Just weeks ago, as we reported previously on The Real News, onlookers in the US and around the world were horrified yet again by scenes of pain, desperation, and brutality at the US-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas. With COVID-19 and global vaccine apartheid continuing to exacerbate a public health crisis, with continuing political turmoil following the assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse in July, and after another devastating earthquake shook the battered nation in August, thousands of Haitian refugees have been forced to leave their homes in the hope of seeking asylum in the US.
Instead of having their appeals for asylum heard and their situation recognized for the
crisis of humanity that it is, these refugees were met by menacing US Border Patrol agents
on horseback who rode them down and rounded them up in brutal fashion. Since then, the US government under President Joe Biden has deployed the Trump-era Title 42 policy to mass expel thousands of refugees back to Haiti without hearing their asylum claims, even though the Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status in May.
While the news cycle has moved on from the immediate so-called “crisis at the border,” the nightmare for Haitians and the country of Haiti is still very much ongoing. In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez talks with Pascal Robert about the larger political context that led to the horrifying scenes at the US-Mexico border last month, and about the deep disdain, fear, and imperialist designs that have historically shaped US policy toward Haiti and its people. Pascal Robert is an essayist and political commentator whose work covers Black politics, global affairs, and the history and politics of Haiti. He is
the co-host of the podcast THIS IS REVOLUTION, a frequent contributor to the Black Agenda Report, and his writing has been featured in outlets like The Huffington Post, Alternet, and the Washington Spectator.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to the Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the Editor-in-Chief here at the Real News, and it’s great to have you all with us. Just weeks ago, as we reported previously here on The Real News, onlookers around the US and around the world were horrified yet again by scenes of pain, desperation, and brutality at the US-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas. With COVID-19 and global vaccine apartheid continuing to exacerbate a public health crisis, with continuing political turmoil following the assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse, in July, and after another devastating earthquake shook the battered nation in August, to say nothing of decades and centuries of economic strangulation, political, and military intervention, and the draining of national resources by countries like the US, thousands of Haitian refugees have been forced to leave their homes in the hope of seeking asylum here in the United States. Instead of having their appeals for asylum heard and their situation recognized for the crisis of humanity that it is, these refugees were met by menacing US border patrol agents on horseback who rode them down and rounded them up in brutal fashion.
Since then, the United States government under President Joe Biden has deployed the Trump-era Title 42 policy to mass expel thousands of refugees back to Haiti without hearing their asylum claims. And it is absolutely worth noting that just months ago, in May, the Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for temporary protected status, meaning that it considered the Caribbean nation too unsafe for people to return to. That was before Moïse’s assassination, and that was before the earthquake in August. But apparently, all of that concern for the safety of Haitian nationals went out the window when thousands arrived at the border desperately seeking asylum in a country that has long been a direct contributor to the misery that people are now fleeing. While the news cycle has moved on from the immediate so-called crisis at the border, the nightmare for Haitians and the country of Haiti is still very much ongoing.
It’s important that all of us understand the full context of the horrifying images that we saw last month. That we recognize the full extent of the inhumane injustice that has been wrought upon the refugees who were so callously swept up and expelled. And that we acknowledge the fact that this is not an anomaly. This is not the first time such inhumanity has been enacted at the border, and it will not be the last. And it is, in fact, an example of the institutionalized inhumanity that the border and US immigration policy exist to enforce. To talk about all of this, I’m honored to be joined by my guest today, Pascal Robert. Pascal is an essayist and political commentator whose work covers Black politics, global affairs, and the history and politics of Haiti. He is the co-host of the podcast This is Revolution, a frequent contributor to the Black Agenda Report, and his writing has been featured in outlets like the Huffington Post, AlterNet, and The Washington Spectator. Pascal, thank you so much for joining me, man.
Pascal Robert: Thank you for having me as well, Maximillian. Nice to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, you were truly the person that I wanted to talk to most about this. And we’ve obviously been getting a lot of questions from our audience, not only for people seeking that context for what they were seeing, but wanting to follow up on what happened to these Haitian refugees. What drove them to the border in the first place? It’s not something that our mainstream media really gives us a whole lot of helpful context for. And so I guess just kind of starting out, I was wondering if I could turn things over to you and maybe ask if you could walk listeners and viewers through what the larger context is for the “crisis at the border” that we saw last month. I guess, could you just give us a fuller picture of the situation that these refugees are fleeing? And your thoughts on the reception, if we can call it that, that they got when they reached the United States.
Pascal Robert: Sure. Not a problem. I think to put the overall context of what is happening with the refugees at the border, is actually to go to a longer picture instead of a short one. You cannot discuss the reason why Haitians are leaving their country without discussing the relationship the United States as the metropole of the area has had with Haiti since its inception. We have to realize for your audience who does not know, Haiti is a country that got its independence from France through a long, 13-year, brutal slave revolt. After that revolt in 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti an independent country, and they would never have slavery again. You must imagine that, because the United States and most of the other surrounding countries were slave-owning nations at that time, Haiti presented itself as an existential threat to their economic interests.
So, one of the main consequences that happened immediately after the Haitian revolution is that the United States and North America slapped an embargo on Haiti and began a process of being an obstacle to its trade. And then subsequently did not recognize the nation of Haiti until 1862, during the civil war. So, the first step which the West basically does to engage Haiti is to economically blockade it. You compare that to the United States, when the United States got its independence, the United States was getting open loan guarantees from the Dutch and other European countries. And what does Haiti get for fighting over three empires: the French, the British, and the Spanish? When the United States only fought one? Haiti gets slapped with an embargo, simply because it seeks to be a light of Black liberty in a period of time in which Black people are being reduced, basically, to child slavery and maybe a little bit more than furniture, if not animals.
So the world and the West has never forgotten and never forgiven Haiti for challenging the notion of racial superiority and the ability of being able to reduce Black people to extractable capital. Going on and further on in Haiti’s history, France, realizing that it would never want to deal with the consequence of losing that Black plantation economy, basically forces Haiti to sign into a remuneration agreement of 150 million Francs, to basically make sure that Haiti pays France back for the goal of having its own independence. That amount of money in today’s amount will be over $25 billion. And it took Haiti until 1947, which is literally just a few years after my father was born, to be able to pay off that debt. It siphoned off massive amounts of wealth from the coffers of the Haitian state early on, and basically demonstrates again that Haiti had very few friends and partners willing to build this development.
But people ask the question, why did Haiti become so poor? One of the reasons is that, one, we saw with that embargo. And second, we saw with that French remuneration policy that strips Haiti of the ability to really become a free and open trader in the Western stage.
Combine that with the fact that the United States doesn’t recognize Haiti until 1862. And then, in 1915, the US military occupies Haiti from late 1915 to 1934. On the behalf of Citibank, they strip Haiti’s coffers of its wealth and its gold reserves, sending them to the US and North America. And basically, in a very, very, very brutal way, occupy that country, recalibrating the whole function of the system in Haiti, where now the peasant class is moving into the capital to find labor because their land is being stripped of them by the US, and the elites the US puts in charge of basically running their affairs.
So what the problem with Haiti is that, after the US occupation, there is not a single Haitian president that is picked that is not done so with the complete absolute total greenlighting of the US State Department in the United States.
And if that president happens to be one that is interested in changing the condition of the Haitian peasantry, which makes up over 75% of the country, he will likely be removed with a coup or some type of internal conflict. A perfect example of that was in 1950. We had a president named Dumarsais Estimé who had the goal of wanting to increase the minimum wage in Haiti and maintain a beneficial economic policy for the majority of the population, which was the peasant class. The United States helped internal subterfuge [to] have him removed, because they thought he was too left. Then, again, we have Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. He’s removed with the coup, sponsored with the help of the United States and the CIA, internally by the Haitian military. Aristide has returned, but on his return, the United States makes him sign… Guess what? Neoliberal structural adjustment programs, massive promises to sell off the coffers of Haitian state assets and sell them to friends of the Clintons, as well as other private ownership.
This destabilizes the capacity of the Haitian government to generate revenue, and also introduces nonprofit NGOs and the nonprofit industrial complex into the Haitian government sphere to supplement the functionality of the Haitian government. To the point now you come to a position during the Haitian earthquake where 60% of the Haitian government functionality is actually transpired by NGOs. When I hear what people say, oh, the Haitian government is inept and corrupt. I said, What Haitian government? Remember, the majority of the function of the government is done by foreign NGOs. Many of them coming out of the United States. Haiti is a country that has basically been destabilized over the long term by US policy of economic intervention, as well as political intervention. And surfacing all of these NGOs into the space, and also military occupation, because you have the [minutia] or the UN forces that come in upon Aristide’s removal that are not only occupying the forest, they’re abusing Haitian children and women. And at one point they actually dumped fecal matter into the Artibonite River and literally poisoned Haitians, to a point where you have hundreds of thousands of them who get sick with cholera. Many of them die.
So you take it to today’s politics in a situation where the United States orchestrated the election of Michel Martelly, who was not very popular, did not win with a majority of votes, because he would be a pliant tool that they could use to continue in their stripping of Haitian resources during the Haiti earthquake through the Clinton Global Relief Fund. He leaves and he picks Jovenel Moïse. Jovenel Moïse was basically a man no one really knew. He was considered to be a banana farmer, and he’s picked by Martelly to be a pawn of the Haitian oligarchy.
The Haitian oligarchy is generally made up of elites who are not really innately Haitian. They come from more Lebanese, Syrian, Arab, and European background, who own something over 85-90% of the economy and are very, very reactionary in the way they deal with the Haitian state, extracting heavy, heavy levies for doing services with the government. The problem with Moïse, is that Moïse was trying to go outside of the Haitian oligarchy to try to find a new business partner in international foreign lands. He was trying to do business with Turkey to supplement the way in which the oligarchy was dealing with the country. And the oligarchy, being unwilling to have its market share cut out, possibly, my position is, orchestrated an assassination with the assistance of the United… or not the assistance, but with the knowledge. No one’s going to take out a Haitian president without the foreknowledge of the United States, with the foreknowledge of the State Department.
And it caused a massive destabilization, where this is a sub-process of the long-term long destabilization that has happened in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake, many Haitians started to leave, to try and get asylum in other countries: South America, Chile, Brazil, and others. And they successfully were able to do that. In the wake of COVID, the economic viability of those peoples in those places became very, very, very short-lived. And they decided to take their efforts at moving north and going into the US. And that’s how we find so many of them now in the Biden administration seeking to come in to the United States.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, I mean, I would encourage viewers to go back and read, listen to what Pascal just laid out, because there’s a lot of thorough history there. And Pascal, thank you so much for laying that out. I know it’s not easy, and it’s probably exhausting to be called upon to lay out 200 years of history of the country of Haiti when folks invite you on. And I really appreciate your sharing your brilliance so generously with us.
And I hate to follow up this way, but I imagine there are a lot of viewers and listeners out there who are still kind of working through this basic problem. And actually, I know that they are, because I get emails from people, particularly after our last interview on the “crisis at the border,” when I spoke with Dr. Ron Daniels of the Haiti Support Project. I got a number of cranky emails from people who really, really wanted me to know that Haiti’s responsible for all of its problems, the US isn’t really the main instigator here.
There’s a real mental block that is deeply entrenched in American ideology that prevents us from seeing the dynamics of… I guess what historians would call underdevelopment. The process of direct and economic and political underdevelopment that has happened around the world. And this was something that was a really big eye-opener for me, having grown up as the son of immigrants, as a conservative Latino in Southern California. I was very much imbued with that sort of American ideology. And for me growing up the narrative was the United States had reached the kind of pinnacle of economic and political development, and it was up for other countries in the “third world” to get their act together. And if they followed this certain script, they, too, could develop themselves into the flourishing societies that the United States was. That made a lot of sense.
It also made a lot of sense for me on the individual side. People just have to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and they too can become wealthy and successful. We’re not trained to see how, in fact, the success of a dominant power like the US is dependent on the sapping of success from other countries around the globe. Whether that’s taking their economic resources, whether that’s installing politicians that serve their economic interests. There’s a lot that goes on underneath the surface there, both I think on the individual level. It’s increasingly hard for any of us to attain that comfortable, dignified, wealthy existence, when the wealth has been sucked up by a few billionaires who control most of our society. You see where I’m going with this, right?
Pascal Robert: Absolutely.
Maximillian Alvarez: I mean, I was wondering how you typically respond when folks launched that same challenge about what the US’s role and responsibility is, to say nothing of France and other powerful nations when it comes to the question of underdevelopment and deliberate underdevelopment of a country like Haiti?
Pascal Robert: One thing I do is that, if people want a short answer, I ask them, if the United States has no role in this situation in Haiti, then why did the Bush administration orchestrate a 2004 coup to take out a democratically elected president in Haiti? Why did the US sponsor that coup in 1991? Why did the US, basically, do such a shoddy job after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and basically extract resources through NGOs, the Clinton Global Initiative, and others? Why does Hillary Clinton’s brother have contracts to extract gold mines from Haiti, while her husband was running the operations towards the, so-called, a rebuilding effort? So the notion that the United States has clean hands in the affairs of what’s going on internally in Haiti is ridiculous. Why does the Haitian oligarchy testify on the behalf of Haiti without any say of the Haitian state in terms of trade policy, when those trade policies are basically benefiting them, as opposed to someone who was a state representative of the Haitian government?
Because the US government works hand in hand with the oligarchy in Haiti to economically keep Haiti subjugated, and be a place for cheap manufacturing goods for American textile companies. So you cannot take the role of international capitalism and imperialism and separate them from the reason why countries like Haiti and others, quite frankly, are underdeveloped. That’s a direct consequence of how America gets to be the shining city on the hill, if you will, to use the old tropes out of Ronald Reagan.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Well, What was that? That was Reagan, right? And he has a role to play in this kind of horrifying story that I kind of wanted to ask you about as well. Because I think one thing that’s also important for viewers to understand, as horrifying as the images from the US-Mexico border last month were, this is not the first time that we have had a “migrant crisis” or “refugee crisis” that concerns Haiti and the people of Haiti. Or there’s actually a deeper precedent here that I would encourage listeners to look into.
So back in the 1970s and 1980s, you actually had this sort of dual phenomenon, where you had refugees fleeing the communist state in Cuba, which obviously the United States had a vested interest in… has had a continuing vested interest in strangling the legacy of the Cuban revolution. So it welcomed these Cuban refugees with open arms. There was a lot of political fanfare about it.
At the same time, you have the so-called boat people from Haiti, who were fleeing the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship, who were treated with the same callousness, disregard, and inhumanity that we witnessed just last month. And the extent to which is really too horrifying to really sum up here in this interview. But it was something that the Carter administration directly contributed to. The Carter administration tried, like the Biden administration, to deny the internationally protected right for people to seek political asylum under the guise that these were economic refugees, not political refugees. And I think that’s really important, because when you take the history that you just laid out, causing that sort of economic misery and underdevelopment, under international law to flee that situation doesn’t count. It doesn’t give you the same sort of rights to seek asylum that, say, fleeing a political dictatorship would.
And so the Carter administration really tried to push all of these Haitian refugees into that category of economic refugee, and thus send them back. Then the Reagan administration jumped in and had the great idea of interdiction, right? Which was to basically stop the boats before they ever got—
Pascal Robert: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: …to shore, and push them back either to Haiti or to Guantanamo fucking Bay. So there is a deeper precedent here by which the United States “immigration policy” has been used to dehumanize Haitian refugees, to deny them their internationally protected right to seek asylum, at the same time that the United States was granting those rights to Cuban refugees for very explicit political purposes. And so I guess I wanted to ask you, what the role that immigration, that selectiveness with which we recognize the humanity of certain migrants, like, how that actually compounds that historical process that you laid out, whereby Haiti and the people of Haiti are treated as an afterthought, at best, or a nuisance, at worst? It’s really just horrifying.
Pascal Robert: I don’t think it’s an accident that the treatment that you see Haitians have been receiving since 1978, when Jimmy Carter started that process, going to Ronald Reagan’s interdiction policies in the ’80s, to going to George W. Bush again, sending Haitians to Guantanamo Bay, continuing to Bill Clinton again, sending Haitians to Guantanamo Bay. I don’t think you can divorce a treatment of Haitian immigrants starting in the ’70s from the actual way in which the US has viewed Haiti as a threat, and as a symbolic threat, since its inception in 1804. And I don’t believe the United States is interested in trying to develop a humane policy towards Haiti, because they realized that the example of Haiti as a revolutionary power, in some ways, is even more dangerous than Cuba. And that it basically tells the wretched of the Earth, globally, that they can stand up, particularly Black folk, and change the status quo economically, and politically, and geopolitically.
It doesn’t also hurt the fact that Haiti is a Black republic in the Latin American sphere. So the racial animus is definitely going to be a factor as well. So all of these combined into the overall racialized narrative of why the United States has these abusive policies towards Haitian immigrants, and saying has and still has them to this day; In the past they had them, and they have them today. And I think it’s going to take a consensus of right thinking people in the Haitian diaspora, as well as sympathetic and empathetic people within the Global South community and the global community overall, to pressure these imperial powers, particularly the US, to change this image they have of Haiti. And change the way they treat with its immigrants, to give them a just day in their ability to apply for asylum, and simply sending them back to a country that is demoralized and destroyed largely because of policies and interference by the United States.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I think, one of the lasting, depressing, horrifying realities about this, as I mentioned in the introduction of this conversation, that this is not going to be the last time. And that’s something that I really want viewers to sit with. It’s not going to be the last time that we see something like this, because in Haiti we are actually getting a picture of what we have in store for the future. As the US being the largest carbon emitter in human history has had a major hand in contributing to the very kind of climate catastrophes that are plaguing the Caribbean, with longer dry seasons, harsher hurricanes that come with mudslides, so on and so forth. There’s going to be a long century of pain ahead caused by the devastation of climate change that is going to create more climate refugees, more political refugees, more economic refugees.
And I bring that up because I think it does, as you said, tie back to that initial refusal by the United States and by white society in general, to acknowledge the revolution of Haiti. And I’ll explain to viewers what I mean. The United States had a very vested interest in not recognizing the independence of the Black slave revolt in Haiti and the independence of the people of Haiti, because, as Pascal referenced earlier, if Black slaves in the United States saw that there was a Black society down the way that had liberated itself, that was going to be trouble for the slave-owning South and for American white supremacist society writ large. So there was this deterrent effect that was driving the refusal to recognize Haiti for what it was and for having its independence.
There’s a very distinct echo from Jimmy Carter to Reagan, to Bush, to present day when it comes to the deterrent effect that is “necessary” for maintaining the United States status in the world for maintaining its border, that if we let all of the refugees who are fleeing the conditions that we have helped wrought wreck on the rest of the world, we’re going to be overrun. And so we have to constantly dehumanize them, send them back, not recognize their international rights. And this is really going to just be the narrative, I think, of the 21st century. And I don’t really have a question there, but I guess Pascal, I wanted to turn it over to you and see if you could expand a little on your closing thoughts for what we need to do to make sure that we don’t go headlong into that terrifying path in the rest of the 21st century.
Pascal Robert: I think the first thing we need to do is demand that Joe Biden stop sending Haitians back to a country that is basically not in a stable situation right now, with a president that’s been recently assassinated, and has recently suffered a major earthquake. I think that’s the first thing that should be our first demand. That is a simple ask. And I think that it should be made vociferously and strongly.
Second, I think that we need to find a way to get Haitians domestically and those who can be trusted into the diaspora to be invested in advocating for policies, to actually build strength and fidelity in a capable Haitian government that can work on creating an economic paradigm, that benefits the majority of Haitians, and not just a small elite that are interested in sucking the life out of a majority of the Haitian people.
And also there’s got to be an effort to purge the internal class contradictions that have plagued Haiti since the beginning of the Republic. And try to find to actually make Haitians collectively come together and realize that we have to unify to save this country from the worst of possible disasters, which, who knows what they could be in time to come.
I hope and pray that Haiti does not and will not perish. I think that there are a lot of talented Haitians out there, but we have to get our mind right. And understanding the consequences that brought our country to this position and be willing to change those consequences, to give it a brighter day in the future.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, that is Pascal Robert. Writer, essayist, commentator, co-host of This is Revolution Podcast. Pascal, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your thoughts, man. I really appreciate it.
Pascal Robert: Not a problem.
Maximillian Alvarez: This Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Thank you all so much for watching. And before you go, please head over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work, so we can keep bringing you conversations and coverage like this. Thanks so much.