Saturday, May 28, 2022

Haiti gets the 1619 treatment. Pooja Bhatia in the LRB 

But for many others, ‘The Ransom’ is a bitter reminder of the singular power of the New York Times – a power it has not often deployed in the interest of Haitians, let alone their history. ‘When they say something, it is accepted – even though others have been saying it for decades,’ in the words of Cécile Accilien, the vice-president of the Haitian Studies Association. She told me ‘The Ransom’ had made her so angry she hadn’t been able read it all.

...A more serious problem is the way ‘The Ransom’ is framed. There’s a lot of Columbus-ing language at the top of the lead story, which, in contrast to the precision of the reporting that follows, tries to signal that the investigation reveals something new and scandalous, aka a scoop.

‘For generations, Haitians had to pay France for their freedom. How much was a mystery – until now.’

The ‘story’ of the debt is ‘rarely taught or acknowledged’.

‘The double debt has largely faded into history ... Only a few scholars have examined it deeply. No detailed accounting of how much the Haitians actually paid has ever been done, historians say.’

These claims both diminish the efforts of others – another norm in journalism, but one that is not necessary – and are shot through with inaccuracy.‘The Ransom’ itself undermines them, especially in what it says about Aristide. Haiti’s restitution claims were widely taught and acknowledged in the not too distant past. They have not faded into history; the scholarly energy given to issues of odious sovereign debt, including the losses Haiti suffered from its payments to France, have, if anything, intensified in recent years.

From 2003 until the February 2004 coup (we can now call it a coup because the Times has a European official using the word on record), Aristide led a popular campaign for the return of Haiti’s independence payments. Researchers hired by the government argued that the payments violated the international law of the time. They assessed its drain on Haiti’s treasury, and calculated the present value of the payments as $21.7 billion (very close to the Times’s lower estimate). Nothing was hush-hush about any of this work – quite the opposite. The government mounted a spectacular campaign to build awareness of the restitution demand, reasoning that public pressure and shaming were more likely to force France’s hand than a lawsuit. Jurisdiction would have been tricky in a court of law. So the government appealed to the court of public opinion.

...Why did the world’s pre-eminent paper, arbiter of ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ and arguably the highest court of public opinion, take almost two decades to cover Aristide’s campaign for restitution? The real hell of it is that everyone has his reasons, and it’s possible to imagine a whole variety of them. Maybe the reporters simply ran out of time – the pace of events in Haiti in 2003-4 was breakneck. It was suffering under an aid embargo because of allegedly tainted legislative elections, which undermined Aristide’s ability to govern and made the security situation worse. Civil society elites were calling for Aristide’s resignation. Diplomats were everywhere, vacillating between trying to negotiate a compromise and urging Aristide to resign.

Maybe the Times reporters didn’t take Aristide seriously. Among the poor majority, most of whom do not speak English, Aristide was very popular, but foreign reporters in Haiti tend to spend more time with State Department officials than with the poor majority. Or maybe Times journalists did take Aristide seriously, but found the restitution claim silly and feared reporting on it would further sully his standing abroad. Repairing colonial atrocities was ‘unthinkable’ for most Americans in 2003, the year their president stood under a banner proclaiming the mission in Iraq against WMDs and terrorism accomplished. What was thinkable, what most Times readers were thinking about, was muscular humanitarian intervention – which was soon to come in Haiti. Hours after Aristide was shown out, the US sent in the Marines. Three months later, on 2 June 2004, the paper reported that ‘United States commanders began turning over this anarchic, flood-ravaged, starving nation 500 miles from Florida to a handful of United Nations troops.’

Understanding why the Times chose 2022 to cover the story of Haiti’s debt is easier. It’s a different era in the United States: a period of imperial decline; of outrage at the police murdering Black people; of Confederate statues coming down; of studious non-intervention abroad; of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Across the former imperial powers, it is a time of reckoning with history. Despite the reactionary backlash, it remains easier to identify and expose the wrongs of the past – all those dead white racist men – than it is to examine the ones we commit and perpetuate in our lifetimes.

But that’s exactly what the Times should be using its singular platform to do. In Haiti, it should be investigating the United States’ continued support of an unelected head of government, Ariel Henry, who is implicated in his predecessor’s murder. It should run a long interview with Daniel Foote, the whistleblower envoy who quit last year, disgusted with US interference in Haiti. I could go on. There is no dearth of mysteries and perversities in today’s Haiti, many of which can be traced to the workings of US power. An obvious place to start would be in its own newsroom: Why didn’t the Times cover Aristide’s debt campaign in 2003?

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