Woe betide the land, I guess, that happens to be afflicted by war, pestilence, or hurricane in the midst of a U.S. election season. Couldn't they have waited? Aleppo, the referendum on the FARC peace process, Hurricane Matthew -- all these tragedies bear the added misfortune of now having to compete for the airwaves with the broiling scandals of sex and politics in the presidential election. This blog is no exception to this general rule of stupidity and indifference, to be sure, but let me try to remind myself at least once that international catastrophes ought not be wholly forgotten here. Syria, Colombia, Haiti -- let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember thee.

That DHS would adopt a policy so obviously inhumane and so quickly refuted by experience is surprising -- as much so as the U.S.'s questionable involvement in Haiti's last few elections. It is surely odd that a country like ours would so mechanically repeat the same mistakes of the past. One expects a little more variation in the mode, at least, of our malfeasance.

Yet I find that Graham Greene's 1966 novel, quoted at the outset, remains a comprehensive guidebook to the U.S. role in Haiti even in this, the fiftieth year since it has been in print, and not just on the subject of hurricanes. The same themes are all still there. There is the cynical partnership with right-wing native elites, for one, at the expense of popular aspirations. The Papa Doc of Greene's novel was a "bulwark against Communism," in Greene's phrase -- a rampart set against both Cuba and the island's internal leftist element -- and thus was certain eventually to return to the U.S.'s good graces. He is dead and gone now, but the Duvalierists are still there, and they retain the favor of the U.S. State Department, at least as far as our government's rather inconsistent stance on whether or not to accept the result of Haitian elections would seem to suggest.

The heartless treatment of Haitian refugees is another persistent theme, across the years. Greene's protagonist Brown speaks early in the novel with the ship's captain who is carrying him to Haiti. The man describes finding a blood-stained refugee aboard his ship whom he promptly bound over to the Duvalierist secret police who were pursuing him. "Perhaps he was seeking political asylum," suggests Brown in reply. "I do not know what he was seeking," replies the captain. "How could I? He was quite illiterate[.]" This shrugging attitude puts one in mind of our present immigration authorities, now that they are acting once more under the harsh directives of expedited removal, who claim not to know what a Haitian family who has just crossed the ocean on a raft is seeking, simply because they do not utter the correct incantation to "express fear" and thereby open the gates to the asylum process (meaning weeks in detention followed by a long removal proceeding, either of which could still result in deportation). It reminds one of the first Bush and Clinton administration's defense of its policy of interdicting and detaining Haitian refugees at sea without asylum screening, as they tried to flee from the violent fall-out of a coup that the Bush administration had itself helped to fund.

And finally, Greene had caught on, as early as 1966, to the way in which U.S. humanitarian aid to Haiti is used to enrich producers here, at the expense of its supposed Haitian beneficiaries. This remains as true today -- truer, perhaps -- as it was when Greene published his novel. This is the way in which disaster in Haiti means big business in the U.S. -- and the way in which business in the U.S. means disaster for Haiti. Greene describes a Haitian "beef racket," for instance, the produce of which the Haitian people never saw or ate, because it existed solely to "go[...] into tins for underdeveloped countries[,] paid for by American aid, of course." In 2016, however, instead of Greene's "great beef racket," it is now the food aid racket. This has become a more-or-less permanent fixture of Haitian life over the past several decades, and risks becoming even more entrenched now that Matthew is likely to bring on a fresh infusion of U.S. aid.

Of course, food aid in some form is absolutely necessary in the face of disaster, and importing U.S. produce is not a terrible solution in the case of short-term food emergencies. Over a long period, however, it degenerates into a means of profiting at the expense of poor countries, with Haiti standing as perhaps the most extreme example. By continuously dumping food aid into the Haitian market over the course of decades, the U.S. has exacerbated a crisis in Haitian agriculture that had already been caused in part by U.S. interference -- specifically, by our imposition of "free trade" conditions on Aristide ("free" for us, costly for them -- our agriculture still gets to be heavily subsidized), in exchange for his return to power, which meant the end of protective tariffs for Haitian rice farmers and the flooding of the Haitian market with U.S. produce. The mechanism whereby "food dumping" damages the local economy is simple, even if it leads to the paradoxical result that more food on the market means that more Haitians will go hungry. Haitian farmers simply cannot compete with a glut of cheap -- free, in some cases -- food on the market sent through U.S. aid, and are eventually forced out of business. Thus, food aid creates its own demand, by starving Haitian producers.

I am not the first to observe that there is no reason at all why food aid has to have these deleterious consequences. They could be easily avoided, and in fact are avoided by most non-U.S. international aid programs. U.S. aid agencies could, for example, purchase the food they distribute directly from local suppliers, rather than from U.S. companies, thereby stimulating the Haitiain economy while also offering free food to those who need it. This, in fact, is exactly what the U.N. World Food Programme already tries to do in its procurement policy. If this proves too complicated, they could offer cash assistance or vouchers that, once again, would infuse money into the local economy while also benefiting Haitian growers. This might not be possible always and everywhere, but it is surely possible in Haiti, where aid has not been doled out in response to a single disaster, but over many years. Emergency situations might require the importing of externally-produced food, to be sure, but by treating Haiti as if it were permanently in a state of food emergency, the U.S. has helped to make it so.

The explanation for all this, of course, is the same one offered by Dr. Philipot in The Comedians for the persistence of the "great beef racket." "It wouldn't affect the Americans if this trade ceased," says Philipot, "but it would affect the particular Washington politician who receives one cent for every pound exported." Currently under U.S. law, all food aid must be purchased from American suppliers. It is then transported via American shipping companies, and these -- through their lobbyists -- cut a lot of ice in Washington.  Efforts to reform this system, for instance by terminating the requirement in the Farm Bill for aid to be procured exclusively from U.S. farmers, enjoy pan-ideological support. Libertarians and leftists alike can get behind them. But whenever it has been tried, aid reform has been defeated. What killed it the last time around, apparently, wasn't even the influence of the big farmers -- who had actually taken the courageous step of endorsing aid reform, in spite of their financial interest in preserving the status quo -- but rather that of the shipping industry. (Where one special interest behaves with rare nobility, it appears, another steps in to fill the void.) A further bipartisan reform effort in 2015 currently remains stranded in committee -- the permanent resting place, I take it, of most wise legislation.

As recently as the end of this past August, the American Enterprise Institute was still having to join forces with some implausible allies in the major humanitarian NGOs to plead, once more, for the most commonsense reforms of U.S. aid policies:
First, in contrast the U.S. requirement that almost all food aid be sourced from U.S. farmers and processors, most other major donor countries such as Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, and other European countries, rely primarily on regionally and locally sourced food aid.  Regional sourcing substantially reduces the costs of delivering food aid to where it is needed saving millions of dollars in shipping costs, while at the same time making sure the food gets there more quickly [... Also:] The better choices would be to allocate aid funds directly to food aid recipients through use of food vouchers or similar cash-based mechanisms, which increases demand for local food and production incentives for local farmers[.] 
And yet, to my knowledge, it has so far all been to no avail. Shipping is evidently a more powerful force in Congress than conservatism and liberalism combined. It transcends mere distinctions of party and belief.

Hurricane Matthew seems likely, meanwhile, to bring on a new inundation of U.S. food aid under these same unreconstructed conditions. As a result, indigenous agriculture and industry will be as hobbled as before, and the Haitian government will in turn be just as ill-equipped to protect the lives and safety of its people the next time an environmental calamity occurs. To the outside world, this will come as no shock -- it will be a sign merely of the ancient and inveterate poverty of that troubled land, our neighbor that is constantly going through disasters and constantly in need of our aid -- which we will be pleased to provide, seeing as it furnishes us so well.

It has often been said on the Left that the U.S. behaves toward Haiti like a colonial power -- or, for those willing to press the point -- as a colonial power. It is an apt enough comparison; for I find echoes of the present-day U.S. treatment of Haiti not only in a book (Greene's) that is fifty years old, but also in another that is one hundred and fifty years old: Multatili's Max Havelaar, an 1860 novel about Dutch imperialism in Java.

Multatuli's (Eduard Dekker's) indictment of Dutch policy is reminiscent of what I have been describing here in more ways than one. According to Dekker, Dutch policy earlier in the century had offered colonial officials and native elites a graduated series of bonuses for the amount of export-oriented crops (such as coffee) that was produced within their territories. Local strong men therefore responded to this incentive through the widespread use of corvée labor, extracted from their own subjects, who were compelled to abandon the staple crops (such as rice) that they would ordinarily farm, and which they needed for their own consumption. This led to a collapse of rice farming throughout the Dutch East Indies and consequent mass hunger.

It is not stretching a point, I believe, to see a connection between Dutch colonial policies that required a certain percentage of exports to go into the pockets of Dutch companies, and an American food aid regime that makes up a sizable portion of the Haitian economy today and that is also, as written into the Farm Bill, required to buy first and foremost from U.S. producers -- especially since the two policies yield such similar results. Both take people away from providing the in-country source of basic staples that they had hitherto supplied to their countrymen for centuries, and result in widespread food shortages.

Here is where the similarity ends, however, and the later contrast is not to American's advantage. Due to outrage in the Dutch parliament, when news of the famine broke, this older food policy was altered, according to Multatuli, to require that a certain percentage of exports in each district henceforth be made up of rice sent to other parts Java, rather than of cash crops sent to Europe. Yet as we know, old habits die hard, in affairs between the weaker nations and the strong. Colonial officials ignored the new regulations and lied about the numbers. Multatuli thus describes reading government reports from each district, each of which combined to record greater exports of rice to other parts of the colony than any other reported taking in. As Multatuli explains, "The conclusion of all this is therefore the absurd thesis that there is more rice in Java than there is."

I notice that American officials have not even been forced to resort to such subterfuges of accounting and mathematics, however, since there has been no massive outcry on the part of the U.S. public about conditions in Haiti, and no attempted reform, however easily circumvented, of our food policies. The nineteenth century Dutch are apparently ahead of us in humanity and compassion. They may have destroyed the Javanese rice industry and triggered widespread hunger, but they realized they had done so, and were in some way contrite for it, whereas the U.S. has done just the same in Haiti without any of us being the wiser. Perhaps if a law were passed here requiring our government to purchase food aid from Haitian rice farmers exclusively in future, we would see colorfully duplicitous ways in which officials were trying to side-step the new rules -- there might be need then for a Max Havelaar of our own. But we have not got even as far as that, I fear. We have not reached even a point at which the American public understands that the U.S. bears a large portion of the responsibility, and thus a large chunk of the blame, for whatever happens in the Haitian economy, and that if Haitian peasants are driven from the land as ruthlessly as the Javanese were exiled from their rice paddies, it is as surely a consequence of U.S. law as the latter was of Dutch colonial policy. The victims of Hurricane Matthew are our victims! People died in the 2010 earthquake in such large numbers because our own policies had driven them into the cities in vast numbers where they were crushed in the debris. More lives will be lost in future catastrophes because of us -- unless of course we take the simple and obvious steps of 1) welcoming Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers into this country; and 2) using the billions spent on aid to support Haitian producers and Haitian infrastructure, rather than U.S. suppliers.

But how are we to get people to see what's right in front of them, which, as Orwell famously observed, tends to take some doing? How to point out the obvious thing, still less to do the obvious? This is where one needs the "ironical lightning" with which we began this post. This is where Graham Greene's choice of title was so fitting. This is why one needs to keep on making jokes without humor, punchlines without laughs, until people can finally be brought round to understand. "Why must indignation and sorrow so often masquerade under the motley of satire?" wonders Multatuli, at one point late in the novel. Perhaps because a caustic agent is required in order to leave a burn. Or perhaps because we all turn instinctively away from an unpleasant truth precisely because it is unpleasant, and only under the guise of humor are we willing to confront it. Whatever the reason, Multatuli eventually accepts this principle of human perversity and agrees to act in accordance with it. "Away with kindly language," he announces, "away with gentleness, frankness, clarity, simplicity, feeling! Let trumpets sounds, and the harsh clash of cymbals be heard, and the hiss of rockets [...] and now and then a word of truth, that it may steal in like contraband under the cover of all the drumming and fifing!" (Edwards trans.)

May it be so. Amen.

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