When President Bush declared last week that the U.S. would turn back any Haitians who tried to seek refuge here because their problems of insurrection, street violence and complete instability weren’t really all that bad, I felt a shiver of recognition. I knew the callousness was not intended for me or for any other American of color, but it certainly felt aimed in our direction. Here, after all, is a black nation not far away whose long-standing problems parallel those of its American counterparts, albeit to greater degrees: high poverty, crime, disease, insufficient education, underemployment. Here is an American government looking assiduously the other way, being sublimely hypocritical in advocating freedom and justice for all but never devoting the time, energy or political resources to ensuring that happens. Waiting until bad circumstances melt down into a bona fide crisis to act or, more accurately, react — and then less in Haiti’s interest than in its own.
When Jean-Bertrand Aristide was finally spirited away last Sunday, leaving Port-au-Prince to the looters, self-proclaimed rebels, and mostly plain citizens who couldn’t quite decide if they were better off with law enforcement or without, the scene in the papers resembled nothing so much as the maelstrom of South-Central L.A. in April ’92. Then, the first President Bush expressed great consternation publicly, made a few visits out West to confirm for himself that Central L.A. was indeed the disaster area it had been for years, then went home to focus on getting re-elected. The current Bush will doubtless do something like that in Haiti, if that much, and we will all go back to what we were doing until the next eruption. In the end, in the eyes of the most powerful country on Earth, black folks just don’t matter, and poor black folks matter least.
Even when America pays attention, it does so conditionally. The U.S. tends to confer any good will it might harbor toward black populations through its leaders, but only hand-picked leaders who reinforce a racial or economic status quo that works in America’s favor. So we crowned Booker T. Washington but not W.E.B. Du Bois, lauded Martin Luther King Jr. (to a point) but not Patrice Lumumba. Aristide was a flawed leader who was too easy to paint as a black Saddam-like tyrant by a Bush government that simply wanted Aristide, as it wanted Saddam, out of the way. Nor did the protestations of black leaders here make a dent: The failed appeals of 19 members of the congressional Black Caucus to its own government to negotiate a pact with rebel leaders to keep Aristide and his legitimately elected government in place speak volumes about the dubious state of black influence in this country.
Caucus leader and longtime Haiti advocate Charles Rangel (D–New York), clearly angry about what he saw as a betrayal of a good-faith effort to help broker a compromise, was among the first to accuse the U.S. of orchestrating a coup; as Aristide lent credence to that accusation on CNN, Maxine Waters went further in declaring that America was once again effecting a “regime change.” Rangel said that Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice led them to believe that a compromise was possible even as they pushed for Aristide’s departure, which was the unofficial U.S. position. Not surprisingly, the U.S. got its way, and the black American delegation was left with egg on its face (that the African-American Powell and Rice carried American interests and not those of the black delegation — and couldn’t have done otherwise, really — underscores the discomfiting reality of black leadership being chosen and sanctioned by the existing power structure, not by itself). But so it has always been with efforts to build up black communities stateside. Reconstruction was woefully inadequate and more beneficial in the end to white Southerners, not their former slaves; legislation and court rulings through the years that “gave” blacks the right to vote or access to equal education were not speedily or systematically enforced. In the bid to retain Aristide and keep Haiti solvent, Rangel and company played the only card black leaders throughout history have had: holding America to its own founding principles of democracy and self-determination.
The caucus encouraged Washington to respect the rule of law — this time in another country — but the plea fell on especially deaf ears within the Bush administration, which has already proved its willingness to act unilaterally and sabotage governments it deems uncooperative. The best it does is ignore them altogether, which, as we’ve seen in Liberia and other troubled nations that happen to be black, is often the most immoral choice of all. But money trumps morality every time. The fact that Haiti has zero natural resources to pique American interest — save sweatshop labor that the American banks seemed eager to cultivate in a “border zone” deal with the Dominican Republic proposed a couple of years ago — doesn’t help its cause of global involvement, which would have to begin here.
It also doesn’t help matters that Aristide seems for all the world like a good guy gone bad, a onetime pastor too corrupted by politics and power to be much good to the people who once elevated him as a savior. It’s another uncomfortable parallel to the black American experience, which has more than its share of preacher-hustlers and people whose proclaimed ambitions to improve community are often undermined by deeper ambitions of financial profit or 15 minutes in the spotlight. The equation is rarely either/or, but it’s often depicted that way, and so writing off a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton or an Aristide is that much more justifiable to those in power, and writing off the communities these fallen figures represent is even easier. But with leaders or without, the places and their problems of concerted neglect and political isolation remain. With a population bigger than L.A.’s but smaller than New York City’s, Haiti is an inner-city island with freedom dreams still frustrated 200 years after gaining independence. Some things don’t change.