This week, in a meeting of lawmakers on immigration, President Trump reportedly called Haiti, El Salvador, and a handful of African nations, “sh*thole countries.”
The response of most in the mainstream media and political establishment was to loudly condemn the comments as something between inappropriate and racist, though there were some on the right who insisted ‘these places are sh*thole countries.’
Hmmm … interesting. How about a little historical context.
In 1804, slaves in Saint-Domingue overthrew French colonial rule and created the independent country of Haiti. Fun fact: The loss of this colony was at least partially responsible for Napoleon’s decision to abandon the North American continent, culminating in the Louisiana Purchase and the inception in the United States of the concept of ‘Manifest Destiny.’
In 1915, US Marines invaded Haiti in an early version of the now-standard American imperialism under the guise of spreading ‘freedom and democracy.’ The US would occupy the country until 1934. During this time, they rewrote the Haitian Constitution to allow for foreign land ownership rights, which led to massive land appropriations, the takeover of the sugarcane industry and Haitian banks, and the exploitation of Haitian workers. This, to say nothing of the thousands of civilians killed during these years by the occupying power.
From 1957-1971 the country was ruled by the brutal dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and then from 1971-1986, by his similarly benevolent son “Baby Doc.” Both men were not only propped up by the United States, their reigns of terror ensured by military forces trained and funded by the US. but both were literally on the payroll. For example, in 1975, Congress authorized an increase in Baby Doc’s yearly allowance from US taxpayers to just over $35 million.
In 1990, Haiti had its first democratic election. It was won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest seen as a champion of the poor who earned 67% of the vote. In 1991, Aristide was overthrown by a US-backed military coup.
From 1994-1997, the US military once again occupied the country, before trying again with a democratic election in 2000. Spoiler alert: Aristide won again, this time with 92% of the vote, before being, once again, deposed by a US backed military coup in 2004.
In 2010, after an earthquake devastated Haiti, the US military once again became an occupying force. Over $13 billion was raised from international donors for the recovery of the country; money to be overseen by United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti … Bill Clinton.
Of that $13 billion, only 9% went to the Haitian government, and an incredible 0.6% to local Haitian organizations. The rest went to private contractors, military agencies of donor countries, international agencies, and other “FOB”s, as those seeking to suckle the teet of crisis capitalism would attach to their emails. (That’s, “Friends of Bill Clinton,” in case you’re wondering)
What about El Salvador?
From 1980-1992, the country was embroiled in a horrific and oftentimes grotesque civil war. Throughout the conflict, government “Death Squads” conducted their “dirty war” across the country. This included, as was later detailed by a UN Truth Commission, killing civilians, torture, kidnapping, the massacre of entire villages, and so on.
These “Death Squads,” of course, were funded, trained, and geopolitically excused by the United States, the government itself maintained with hundreds of millions of dollars of economic and military aid. El Salvador is perhaps the shining example of American state-sponsored terrorism, and the environment created persists to this day.
Finally, a vague reference to ‘African nations.’ I guess we will have to choose one. How about Libya?
In 1959, a military coup against the US-backed Libyan king led to Muammar Gaddafi assuming power. He immediately positioned himself as an antagonist to the West by nationalizing Libya’s oil industry because of what he believed were unequal existing agreements between the country and foreign oil companies.
Gaddafi continued as a flamboyant villain to the West for decades, including in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan fired missiles into the capital of Tripoli in response to a terrorist attack in Berlin which nothing but hearsay suggested was Libya.
Despite living under the rule of a dictator, and one who undeniably enriched himself and his family, Libya was able to use its oil profits on various public projects — including the massive ‘Great Man-Made River Project’ which irrigated great areas of desert — and become a political leader on the African continent.
In 2010, militias trained and funded by the US formed in Libya with the intent of overthrowing Gaddafi. They were backed by the US-led ‘We came, we saw, he died’ Nato bombing campaign. The militias succeeded in killing Gaddafi, and the Nato campaign succeeded in decimating Libyan infrastructure.
The conflict saw many thousands of civilians killed, and millions displaced. The country now has no central government, fractured between hundreds of militias who commit war crimes with, as Amnesty International reported, “complete impunity.” Human slavery has become prevalent, and the trained soldiers and high-caliber weapons left behind have been the lifeblood of radical militias in other regions.
As The Nation quipped, “How to become a sh*thole: The Americans will help.”
When considering whether and why a country may or may not be a “sh*thole,” the question is the same as it was when Trump unleashed a bombardment of inflammatory tweets against Puerto Rico — What is more offensive: the President of the United States insulting a country, or a longstanding quasi-colonial relationship between the US and that country?
The seemingly-endless debate during the age of Trump of ‘I’m offended’ v. ‘I’m not offended’ is fine, unless the goal is a substantive discussion on immigration and imperialism. For that, more context is required than what the mainstream media is willing to provide.
But I think that is kind of the point.