The historical context behind America and “shithole countries”
February 13th 2018 | Chicago | Xavier Ward
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
The Trump administration is hardly a stranger to controversy. It has run the gauntlet of accusations of racism, collusion with foreign governments, obstruction of justice, public misinformation, authoritarian rhetoric, and most recently: using a slur to describe an entire continent and two other countries.
The Emperor has no clothes
Yet, Trump himself has — despite swaths of public acrimony and an abysmal public approval rating — remained largely unscathed. The Republican controlled House and Senate have made it easier for Trump to say and do as he pleases with no more than media scrutiny.
His latest mishap came during a private meeting on immigration, in which he allegedly branded the African nations, El Salvador, and Haiti as “shithole countries”, questioning why we should allow immigrants from these places and suggesting that we try to attract people from countries such as Norway. He had just met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg the day before these disparaging remarks.
Moreover, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin claims that Trump used the word “shithole” repeatedly throughout the meeting. The story has been broadly confirmed from multiple sources.
Photograph by Jonathan Ernst (Reuters)
Trump denied using the slur against African countries and claimed he never said anything derogatory towards Haiti, touting a “wonderful relationship with Haitians” in a tweet on January 12th.
He did, however, admit to using “tough” language in the meeting.
The African Union’s spokeswoman, Ebba Kalondo, told the Associated Press that they were alarmed by Trump’s comments. “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice.”
The United States also has a complicated record with Haiti. If Durbin’s account of the meeting is true, which now seems to be the case, then the President must understand the United States’ historical role in upholding devastating conditions there.
Duvalier and the United States
When discussing the difficulties that Haiti faced for many decades, one would be remiss not to talk about how the U.S.’s complicity, and (at times) support, of the Duvaliers perpetuated those impoverished conditions and the murder of Haitian nationals.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in 1957 on a black nationalist and populist movement. Shortly after, he became “President for Life” in a sham election in 1964 and ruled until his death in 1971.
After his death, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled until 1985 when a rebellion unseated him and he fled to France, only to return in 2011.
“In his first speech on October 22, 1957, President Duvalier promised government unity, reconciliation, and financial redistribution. However, within weeks, he began to destroy all past or potential opposition in order to centralize power in himself and remain in power” — according to Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Library of Congress report.
Diagram by The Economist
“President Duvalier reigned supreme for fourteen years. Even in Haiti, where dictators had been the norm, François Duvalier gave a new meaning to the term. Duvalier and his henchmen killed between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians,” the report read.
All the while, the U.S. was supplying roughly $15 million in aid to Haiti, most of which would line the pocketbook of Mr. Duvalier.
That aid was not cut until his sham election in 1962.
“By 1961 Duvalier had received US$40.4 million in foreign assistance, mainly as gifts from the United States,” the report states. According to that same report, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy cut the aid after Duvalier refused to diverge what it was being used for. Still, he secretly received U.S. funds, and after Kennedy’s death, aid money began to flow openly again.
All the while, the Haitian people languished. Following his death, his son was no kinder; Jean-Claude had come into a fortuitous — albeit violent — political situation.
Shortly after coming into office, he declared Haiti would always be an aid to the U.S. in its fight against communism, and the relationship between the two continued as it had before.
A legacy of death and violence
“Bolstered by the U.S., the regime operated with impunity. Government funds were embezzled and siphoned out of the country, which later enabled Duvalier to live well in exile. Poverty, environmental decline, and poor health conditions in much of the country went unaddressed,” The New Yorker’s Laurent Dubois wrote of the situation, shortly after Jean-Claude’s death in 2014.
While Jean-Claude boasted of an economic uptick due to foreign companies setting up shop in Haiti, thus branding it the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” the anguish endured. Political opponents were imprisoned, tortured, or exiled. Those fortunate enough to escape to the United States set up communities, and there the anti-Duvalier sentiment boiled, but American aid to the dictator who was living up to his father’s namesake persisted.
It was not until 1985 that he was ousted in a military rebellion and fleeing to France the following year. In 1987, former President Ronald Reagan ordered the remaining U.S.-based assets of the Duvalier family frozen.
Photograph from Bettman/Corbis
Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s seeming affinity for the dictator did not stop there.
Despite Jean-Claude’s legacy of destruction, he resurfaced from exile in France in 2011, shortly after the devastating earthquake. It was seemingly a slap in the face to Haitian citizens who had suffered under him. While a court did decide he could be charged with crimes against humanity in February 2014, he died October of the same year.
In 2011, around the time Jean-Claude resurfaced, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for the presidency of Michel Martelly, whose rule just ended in 2016.
Martelly’s presidency paled in comparison to the authoritarianism of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, but he did utilize the power structure put in place by them for his own benefit, welcome Jean-Claude’s son into his regime, and do so with blatant U.S. support.
The United States has a habit of sticking its nose into dictatorships and failing governments.
Take the Arab Spring for example. One could argue that the U.S.’s intentions were noble, but its track record of successfully changing the tide in other countries is lackluster at best and near-criminal at worst.
The story is no different in Haiti. If Trump did indeed brand Haiti a “shithole”, then his administration should also acknowledge the United States’ role in making it one.