Monday, June 21, 2010

Aristide and the Endless Revolution (Baraka Productions, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was a documentary on Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his star-crossed (as in stars-and-stripes-crossed) tenures as president of Haiti from 1990-1991 and 2000-2004, before he was overthrown both times in military coups clearly sponsored, or at least signed off on, by the United States. Rather pretentiously called Aristide and the Endless Revolution, this film, directed by Nicolas Rossier and co-written by him and Cameron Clendaniel, is basically your standard-issue Left-wing documentary attacking U.S. imperialism in a Third World country and answering the rather obvious question — just why on earth would the U.S. imperialists in general and the Bush family in particular (Aristide, interviewed from his exile in South Africa, didn’t fail to note the commonality that George H, W. Bush was president during his initial ouster from power and his son George W. Bush was president during his second one) give a damn about a basket-case country like Haiti?

It turns out that the reason had to do with the 40,000 or so Haitians employed in sweatshop conditions turning out products for American companies like Disney and Wal-Mart (it seems that Wal-Mart is to the early 21st century what Standard Oil and the Southern Pacific were to the early 20th century: the company whose footprints you always seem to find when you’re looking at the abuses of capitalism at their worst; Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story tagged Wal-Mart as the principal company involved in the so-called “dead peasant” life-insurance policies taken out on their employees with the company as beneficiary, with the grim result Moore chronicled in his movie of the widows and families of dead employees left destitute while their late relative’s former employer adds to the bottom line at the expense of the insurance company), and beyond that the determination of the U.S. to make sure that nobody in the Third World thinks they have a political alternative to capitalist domination of their economies and the exploitation of both their labor forces and their natural resources (assuming they have any, which Haiti doesn’t to speak of) by the U.S. and the rest of the First World. (One of the most interesting points made by this movie is the complicity of Canada and Europe — especially Haiti’s former colonizer, France — in the economic boycott and denial of foreign aid that made it impossible for Haiti under Aristide 2.0 to govern itself or feed its people: the same technique the U.S. had used to quarantine Chile and bring down its socialist government 31 years earlier.)

Aristide and the Endless Revolution is generally a good movie — a little tendentious, especially when Noam Chomsky makes his obligatory appearance (a Left-wing documentarian doing a movie about the exploitation of a Third World country today can no more leave out Chomsky than a director of a disaster movie in the early 1970’s could leave out Shelley Winters), but decently grounded in the history (though anyone interested in the origins of the Haitian revolution would get a better view of them from the 2009 TV documentary Égalité for All: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution) and in particular making a big deal of the $9 million ransom France demanded — and got — from Haiti in 1825 as reparations for losing their colony. One of Aristide’s big demands — and what might have been the turning point that determined both the U.S. and Europe that it was time to get rid of him — was that the French government refund that sum, which a U.S. attorney representing the Haitian government had calculated was now worth over $21 billion, what with inflation and interest (indeed, the attorney, who was interviewed in the film, literally calculated it to the penny, and the number appeared on Haitian TV and was sung in advertising jingles promoting the reparations demand as one thing Aristide was doing for the Haitian people), which Aristide and many of his supporters both inside and outside Haiti claim was what undid the Haitian economy in the first place and transformed the island from the agricultural powerhouse it had been under French colonization to the basket case, unable even to feed itself much less produce for export, it’s been ever since.

(Pat Robertson, you’ll recall, recently blamed both Haiti’s chronic poverty and the devastating earthquake that struck the country in 2009 on a “pact with the devil” allegedly made by L’Ouverture and his fellow revolutionaries back at the end of the 18th century to free the island from French domination — leading a New Yorker writer to point out that Robertson had solved the problem of “theodicy” — the question religious people are often asked: why, if God loves all people, does he allow so many of them to be killed in both natural and man-made disasters — by saying there’s no problem: any time large numbers of people die, according to Robertson, God is allowing it to happen because they did something evil to deserve it.)

Surprisingly, the film did not mention (except via a passing reference by one of the interviewees) the U.S. history of direct intervention in Haiti (including the period of nearly 20 years, from 1915 to 1934, during which the U.S. declared the Haitian people unfit for self-government and sent in the Marines to run a military government, as well as the U.S.’s support of the Duvalier dictatorship, in power from 1959 to 1986, with both money and military force), but other than that Aristide and the Endless Revolution makes a good case against the U.S. for having not only been directly involved in Aristide’s second overthrow (he was kidnapped by members of the Haitian military — which he had formally disbanded in an attempt to neutralize them as a threat to his power, only — as with the U.S.’s ill-advised decision to dissolve the Iraqi military after ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime — that left a lack of any armed power to maintain domestic security and left a lot of unemployed people with guns ready to mount a resistance to regain the power and income they thought they were owed — flown out of the country on a U.S. military plane and not told where he was going until it landed in Bangui in the Central African Republic, a place he’d never visited before and had no connection to) but overall in maintaining the continued impoverishment of Haiti by supporting kleptocratic dictatorships like the Duvaliers and directly intervening whenever the Haitian people came too close to seizing power.

A film that engaged and answered some of the anti-Aristide propaganda put out in the U.S. (particularly the accusation that Aristide’s Lavalas party maintained a militia that murdered his political enemies, often by beheading or “necklacing” — placing tires around their bodies and setting them on fire — and the argument that the 2000 election that returned Aristide to power was rigged) instead of either sloughing them off or ignoring them would have been even more powerful, but Aristide and the Endless Revolution is a pretty good movie and a nice crash course for American viewers in Haiti 101.