One day prior to the earthquake in Haiti last week, Darren Ell’s art exhibit Haiti: Holdup opened in Concordia University’s Media Gallery. His photographic documentary pieces were a prescient warning about the vulnerability of Haiti’s fragile infrastructure — a fragility directly caused by American, Canadian and French manipulation.
Ell’s exhibit consists of three enormous photographs, seven feet wide and five feet high to be precise. Each is intended to make the viewing experience as immediate as possible, to enable viewers to enter the scene. Two photos deal with UN-led arrest operations in the slums of Port-au-Prince. They are meant to bring the viewer close to the reality of foreign occupation and ongoing colonial control. The third photo is more romantic, with smoke billowing around a beautiful tree and flung open gate. The light beauty of the scene sets the viewer up for a thud when one realizes that the smoke comes from extinguished fires following a student demonstration against the high cost of living. This protest was one of many during the food riots of 2008.
Ell draws these three photos together with a large text on the wall giving background on the 2004 coup d’état when democratically-elected President Aristide was kidnapped by American forces. Leading up to the coup, the American and Canadian governments were gradually destabilizing Haiti’s government by depriving it of much needed aid. Immediately following Aristide’s election in 2000, the American government cut all of its aid to Haiti and even blocked loans in order to isolate the country economically. Haiti’s annual budget consequently diminished from $600 million to $300 million. (To put this in context, Ell notes that Haiti’s new budget for its 9 million citizens was equivalent to that of a Canadian city of only 100,000 people.) Meanwhile, the Canadian government cut its funding by 50 percent over the two to three years following Aristide’s election, thereby intensifying Haiti’s destabilization.
Needless to say, the country began to teeter. The government did not have sufficient funds to cover the basic needs of its people. After a few years in this state, levels of violence rose in Haiti, but a shameful disinformation campaign in Canada and the US targeted the Aristide government as the main culprit. To make matters worse, Aristide’s power was being further undermined by paramilitaries invading from the Dominican Republic. Aristide even asked the international community for a small number of marines or soldiers to help him stop the paramilitaries—a request that Canada, the U.S., and the U.N. ignored.
Because the paramilitaries couldn’t overthrow the Haitian government, the U.S. stepped in and kidnapped President Aristide, his wife, and his helicopter pilot. (It is a shame that Ell’s fourth piece couldn’t be featured in his current show. It is a video landscape featuring the voice of Haitian-Canadian journalist Jean St-Vil reading the 2007 deposition given by Aristide’s helicopter pilot explaining what happened on the night of Aristide’s kidnapping—proof of American meddling.)
So why would the U.S. government go to such lengths to overthrow the democratically elected government of such a poor country? And why would the Canadian government support the U.S. in crippling the country economically? These are precisely the kinds of questions Darren Ell wants us to ask. Such questions are integral to “bearing witness,” a responsibility that Ell stresses through his work. Bearing witness does not mean merely watching the death toll in Haiti rise from the comfort of our Canadian homes; it means acting now to help with Haitian relief and then informing ourselves about our government’s hand in the devastation. In other words, we need to donate then wake up.
Two organizations Ell recommends for our donations are Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders—both of which have deep roots in Haiti. Partners in Health was created in Haiti and has many Haitian employees, while Doctors Without Borders has been in Haiti for a long time and has experience working in its poorest areas. Ell is also sending donations to the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, which funnels money to grassroots organizations in Haiti. You can find more information about donating money to all of these organizations at canadahaitiaction.ca.
The second part of our responsibility as witnesses is to inform ourselves about our government’s and the American government’s hand in creating this crisis. We must ask why last week’s earthquake has resulted in a rapidly rising death toll when a similarly powerful earthquake shook San Francisco in 1989 and resulted in only 63 deaths. Why the difference? Human involvement. This leads us back to not only American and Canadian vested interests in keeping the Haitian government under thumb, but also further back to French colonialism.
Ell summarizes the history of foreign occupation in Haiti as follows: The French exploited Haitian resources for a couple of hundred years through the plantation system and the slave trade. After ten bloody years of fighting the French and losing thirty percent of their population in the struggle, Haitians took their independence in 1804. In response, the French blockaded Haiti, forcing Haiti to compensate French slave owners for their losses. This resulted in a massive debt, one that took 80% of Haiti’s annual budget until 1947 to repay. It also resulted in the profound impoverishment of Haiti.
Enter the American government, which invaded Haiti in 1915. The Americans rewrote the Haitian constitution and occupied militarily for the following couple of decades. During this time, American corporations moved in and reaped the wealth of Haitian resources while the American government propped up dictators who allowed this to continue. Since that time, the American government has been tipping the playing field in favor of US capital, making it difficult for peasants to make a living off of their crops. (The democratic—i.e. not U.S.-controlled—election of President Aristide in 2000 threatened the future of this American exploitation and the American government, supported by the Canadian government, cut aid and led the 2004 coup.)
Haitian peasants, unable to sustain themselves off of their agriculture, began to move into Port-au-Prince slums, a city without proper building codes whose infrastructure had never been properly developed because of a long history of invasion and exploitation. By the time the earthquake hit last week, the heat from the U.S. and its loyal ally Canada had already ripened Port-au-Prince for disaster. It’s the sad but common tale of richer countries assaulting the sovereignty of poorer countries to maintain their political economic interest (read: dominance) in the area.
Because of Canadian and American vested interests in maintaining control over Haiti, we must also critically question the images of Haiti being circulated in the news. For instance, Ell notes that there are gangs in Port-au-Prince just as in any poor urban centre, just as in Montreal, but all reports from the ground show that news reports of violence have been grossly exaggerated. So who benefits from Canadians believing that there is mass violence in Haiti? What does this alleged mass violence imply that the Canadian government, birthplace of peacekeeping, should do?
Ell’s work is the starting place of such critical engagements with Canadian-Haitian relations. His moving, sometimes startling work draws one into a singular moment only to bring one closer to larger political economic truths. This is precisely what Ell believes political art should do: lure with aesthetics, provoke thought with text, and hope that viewers go on to explore the larger issues.