We were awakened early by the Islamic call to prayer, a curious sound in rural Haiti. It carried across Route Nationale 1, above the cacophony of roosters and motorcycles and street vendors hawking plastic bags filled with water, and into the barracks of the Christian mission where we’d been offered beds the night before. Through our window the source emerged, backlit by the morning sun: a military compound directly across the highway, its fifteen-foot concrete walls towering above the flat and dusty hamlet. Minaret guard towers dotted the perimeter. Teenagers were kicking a soccer ball against its front gate and yelling, “Messi! Messi!”
Over a peanut butter and tuna breakfast at the mission, our host John, an evangelical builder from Michigan who had moved his family to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, explained: It was a base for the Jordanian contingent of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, the peacekeeping force that had occupied the country since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a 2004 coup d’état. We were in Haiti to shoot documentary video portraits of the general elections, then just a few days away, and MINUSTAH was playing a not insignificant role. We pressed for details, but John just shrugged: SUVs and tanks drove out, SUVs and tanks drove in.
After breakfast, we walked over to the compound with a camera, hoping to talk our way inside. The metal gate facing the highway was chained and bolted shut, so we went around the side, yelling hellos up at each minaret as we walked past. After some minutes, a blue helmet popped up, followed by an M4 carbine assault rifle. One by one, the peacekeepers appeared atop their towers, gesticulating with a stilted hysteria that undercut their attempt to look soldierly and serious. We knocked again on the front gate. “Blan fou,” one of the soccer players said to laughs—“stupid white kids.” The rushed Arabic inside became whispers and shuffling boots. A recessed slot clanked open, revealing flashing eyes and an agitated voice: “No photo!”
IT WAS NOVEMBER 25, 2010, ten months after the earthquake. Three miles southeast of the Jordanian compound, tens of thousands of corpses lay decomposing in the mass-burial sites of Titanyen. Ten miles farther south, protests condemning UN support for the fraudulent elections echoed throughout Port-au-Prince. In Cap Haitien, 150 miles north of the capital, protestors barricaded the main streets with coffins filled with cholera victims, chanting, “Aba okipasyon”—“down with the occupation.” This is MINUSTAH’s Haiti.
In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic leader of the grassroots organization Lavalas—Creole for “avalanche” or “flood”—won a landslide victory in his country’s first-ever democratic elections, only to be overthrown nine months later by an elite-backed coup d’état. A liberation theologian and author of Capitalism Is a Mortal Sin, Aristide regained power in 1994 with the help of a Clinton administration desperate for a foreign policy victory; in return, he was forced to adopt the structural-adjustment policies of Marc Bazin, the World Bank economist and US-supported presidential candidate he had defeated so overwhelmingly four years prior.1 After finishing his term in 1996 and overseeing the first democratic transition in Haitian history, Aristide was again eligible to run for the presidency in 2000. The former slum priest was reelected with 92 percent of the popular vote. This time, it took his enemies almost four years to engineer a counteroffensive.
In the spring of 2004, an opportunist paramilitary coalition machine-gunned its way through the countryside and into Port-au-Prince. Citing “political instability,” Washington stepped in to finish the job, bundling Aristide onto a military jet and depositing him in the Central African Republic. The official line is that the US government rescued him from an armed conflict between supporters and detractors, but Aristide described what happened as a “modern-day kidnapping,” a culmination and legitimization of the coup leaders’ ambitions. Fearing the kind of demonstrations that exploded across Haiti after Aristide was first overthrown, Washington sent in the marines to secure the transition of power to a neoliberal regime of US-friendly technocrats and career politicians.2 This task was then handed over to MINUSTAH.
Drafted the day of the coup, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1542 illegally established MINUSTAH as a peace-enforcement mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Originally proposed as a traditional Chapter VI peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH was at the last minute created by the Security Council under the far more powerful and aggressive Chapter VII. The difference isn’t trivial: Whereas Chapter VI missions require the consent of all parties involved and rely on negotiation and arbitration to resolve disputes, Chapter VII missions may be declared unilaterally and can authorize military violence to assist with “peace enforcement.” In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, they are legal only in the presence of genocide, civil war, or crimes against humanity.
MINUSTAH’s assignment was to “protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence,” while assisting with “the restoration and maintenance of the rule of law, public safety and public order.” These duties included promoting good governance, fostering national reconciliation, and monitoring and protecting human rights. But behind the humanitarian rhetoric, the underlying political program of MINUSTAH was one of classical counterrevolution: to force the democratic movement in Haiti to accept the coup that had deposed Aristide.
As windfall, the United Nations would lay a humanitarian facade over the imperial machinations that engineered Aristide’s defeat—an increasingly necessary public relations strategy for the US government after Iraq. A 2006 Government Accountability Office study entitled “Cost Comparison of Actual UN and Hypothetical U.S. Operations in Haiti” argued that the United Nations has “the ability to compensate for its relatively small military presence with its reputation of international legitimacy and local impartiality.” The report concluded that the cost of a US mission would have been double that of the total budget granted to MINUSTAH in the first fourteen months of the occupation and more than seven times the US contribution. For the Bush administration, the decision not to spend $876 million on a task that could be outsourced for a mere $116 million proved uncomplicated.
Eight years later, MINUSTAH continues to occupy the Caribbean’s first independent republic with 7,699 troops and 3,542 police composed almost entirely of Latin American forces, with Brazil in a leadership role. (The Jordanian contingent is only a small percentage of the total.) MINUSTAH spends $865 million per year—roughly double the Aristide government’s entire pre-coup budget—in a country where 70 percent of the ten million citizens live on less than a dollar a day.
AFTER BEING TURNED AWAY at the compound gate, we decided to shoot a video piece detailing the everyday activities of a MINUSTAH battalion. The isolated, rural Jordanian base seemed a tidy symbol for the peacekeepers’ on-the-ground presence in Haiti: holed up and walled in, removed from the surrounding communities, cultures, and languages, anxiously militaristic in the face of abject poverty. The idea was to film the Jordanian soldiers doing whatever it is they spend $2.3 million per day doing—driving around, hanging out at the base, skyping their families back home.
We made our way to the MINUSTAH Log Base, and, after three hours of interviews, to Delta Camp, where we met with Barbara Mertz, MINUSTAH’s deputy chief military public information officer. “You are journalists,” she said—a mistake we weren’t about to correct. Yes, we were from the … London Review. Five days and many overstatements of our journalistic renown later, we exchanged our passports for UN media badges. Three tour guides—a Jordanian, a Peruvian, and a Brazilian—then marshaled us into one of the UN’s ubiquitous armed white SUVs. We weren’t authorized to revisit the rural compound; instead, we were taken to the Jordanian headquarters in downtown Port-au-Prince, a concrete fortress surrounded on all sides by a patchwork tent city housing thousands of earthquake refugees. We were greeted by a line of armed soldiers and forced smiles.
To begin, we had a session of mint tea and protracted silences with the commander of the Jordanian forces, Colonel Albdour Hussein. His desk was cluttered with national trinkets and flanked by portraits of King Abdullah II and King Hussein. Then soldiers delivered welcome gifts in red Christmas bags: Jordanian-flag baseball caps, XXL T-shirts, to-go coffee mugs, and an Abdullah keychain stamped “With Compliments of the Jordanian Armed Forces.” Pleasantries exchanged, we explained that we wanted to film behind the scenes at the rural base, capturing an authentic day in the life of his soldiers. The colonel nodded and announced that we were not allowed to shoot video, only photos, and, really, there was more to see at his downtown HQ. He handed us an itinerary, and we were ushered outside and instructed to set up our camera.
What followed was a PR blitz—choreographed displays of military pageantry, synchronized tank exercises, and a visit to a makeshift mosque. At every stop, our Jordanian chaperone, Deya Ghuneimat, prompted us to take photos—which we did, each time to enthusiastic thumbs-up. But he and our other tour guides didn’t know that our Canon 5D, which looks like a standard single-lens reflex camera, can also shoot video. We stole minutes of video at a time between staged photo ops.
After a lunch of falafel and microwaved fish sticks, we were driven to a nearby orphanage, where we were welcomed by an English-language sign drawn in crayon: “Jordanian Open Medical Day.” As soon as our camera was ready, a soldier began running assembly-line examinations of the children—rapid stethoscope readings that led inevitably to one of five preselected medications. The children were then sat down in rows for a translated lecture on cholera-related sanitation techniques, an irony that did not appear lost on the two women who ran the orphanage. Twenty minutes after we’d arrived, the group was escorted to a tableful of good-bye presents: plastic trucks for the boys, white Barbies for the girls, handed out to the line of swollen-bellied children by smiling soldiers in bulletproof vests.
According to the UN’s Joint Operations and Tasking Center and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in the months following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that decimated Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, MINUSTAH performed 5,092 security operations, involving 29,537 troops, fifty-six maritime patrols, and the sailing of 746 nautical miles. In the same period, MINUSTAH undertook just fifty-one humanitarian missions, involving 359 troops. Faced with more than two hundred thousand dead, hundreds of thousands severely injured, and more than one million homeless, MINUSTAH responded by hunting down looters. A US soldier with the Eighty-second Airborne Division elaborated: “The only time I’ve seen one of these UN troops jump out of the back of a truck was to beat up on somebody or take a shot at them.”
US officials were quick to criticize the UN peacekeepers as inefficient and disorganized, but, in reality, the orders to prioritize security over relief came from above. One day after the earthquake, Washington dispatched fourteen thousand marines to Port-au-Prince, taking over the nation’s airspace while tens of thousands lay trapped beneath the rubble. According to the political philosopher Peter Hallward, US officials “explicitly prioritized military over humanitarian flights,” turning away food and medical supplies while making “fears of popular unrest and insecurity their number one concern.” Edmond Mulet, then the MINUSTAH head of mission, explained it best: “I still have to patrol, I still have to go after all these criminals and bandits that escaped from the national penitentiary, the gang leaders, the criminals, the killers, the kidnappers. I cannot really distract myself from doing that.”
ARISTIDE IS A FLAWED and complicated figure, but his presidencies remain the symbol of the historic democratic mobilization that put an ecstatic end to more than thirty years of US-backed military dictatorships. And while his legislative achievements have been criticized by the Left and the Right, Haitians today celebrate one remarkable political triumph—that he disbanded the reviled Armed Forces of Haiti, which had been trained by US Marines during the American occupation from 1915 to 1934 and had never known an enemy but the country’s own citizens.3 This presented a problem for Aristide’s enemies in the business class: Unable to call on the military, they were without means to force him from office and suppress the protests of his Lavalas base. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Aristide’s second term in office lasted so much longer than his first and why UN soldiers were required on the ground after the second coup took place.
In the months following the coup, Lavalas supporters were systematically intimidated and attacked by forces associated with the interim government. As assessed by the Lancet, at least eight thousand people were killed and as many as thirty-five thousand women were sexually assaulted in a twenty-two-month period. Port-au-Prince’s post-coup mayor, Jean Phillippe Sassine, expressed the official attitude toward those who opposed the new government: “Shoot them and ask questions later.” Many of those doing the shooting were members of the Haitian National Police (PNH)—a force made up of former soldiers reemployed, retrained, and rearmed by the UN and the marines. In case after case, MINUSTAH peacekeepers were seen standing guard as the PNH carried out summary executions of Lavalas protestors, often in broad daylight. MINUSTAH generals are further alleged to have hidden evidence implicating pro-coup politicians in the assassinations of Lavalas leaders, most notably the activist and priest Father Jean-Marie Vincent.
Meanwhile, edgy MINUSTAH soldiers proved willing to be the aggressors in the war against Aristide’s supporters. Reporters and human rights groups accused the peacekeepers of attacking Lavalas neighborhoods, protests, hospitals, and funerals, as well as of rape and child abuse.4 But MINUSTAH’s most odious fits of outright warfare were reserved for the shantytowns on the periphery of Port-au-Prince, in particular, the Lavalas stronghold of Cité Soleil. In early 2005, as demonstrations calling for Aristide’s return intensified, MINUSTAH came under “extreme pressure from the international community to use violence,” according to Brazilian general Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, force commander at the time. On the morning of July 6, 2005, more than 350 MINUSTAH soldiers raided Cité Soleil, where they blocked off the exits and expended twenty-two thousand rounds, killing at least thirty unarmed civilians and injuring hundreds more.
It is almost too obvious to point out, but such acts of aggression are not consistent with MINUSTAH’s mandate to “protect civilians under the imminent threat of physical violence.” They are, however, perfectly congruous with the occupation’s actual goal: to prevent an uprising of the masses in Haiti, like that of the slaves of Saint-Domingue two centuries before. A candid summation of MINUSTAH’s raison d’être was disclosed by WikiLeaks in a 2008 cable from US ambassador Janet Sanderson. The strategic objective of the occupation, she wrote, is to prevent “a sharp drop in foreign and domestic investment,” and to stymie “resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces.” She concludes that MINUSTAH is “an indispensable tool in realizing core [US] policy interests in Haiti. … The U.S. will reap benefits from this hemispheric security cooperation for years to come.”
Journalists are the shock troops of military propaganda campaigns. And in the wake of an outpouring of criticism about the handling of the earthquake and the cholera outbreak, MINUSTAH came under pressure to polish its humanitarian credentials. Barbara Mertz and company arranged our day with the Jordanians to outsource their PR objectives—to sell an image of MINUSTAH that would generate Western consent for the ongoing occupation of Haiti.5 They were just doing their part to help Hillary Clinton “engage opinion makers” to make sure they “get the narrative right.”
The objective of the United Nations PR department is to reinforce the image of a politically neutral organization that helps Haitians in whatever fashion is deemed most humanitarian. Clinton and Mertz have no interest in depicting Haitians as active and independent subjects; for their purposes, poor Haitians are only passive recipients of external benevolence. Thus MINUSTAH’s fetishization of orphans, the most helpless of the helpless. The open medical day we attended could easily have been a photo shoot for MINUSTAH press materials.
Ben Piven and Mohammad Al-Kassim’s video for the Huffington Post, Haiti’s Jordanian Peacekeepers, showcases what the UN officials who organized our day with the Jordanians were anticipating in return for the access granted us. The video, shot during what appears to be a guided tour similar to ours, depicts MINUSTAH soldiers babysitting schoolchildren and conducting drug raids and generally illustrates Deputy Commander Nader al-Quadah’s goal: “Help people and do good.” This is the genius of embedded journalism: Reporters don’t need to be told what to write about or what to photograph because the right answers are placed in front of them. In an accompanying article, “Haitians Surrender to Destiny but Battle for Better Tomorrow,” Piven reflected on his experience, concluding: “I continue to wonder whether deterministic Haitians have a tendency to see themselves as too powerless to bother challenging their intertwined individual and national fates.”
The historically useful assumption that poor black people are incapable of self-governance is in this way dredged up from the annals of colonial ideology and adapted to a modern liberal-humanist sensibility. And the result is the same as ever: Systemic exploitation is covered up and explained away by the cultural deficiencies of the exploited. “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences,” wrote David Brooks in a 2010 New York Times column titled “The Underlying Tragedy.” Haitians lack “responsibility,” neglect child-rearing duties, and, of course, practice voodoo—which “spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.” These are intellectual seeds that grow into “humanitarian intervention” and what the novelist Teju Cole has dubbed “The White Savior Industrial Complex.”
And who benefits? The “saviors.” According to a May 2012 report from the Center for Global Development, and a recent article in the New York Times, three years after the earthquake, and despite more than $11 billion pledged from public and private donors, rebuilding has barely begun. Today, 357,785 Haitians languish in 496 tent camps; projections suggest that one year from now, at least 200,000 will still be without permanent shelter. Much of the money has not been disbursed or spent; much of what has, has paid for layers of NGOs, private contractors, and foreign-government agencies. The Times quotes Michèle Pierre-Louis, a former Haitian prime minister: “All the money that went to pay the salaries of foreigners and to rent expensive apartments and cars for foreigners while the situation of the country was degrading—there was something revolting about it.”
Had our photos turned out as Mertz and the Jordanians intended, our fake journalism would have transformed into real propaganda: our images confounding fact and truth, as Werner Herzog likes to say of cinema verité, and denying the political and historical context necessary to render the world as anything but a series of atomized subjectivities. The aesthetic imperative of this kind of humanitarian propaganda amounts to a total dislocation of cause from effect: a depoliticization of poverty that renders Haitians as victims of nothing but their own Haitian-ness.
On December 2, 2010, four days after the election, we knocked on another gate: the front entrance of Aristide’s abandoned presidential home in Tabarre, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. And without having to reach for photoshopped press passes, we were welcomed inside by Aristide’s cousin Cederne. He and a handful of friends were watching over the property—playing checkers and talking mournfully about the election. The house itself, left unprotected after the 2004 coup, had been ransacked. The swimming pool that Aristide had often opened to local youth was drained and strewn with leaves.
“The minority in Haiti—the political and economic elite—is afraid of free and fair elections,” said Aristide in an interview from exile a month earlier, as Haiti prepared to vote. “They know if there are free and fair elections, the people will defeat them.” He said this with some confidence: Lavalas has won every election in which it has been allowed to participate. But in 2010, as in 2006, Haiti’s largest political party was banned; on the eve of the registration deadline, a condition was implemented that required Aristide, at the time denied entrance into the country, to enlist his party in person.
The US and MINUSTAH served as the election’s chief sponsor and supervisor. “If you look at the sheer number of participants, you have nineteen candidates from across the political spectrum running for president,” said US ambassador Kenneth Merten. “I think you have a pretty good representation of the Haitian body politic.” But the body politic didn’t agree, and only 23 percent of registered voters participated, the lowest number in modern Haitian history. Aristide himself had originated the call for a boycott from Johannesburg, stating that the activities of November 28 should be seen as “selections, not elections.”
The elections were met with accusations of ballot stuffing and voter fraud, forcing the US to walk back its support. A highly contested recount led to a runoff, which in turn reignited street demonstrations. In late April 2011, after MINUSTAH finally subdued the protesters, Haiti’s new president was announced—the neo-Duvalierist kompa musician Michel Martelly. The son of a Shell Oil executive, a former student at the Haitian Military Academy, and a longtime favorite of the nation’s elite, Martelly is known as “Sweet Micky”—a nickname allegedly borrowed from Michel François, former national police chief, who was convicted in absentia for the murder of Lavalas supporters.
Martelly has pledged his support for the UN occupation. But the Haitian Senate has adopted resolutions recommending nonrenewal of the MINUSTAH mandate—initially slated for 2012, the nonrenewal is now scheduled for 2014—and although it’s not clear how seriously these will be taken in Washington and New York, Martelly has acknowledged that the blue helmets cannot stay in the country indefinitely, calling for their eventual replacement with a revived Haitian Army.6
ARISTIDE RETURNED TO HAITI after seven years in exile on March 18, 2011—two days before the final runoff. He was greeted at the Port-au-Prince airport by thousands of supporters, who paraded alongside his cavalcade and swept into the grounds of his Tabarre home.
In 2007’s Damming the Flood, Peter Hallward wrote, “What happened in Haiti during the tumultuous years between 1986 and 2001 is the progressive clarification of [a] basic antagonism—Titid ou lame. Aristide or the army.” In 2013, we’d put it this way: democracy or MINUSTAH.