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Treatment of Haitians is not just an American disgrace, but a world disgrace

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer angrily said the brutal treatment of Haitian asylum seekers defies common decency. A chorus of Democrats chimed in and called the Border Patrol horseback riding whipping and assaulting of the Haitians much worse. All demanded that the Biden Administration cease and desist the deportation of the asylum-seekers.

Biden is in a tough spot, courtesy of Trump. He is following the hardline anti-immigration dictate leftover from the Trump administration. The visuals of the brutality make it an extreme matter of urgency to scrap the policy, and fast.

I’m still haunted by the heartbreaking scene I and a group of other American visitors witnessed at a small beach town in Northern Haiti some years ago. We had no sooner arrived at the beach when a contingent of Haitian police and local officials frantically waved away a throng of the town’s residents that had poured onto the beach to hawk food, trinkets, carvings and tattered clothing, but mostly to beg. Their torn T-shirts, ragged shorts and emaciated looks spoke Haiti’s legendary poverty and the utter desperation to get anything from those they regarded as rich foreign tourists.

The tormenting scene that I and thousands of other visitors have witnessed during the past decade has become Haiti’s national emblem. In 2010, it took a murderous earthquake for the U.S. and legions of public agencies and private donors to leap over themselves to promise food, medical supplies, clothing, building materials, construction teams, security forces and cash to Haiti. And now a decade-plus later, it’s the shocking scene of horse-riding border agents whipping the asylum seekers that stirs rage and outcry.

Why does it take these tragedies? Haiti’s sorry history of American occupation, brutal dictatorial and military rule, the flood of refugees trying to escape the nation’s destitution, the perennial food crises, the wave of devastating hurricanes that periodically tear through, the meddling by the U.S., Canada and France in the nation’s internal politics, and the grinding poverty are well known.

Haiti’s corrupt, repressive military rulers and government officials get standard blame for the chronic poverty and bankruptcy. There’s much truth to that. But Haiti is also a relentless victim of crushing, never-ending debt servitude to the IMF and foreign banks, vicious labor exploitation, and U.S. aid policies that stunt Haiti’s farm and manufacturing growth.

Haiti’s debt burden would sink virtually any developing nation, debt incurred by the Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier regimes and their successor military governments in the early 1990s propped up by the U.S. Half of the loans were given to the Duvaliers and the other dictatorships. They squandered the cash on presidential luxuries with barely a cent going to development programs.

The United Nations has hardly been a benevolent force. The UN for several years shelled out millions to maintain 8,000 peacekeepers there. Yet when hurricanes ravaged the country, the UN force did not dispatch amphibious units, build temporary bridges or provide trucks or equipment to help Haitians in distress.

The US Agency for International Development has come under intense fire for turning a blind eye to corporations and contractors who ignore basic Haitian labor, human rights, minimum wage and environmental laws, shun service providers, and invest only a relative pittance of profit back into Haitian small businesses, manufacturing and food production. This is a particular sore point, given that Haiti’s near-total reliance on foreign food imports has resulted in famine, near starvation and food riots.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that with proper investment in food production, the country is more than capable of feeding its 8.5 million residents. U.S. and Haitian human rights groups have flatly accused the U.S. of aiding and abetting corruption and demand to know whether U.S. corporations and Haitian officials pocketed and benefited from the billions in USAID and its subcontractors spent there. The groups charge that the systematic looting of the country’s treasury did not end with democratically elected President Jean Aristide’s ouster in 1991. Their demands have fallen on deaf ears.

The recent appalling footage of the whipping of Haitian asylum seekers brought the wrath of many down on the Biden administration for enforcing Trump’s brutal immigration policy. The question, though, is, why did it take that? And what will it take for the U.S. and other nations to help transform Haiti into the democratic, self-supporting nation it can be?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. 

Haiti, Haitian asylum seekers, immigration