Suffocating the Poor: A Modern Parable

They democratically elected a president to stand up to the rich and multinational corporations – so our governments have him kidnapped

By JOHANN HARI
The Independent / Commondreams.org
International
Posted by
Bulatlat.com

Today, I want to tell you the story of how our governments have been torturing and tormenting an island in the Caribbean – but it is a much bigger story than that. It’s a parable explaining one of the main reasons how and why, across the world, the poor are kept poor, so the rich can be kept rich. If you grasp this situation, you will see some of the ugliest forces in the world laid out before you – so we can figure out how to stop them.

The rubble-strewn island of Haiti is now in the middle of an election campaign that will climax this November. So far, the world has noticed it solely because the Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean wanted to run for President, only to be blocked because he hasn’t lived in the country since he was a kid. But there is a much bigger hole in the election: the most popular politician in Haiti by far, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He’s not there because, after winning a landslide election, he followed the will of the Haitian people who demanded he take on the multinational corporations and redistribute enough money that their children wouldn’t starve – so our governments had him kidnapped him at gunpoint and refuse to let him back.

But we have to start a little earlier if this is going to make sense. For over two centuries, Haiti has been effectively controlled from outside. The French enslaved the entire island in the eighteenth century and worked much of the population to death, turning it into the sugar and coffee plantation for the world. By this century, Western governments were arming, funding and fuelling the psychopathic dictatorship of the Duvalier family – who slaughtered 50,000 people – supposedly because they were “our friends” in the fight against communism.

All this left Haiti the most unequal country in the world. A tiny elite lives in vast villas in the hills, while below and all around them, the overwhelming majority of the population live in tiny tin shacks with no water or electricity, crammed six-to-a-room. Just 1 per cent own 50 per cent of the wealth and 75 per cent of the arable land. Once the Haitian people were finally able to rise up in 1986 to demand democracy, they obviously wanted the country’s wealth to be shared more fairly. They began to organize into a political movement called Lavalas – the flood – to demand higher wages and higher taxes on the rich to build schools and hospitals and subsidies for the half-starved poor. This panicked the elite.

And nobody panicked them more than a thin, softly-spoken, intellectual slum-priest named Aristide who found himself at the crest of this wave. He was born into a bitingly poor family and became a brilliant student. As a priest he soon became one of the leading exponents of Liberation Theology, the left-wing Catholicism that says people shouldn’t wait passively for justice in the Kingdom of Heaven, but must demand it here and now. (The current Pope tried desperately to stamp out this “heresy”.) Aristide explained: “The rich of my country, a tiny percentage, sit at a vast table overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen are crowded under that table, hunched in the dirt and starving. One day the people under the table will rise up in righteousness.”

On this platform, he was elected in 1990 in a landslide in the country’s first free and fair election, taking 64 per cent of the vote. He kept his promise to the Haitian people: he increased the minimum wage from 38 cents a day to $1, demanding the multinational corporations pay a less insulting wage. He trebled the number of free secondary schools. He disbanded the murderous national army that had terrorized the population. Even the International Monetary Fund had to admit that over the Aristide period and just after, Haiti’s Human Poverty Indicator – a measure of how likely your kids are to die, starve or go uneducated – dropped dramatically from 46.2 per cent to 31.8 per cent.

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