Ned Nolan | McMaster University Student Newspaper
The Windward Passage is a small body of salty Carribean water which separates Haiti from the island of Cuba. I’m looking at a map of the West Indies and wondering how two chunks of land separated by only 80 kilometres of water could be so different.
A question like this, provoked by the markings on a map, may be naive, but it can also be profoundly insightful. Indeed, what is different about Haiti and Cuba, and why?
Developments over the past few months in Haiti have led to a bloody coup d’etat. The first-ever elected president of the country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced to flee the country on an American plane which took him, against his will, into exile. The violent revolt was led by unorganized anti-government gangs whose “leader,” Louis-Jodel Chamblain, has long been accused of human rights atrocities. He, like most of the anti-government rebels, is an ex-member of the brutal Haitian military and “death squads” which were disbanded when the country’s string of dictatorships ended and Aristide came to power. Amnesty International has called for the arrest of Chamblain’s and the other war criminals who took part in the recent coup.
Haiti’s history is plagued with dictatorship and violence. This is the second time the elected Aristide (corrupt as he may be) has been forced to leave the country due to a violent coup. Unfortunately, despite his social idealism, he was unable to substantially raise the country’s standard of living or challenge the American control of the Haitian economy. Today, the country has the highest illiteracy rate in the hemisphere and is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its people are denied basic rights such as education and health care and basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.
Across the Windward Passage, things are very different. In Cuba, every citizen is assured these basic human rights and needs. Cuba has the lowest illiteracy rate in the world (below one per cent). Its education and health care systems are studied worldwide because of their remarkably high quality and efficiency. When I was in Havana several years ago, I met members of a commission of European medical professionals who were studying how the country can provide such an unprecedented high level of care with so little in terms of finances. Also unlike Haiti, Cuba enjoys political stability and has the region’s lowest level of street violence and crime.
We are taught by our media that Cuba is an evil empire, a violent and repressive dictatorship. In actuality, Cuba is a unique and thriving democracy, and has been democratic ever since it overthrew the American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959. Cuba has regular free elections which determine who will be in the governing party and who will be the party’s leader. Fidel Castro’s repeated electoral success in this regard is a tribute to the esteem in which he is held by the people of Cuba. After all, he was the leader of their revolution which the majority of Cubans hold lovingly in the highest respect. In my experience, Cubans react with hilarity when asked if Castro is a dictator.
Why is Haiti so troubled, while 80 Kilometres away, Cuba’s standard of living has been recognized, in all important respects, to be among the highest in all of South America?
Although the answer to this question is complex, an important component of the answer lies in the involvement of the international community, especially the United States.
The United States fought ruthlessly against the Cuban Revolution in an attempt to restore the dictatorship which ensured security for American firms exporting sugar and coffee from the island. It continues to fight the revolution because of its vested economic interests in the region. In the name of democracy? Well, some light on this matter can be shed by examining how the U.S handled the recent threat to democracy in Haiti.
Unlike its reaction to the well organized, idealistic and visionary mass movement against a Cuban dictator 50 years ago, the chaotic and cynical Haitian coup against an elected president not only received military support from the U.S. but vital planning assistance as well. In the winter of 2003, foreign ministers from France, the United States and Canada met in Ottawa to discuss what was called the “Ottawa Initiative On Haiti.” Their report was entitled “Aristide Must Go.” He had not been co-operating with the economic demands of the developed world, and the recent rebellion in the country, notwithstanding that it was led by international war criminals, provided the perfect opportunity to get rid of the elected president.
The Windward Passage separates two very different nations, one which has won a battle against dictatorship, imperialism and corruption, and one which continues to suffer greatly in this domain. We need to recognize the problematic role which the United States and its allies play in policing the world, and we need to re-address our biases towards Cuba, a nation from which we and the developing world could learn so much in the name of peace, democracy and human rights.