American televangelist Pat Robertson has blamed the devastating earthquake in Haiti on a pact between the impoverished nation’s founders and the devil.
…C.L.R. James‘ The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, was a forbidden book in South Africa until the recent dismantling of apartheid. It’s not hard to see why. James researched his account of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian slave uprising with meticulous care. It remains a masterpiece of historical scholarship, but the book was designed to be a weapon for revolutionary combat. James wrote it while active in the International African Service Bureau — the organization founded by his childhood friend George Padmore, the godfather of Pan-Africanism. By narrating “the first successful slave revolt in history,” he meant to provide a tool kit of ideas and information for future liberation movements. Apartheid’s censors knew what they were doing when they banned the book.
Yet The Black Jacobins did find readers in South Africa. Copies were scarce and the potential audience was large, so people had to improvise. One circle of activists typed up key passages and distributed them in carbon copies. Another group tore James’ thick book into clusters of a few pages, to be circulated a little at a time.
Members would study each fragment closely and then pass it on to the next eager reader. They doubtless memorized large parts of the book this way, while waiting for the next installment to reach them. Few writers ever find their work treated with such passionate intensity. Naturally, James was pleased to learn about his South African readers. The very ingenuity and seriousness with which they handled the book were proofs of a lesson James sought to teach, over and over again, throughout his work: In their efforts to free themselves, to reshape their world into a more livable place, people display a creative drive that now and then directs history into new courses.
After his death in London in 1989, tributes to James came from all corners of the African diaspora, and beyond. It is evidence of the scope of his life and work that, over the past half-dozen years, new books by and about James have been pouring off the presses…
…The food crisis erupted first and most dramatically in Haiti in early 2008. Like Bangladesh, Haiti today is a symbol of misery and despair. And, like Bangladesh, when European explorers arrived, the island was remarkably rich in resources, with a large and flourishing population. It later became the source of much of France’s wealth. I will not run through the sordid history, but the current food crisis can be traced directly to 1915, Woodrow Wilson’s invasion: murderous, brutal, and destructive. Among Wilson’s many crimes was dissolving the Haitian Parliament at gunpoint because it refused to pass “progressive legislation” that would have allowed U.S. businesses to take over Haitian lands. Wilson’s Marines then ran a free election, in which the legislation was passed by 99.9 percent of the 5 percent of the public permitted to vote. All of this comes down through history as “Wilsonian idealism.”
Later, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) instituted programs to turn Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” by adhering to the sacred principle of comparative advantage: Haiti must import food and other commodities from the United States, while working people, mostly women, toil under miserable conditions in U.S.-owned assembly plants. Haiti’s first free election, in 1990, threatened these economically rational programs. The poor majority entered the political arena for the first time and elected their own candidate, a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Washington adopted the standard operating procedures for such a case, moving at once to undermine the regime. A few months later came the anticipated military coup, and the resulting junta instituted a reign of terror, which was backed by Bush senior and even more fully by Clinton, despite pretenses. By 1994 Clinton decided that the population was sufficiently intimidated and sent U.S. forces to restore the elected president, but on the strict condition that he accept a harsh neoliberal regime. In particular, there must be no protection for the economy. Haitian rice farmers are efficient, but cannot compete with U.S. agribusiness that relies on huge government subsidies, thanks largely to Reagan, anointed High Priest of free trade with little regard to his record of extreme protectionism and state intervention in the economy.
There is nothing surprising about what followed: a 1995 USAID report observed that the “export-driven trade and investment policy” — that Washington mandated — will “relentlessly squeeze the domestic rice farmer.” Neoliberal policies dismantled what was left of economic sovereignty and drove the country into chaos, accelerated by Bush junior’s blocking of international aid on cynical grounds. In February 2004 the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the United States, backed a military coup and spirited President Aristide off to Africa. Haiti had, by then, lost the capacity to feed itself, leaving it highly vulnerable to food price fluctuation, the immediate cause of the 2008 food crisis.
The story is fairly similar in much of the world. In a narrow sense, it may be true enough that the food crisis results from Western lack of concern: a pittance could overcome its worst immediate effects. But more fundamentally it results from dedication to the basic principles of business-run state policy, the Adam Smith generalization. These are all matters that we too easily evade — along with the fact that bailing out banks is not uppermost in the minds of the billion people now facing starvation, not forgetting the tens of millions enduring hunger in the richest country in the world.
Also sidelined is a possible way to make a significant dent in the financial and food crises. It is suggested by the recent publication of the authoritative annual report on military spending by SIPRI, the Swedish peace research institute. The scale of military spending is phenomenal, regularly increasing. The United States is responsible for almost as much as the rest of the world combined, seven times as much as its nearest rival, China. There is no need to waste time commenting…