Friday, January 15, 2010

Colonialism and Its Consequences: A Few Thoughts After Listening To NPR Today

Why do even good news reports allow US government officials to talk unchallenged about the grossly underdeveloped economy in Haiti (which amplifies disasters like the recent earthquake because of substandard housing and thin state resources that snap when taxed) as if it has nothing to do with centuries of European and American colonialism? In this story Timothy Carney, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti from 1998-1999, speaks of the Duvalier regimes as emblematic of Haitian governments who "bled their people dry." Well yes, but weren't the Duvaliers and others virtually in the formal employ of Cold War-era United States foreign aid programs while they did that? And didn't the United States think that an oligarchical regime that kept its people brutally policed was a good defense against Communism? And didn't the United States keep Haiti in its thrall by foisting a crushing load of international debt on the country -- money that was banked by the Duvaliers in Geneva as the country's infrastructure collapsed?

Mary Renda, phone home!

The view that Black countries have a cultural predilection towards corrupt political regimes, incompetence and brutality is a longstanding tradition in United States reporting, but one hates to see it from the best news sources we have available in this country. Coincidentally, today's Haiti news was coupled to this story, which reports on the role of United States evangelicals in the Ugandan bill that proposed to make homosexuality a capital crime. Weirdly, Rick Warren and his bigoted clerical colleagues are depicted uncritically in this story as supporting Ugandan anti-colonial cultural resistance. In reality, these American evangelicals (like the African conservative Episcopalian bishops who homophobic American Episcopalians are now aligned with) are effective in fragile post-colonial states like Uganda because they champion the notion of a culturally autonomous "African" nationalism free of unnatural sexualities foisted on them by the global North. One of the agents of perversion, as I discovered from another source, is UNICEF, a well-known group of pedophiles. Those who successfully pressured Uganda to kill the bill, in turn, are depicted in the story as promoting modern "Western" views of human rights, tolerance and sexual freedom that are the supposed antithesis of this authentic African culture. Christianity, sexuality and African nationalist discourses are a complex story -- but could we stick it in somewhere that it was Christian missionaries who came to Africa and the Americas as part of the colonial process who insisted on disciplining indigenous sexualities to Western notions of morality and propriety in the first place? (By the way, if you care about these things, put the Astraea Foundation, that sent a $75,000 grant to Ugandan GLBTQI activists, on your annual donation list.)

A final question that takes us back to poor, suffering Haiti ("May she be one day soon/free.")* This story about a close call at the Port-au-Prince airport is one of many that are more or less typical in a disaster of this magnitude, when multiple nations and NGO's descend on a country simultaneously without any overarching plan in place. The depiction of this humanitarian crisis raises a great many specific historical questions about the history of colonialism in our hemisphere, as I suggested above, but the facts of how the relief effort has unfolded are also a perfect example of what a screaming, uncoordinated mess international aid is. You wonder why, if the United States could obliterate the air tower and runways in Baghdad back in 2002 and then begin landing numerous personnel carriers and supply planes in a matter of hours after capturing the airport, there is such difficulty mobilizing similar resources in Haiti. The answer, of course, is that those who do good, whether we are talking about the International Red Cross, the United Nations, the Clinton Foundation, or less well known relief funds, do so on their own schedule, in their own way, and with minimal coordination with any of the other players. If this is like any other disaster, five will get you ten that there are numerous groups on the ground in Haiti, or trying to get on the ground, who are actually impeding the process of helping people.

One important question should be raised following the immediate emergency. Why, since it was well known that that Port-au-Prince sits on a major fault and would be destroyed in the event of an earthquake, and since the Haitian government was warned by the U.S. Geological Survey that the area was due, was there no plan in place by international agencies as to how they would coordinate a response in the event of an earthquake?

*"Ode To The International Debt," Sweet Honey In The Rock, Live At Carnegie Hall (1989).


Ellie said...

Was this the same guy who suggested (also on NPR in the last 24 hours) that the UN needed to revive the old League of Nations mandate system for Haiti? As long as the French weren't involved, since the Haitians have an understandable hang-up about French colonialism? I was floored by this suggestion from someone who clearly knew about Haiti's colonial past, but seemed entirely unaware that the mandates had anything to do with colonialism.

Tenured Radical said...

Same guy: and while we are at it, why not revive FDR's plan ratifying pre-war European colonialism -- in the form of open-ended custodial arrangements -- that worked so well in Africa and Vietnam?

Doctor Pion said...

The crushing load of debt was imposed by the French in response to what they lost in the slave revolt, and not paid off for more than a century.

Didn't hear that story, but I have several past and present students from Haiti that provide an interesting perspective on the country. One rather clearly places the blame on her countrymen. I won't go into details, but her version of your last question was why did Haiti's government allow high-rise unreinforced concrete buildings to be built on that fault? (Unlike you, she thinks Haiti should have been preparing itself, not expecting others to do it for them.)

I find your comment about Vietnam fascinating, for two reasons. (1) I'll bet you didn't know that the decision to hand Vietnam over to the French, who had collaborated with the Japanese and had been imprisoned by Ho Chi Minh with the aid of his US (OSS) allies, was made by Dean Rusk as a Colonel in the US Army without consulting any civilians. (2) There is a huge difference between the way the Spanish lived with the native people in their colonies and the way the French and English didn't in theirs. Is the difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic after independence a result of the differences in how colonial rule was managed? I don't know, but there appear to be some real differences.

Lauren Kientz Anderson said...

I wrote about continuing disparities in media reporting on the US Intellectual History blog. I would be interested in your opinion.

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