July 2007: Our Less Than Stellar Foreign Relations

Canada plays sordid role in suppression of democracy in Haiti
July 1, 2007

Canadians generally have a very positive impression of their country’s role in world affairs, but Canada’s relations with Haiti challenge that perception. It would be wrong to say that Canada has done nothing positive on the world stage, but we need to take a much closer look at the reality of Canadian foreign policy and its consequences. More often than many Canadians might like to believe, our government’s international role is nothing to be proud of.

A major factor contributing to the negative and destructive role Canada has too often played in international relations can be attributed to our relationship with the United States. While one might be tempted to think that Canadian subservience to the U.S. is a recent development and/or that it is mainly a characteristic of conservative governments, that is not the case. Both Liberal and Conservative Canadian governments, for example, played an unsavory role in the U.S. war against Vietnam for a great many years. Canadian foreign policy is largely bi-partisan, not varying much no matter which of the major parties form the government.

We see that today in Canadian policy on Haiti. When the Liberals were pursuing “regime change” in Haiti and then propping up a brutal puppet regime, there were no complaints from the Conservative opposition benches, and there has been no discernible change in Canadian policy on Haiti since the Conservatives assumed power.

Thirty-five years ago, a new phase in the economic history of Haiti was initiated during the last years of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship when offshore assembly for U.S. corporations was introduced. “Low labour costs had undoubtedly been the single most important factor influencing the location of assembly industries in Haiti”, economist Monique Garrity wrote in 1981. She added that workers were “closely supervised and controlled by the government,” and that “this is [was] not a negligible advantage to the American firms” since the Haitian government maintained “wage rates at very low levels.”

Even the World Bank admitted that the “assembly industry [was] largely outside the Haitian economy” and “[made] no fiscal contribution.” Fewer than 20% of full-time workers (including government employees) actually received the official urban minimum wage of $3 a day, despite productivity comparable to the U.S. Between the 1970s and 1980s, when international aid poured into Haiti, absolute poverty there is estimated to have increased 60% per cent, affecting from 50-to-80% of the population.

The establishment of export-oriented assembly plants coincided with the start of international economic and military aid from many Western nations, including Canada. During Papa Doc’s rule, an estimated 65% of all government funds was spent on state security, while much of the rest was lost to personal use and Haiti was the only country in the world to experience almost no growth during most of the 1950s and 1960s. Only the U.S. had been willing to support such a regime, and even the U.S. funnelled most of its military aid through Israel in order to spare itself embarrassing questions.

But in 1971 Papa Doc died and was replaced by his son, known as “Baby Doc.” With workers closely supervised and controlled by the government, which maintained wage rates at very low levels, doing business with the Baby Doc’s regime was clearly enticing to the West. Within four years of Baby Doc’s inauguration, official aid disbursements increased almost tenfold. Belgium, France, and the Netherlands started disbursements in 1973; Canada, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank followed in 1974, and West Germany began significant disbursements in 1976. The transfer of power from father to son had served as the pretext for justifying a vast increase in aid to the Duvalier dynasty. But Baby Doc was no better with international aid dollars than his father. The U.S. Commerce Department estimated that 63% of all recorded central government revenues in 1978 were misappropriated, while somehow Baby Doc was worth as much as $500 million.

There were also many purported “aid” schemes that “accidentally” hurt Haiti’s poor majority while serving Western economic interests. “According to plans laid out in 1982,” writes journalist Michael Hooper, USAID proposed shifting 30% of “all cultivated land from the production of food for local consumption to the production of export crops.” Washington’s experts were surprisingly candid about the consequences of their development plan for the hemisphere’s poorest nation: “AID anticipates that such a drastic reorientation of agriculture will cause a decline in income and nutritional status, especially for small farmers and peasants...Even if transition to export agriculture is successful, AID anticipates a ‘massive’ displacement of peasant farmers and migration to urban centers.”

Note the pattern of Canada’s relations with Haiti. Under the brutal and murderous Duvalier dictatorships, Canada took the opportunity of power being transferred from father to son to begin sending aid to Haiti, while taking advantage of the business opportunities Haitian misery had to offer. Baby Doc’s torture and murder of thousands of Haitians was no deterrent to Canadian aid; neither was the incredible corruption of his regime. There were business opportunities and there was aid.

To its credit, the Canadian government opposed the military junta that overthrew Haiti’s democratic government in 1991. The U.S., on the other hand, did much to arm and finance the junta that killed 5,000 supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide before he was finally returned to Haiti in 1994. The U.S. agreement with Aristide’s return, however, was conditional on his implementing a number of “reforms” that would benefit foreign business rather than the Haitian people.

In January 1995, the Haitian government announced a package of special incentives to attract foreign investment, including subsidies for the rich and tax incentives for business. In April, President Aristide was set to propose a new minimum wage of 75 gourdes per day, but under pressure from international donors he accepted a compromise of 36 gourdes ($2.40 a day/30 cents an hour). According to the National Labor Committee’s investigation, the institutionalization of the 36 gourdes-a-day wage meant minimum wage workers in Haiti had less buying power than they did before Aristide’s election five years earlier, and almost 50% less in real terms than when Baby Doc first set a minimum wage in 1980. Working eight hours a day, six days a week, would provide less than 60% of a family’s basic needs. Many of the corporations profiting from the exploitation of Haitian workers are household names: Disney, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, J.C. Penny, Sears, and Hanes/Sara Lee. Many companies paid their Haitian workers just 11 cent an hour.

Hopes for a pliant regime in Haiti faded throughout the mid- to late-1990s in the face of continued Haitian resistance to foreign-friendly “reforms.” As the hope for an improved foreign investment climate diminished, so did Western aid–including aid from Canada. With Aristide’s return to power in 1994, Haiti became Canada’s leading recipient of foreign aid—but only till Haiti’s government later balked at meeting the onerous conditions placed on it by American negotiators and the assorted international financial institutions. That’s when Canadian support quickly faded. When Aristide was re-elected in 2000, aid to the Haitian government fell off a cliff.

Throughout Aristide’s second term, the U.S. and Canada directed their aid money to a variety of non-governmental groups, virtually all of whom were agitating for the overthrow of Aristide’s popular government. In January 2003, Canada hosted a meeting—the “Ottawa Initiative on Haiti”—at which high-level North American, European, and Latin American diplomats discussed plans for President Aristide’s removal and an ensuing military occupation, according to leaks made to Canadian journalist Michel Vastel. Haiti was not among those invited to attend the closed meeting.

The U.S., Canada, and France were eventually successful in removing Aristide from power in February 2004, and a former business consultant from Miami, Gerard Latortue, was installed to rule Haiti for the next two years. This new regime Canada helped install was a nightmare for Haiti’s poor majority. According to the best estimate available, published in the British medical journal Lancet, there were 8,000 murders and 35,000 rapes in the Haitian capital alone during Latortue’s two-year reign. In contrast, Amnesty International attributed a total of 20-30 killings to the police and Aristide supporters throughout the years of his second term.

Canada had cut off all aid to the Aristide government before its engineered overthrow, citing human rights abuses, but during the years that followed the second coup against him--when repression of Haiti’s poor majority skyrocketed--Haiti quickly became the largest recipient of Canadian aid in the hemisphere. The pattern continues: when human rights abuses are high, creating a favourable investment climate, Canadian aid is also high. When human rights abuses are relatively small, but the investment climate is less favourable, Canadian aid is dramatically less.

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Presidential, parliamentary, and local elections were held throughout 2006, and Haiti now has a democratic government, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about Haiti. Thousands of UN troops remain in Haiti and continue to be used to repress the country’s poor majority. As recently as last December, UN forces killed more than 30 Haitians, including women and children. These attacks are excused as “anti-gang” operations, but they have been deployed since the 2004 coup as a tool of repression against Haiti’s poor majority, which continues to agitate for more democracy and economic justice.

Canada has been among those calling for the UN to use more force, and Canada’s minority Conservative government recently stated that: “Restoring security and public order is central to Canada’s strategy in Haiti,” and that it “would also like to contribute to the creation of a climate conducive to private investment.”

Understood in the context of the role Canada played supporting the small opposition that agitated for the removal of Aristide’s overwhelmingly popular government, the Canadian government’s current policy makes it crystal clear that we must remain vigilant to prevent another return to darkness in Haiti.

(Regan Boychuk is a Calgary-based researcher and activist focused on Canadian foreign policy, the media, and democracy. For a copy of his Master’s thesis, “State Terror: The Pacification of Haiti’s Poor Majority and the Canadian Chore-boy to Empire,” York University 2005, e-mail him at: reganboychuk<at>hotmail.com.)