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Writing Off Sovereignty

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Issue: 67 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Latin America Haiti

March 7, 2010

Writing Off Sovereignty

Quebec media on Haiti since the earthquake

by Darren Ell

A Haitian boy, bearing signs of malnutrition, stands in a Cite Soleil street as a UN APC passes by during the UN occupation of Cite Soleil in 2006. Photo: Darren Ell

In the five weeks following the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, Quebec’s mainstream French-language media focused a considerable amount of attention on the devastated nation. What follows is a critical look at the opinions expressed by columnists during this time. Their ideas on three themes are examined: (1) The Reconstruction Process; (2) Haiti’s poverty; and (3) Attitudes towards former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his party, Fanmi Lavalas.

Looking ahead: the reconstruction process

When opinion writers look to the future, Haiti is depicted as a clean slate, a country bereft of capable people. Hope for the future and leadership in the reconstruction process are to be found not within the Haitian majority population but in the diaspora, the Haitian business elite and the international community. Journalists’ ideas and the ideas of the people they quote or interview are distinctly colonial and there is virtually no diversity of opinion. Haitian sovereignty and the building of a strong Haitian state are seen as unimportant, and the extraordinary ability of the Haitian population to mobilize and create progressive political programs is overlooked. A new Haiti is to be imposed, it would appear, by the few on the many.

Vincent Marissal is a columnist for La Presse in Montreal and a prominent figure on the Quebec media landscape. One month after the earthquake, he called for the international community to "impose the required decisions.” Responding to an urgent plea by the World Bank to strengthen the Government of Haiti, Marissal said:  “How do we say cut the crap in Creole?...The word is strongly displeasing to Haitians, and this is understandable, but the solution starts with trusteeship, or protectorate if this word is less troubling to sensitive types.” More concretely, Marissal suggests ignoring democratic procedures and imposing an elite government: “...[W]e must install, for the next five years, an emergency government composed of several respected Haitian personalities, including members of the diaspora and representatives of the international community, whose mandate would be to restore order and security, save and give security to the victims, establish and supervise the reconstruction plan and follow the money carefully.”

Marissal suggests that “respected industrialist” Charles Henry Baker could be one of the “respected personalities” on the new political scene. Marissal’s colleague at La Presse, Philippe Mercure, later ran a puff piece on Baker entitled “The big-hearted entrepreneur.” Mercure did not mention that “big-hearted” Baker is a key member of the reviled Haitian business elite whose millions dodge government coffers; that in 2009 he opposed paying his sweatshop employees more than US$2 per day; that his pro-coup d’état organization, the Group of 184, promoted armed UN attacks on heavily populated slums following the 2004 coup d’etat; and that he was supported by 8.2 per cent of the Haitian population in the 2006 Presidential election.

Writing in Actualite, Quebec’s largest selling news magazine, editor-in-chief Carole Beaulieu continues themes she developed in 2004 when she suggested annexing Haiti and turning it into Canada’s 11th province. In 2010, she writes: “The Haitian government is an empty shell...Let’s speak frankly. When the cadavers are piling up, when people are being amputated by saws with no anesthesia, when hundreds of thousands of people are hungry, Haitian pride, which is outraged at attacks on sovereignty, is inappropriate...Reconstruction needs a leader in which Haitians can have confidence and who can rally foreign powers, someone who knows that decentralizing the economy and building roads to allow peasants to sell their products in cities is more important than rebuilding the national palace...Why not [Canadian Governor-General] Michaelle Jean? She is on good terms with Barak Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and knows the language and culture of the country. What’s more, her mandate as Governor-General ends soon.”

Little matter that since the earthquake thousands of people regularly take to the streets in Port-au-Prince carrying signs showing the face of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, not Michaelle Jean. For Beaulieu, the wishes of Haitians seem to matter little, but she assures us that her ideas are not colonial in nature: “No foreign country wants to take over Haiti! Who would want a miserable country with no resources other than the sun and the smiles on the faces of her inhabitants?”

Disrespect for Haitian sovereignty continues. Also writing in Actualite, journalist Michel Arseneault introduces his article on the reconstruction of Haiti by quoting his interview subject, Haitian geographer Jean-Marie Theodat: “The international community must now do everything to help a population with no other options, even if it means taking a chip out of Haitian sovereignty. A state unable to coordinate foreign aid must let others take on the responsibility.”

Actualite’s Jonathan Trudel interviews Haitian-born Quebec sociologist Franklin Midy about solutions for the future. Midy proposes 16 solutions for Haiti. Number 11 is called, “Supporting the State.” We learn that in Haiti’s current government, “competent people remain; they’re not all dead, and it is important to give them work and responsibility. To avoid the collapse of the state, the international community must ensure that the salaries of nurses, teachers, police officers and bureaucrats are paid.” Other than this, the Haitian state is absent from Midy’s reconstruction effort. The only initiative in which the state appears to be involved (in conjunction with the UN) is in encouraging people to move to the countryside from Port-au-Prince.

Actualite’s interview choices mirror those of 2004 when “specialists” were telling Haitians to make room for an international trusteeship. In 2010, Jean-Frederic Legare-Tremblay interviews former Quebec Liberal politician Gerard Latulippe, current director of the National Democratic Institute in Haiti. After resurrecting old lies by criminalizing Aristide and his followers (the majority of Haitians), Latulippe states: “...I see no other way than by imposing a trusteeship run by the international community... This means that during the reconstruction of the political institutions, decisions will be made by a group of people appointed by the Security Council of the United Nations who would run the country.” Latulippe and Actualite seem to have forgotten the murderous legacy of the 2004 trusteeship.

In Quebec City’s Journal de Quebec, columnist Jean-Jacques Samson reminds us of the incompetence of Haitians living in Haiti: “Since they can’t do it alone, Haitians will have to count on international aid for many years. The brilliant Haitian minds that emigrated to developed countries will have to return to their country of origin to show leadership. They must be the first to believe in a future for Haiti so that the citizens of donor countries believe.”

Francois Brousseau, writing for Le Devoir, states: “...A profound awakening is necessary—by foreign countries and Haitian elites—as to the inadequacy of everything that has been attempted until now.” For aid to work, he states that a sort of “cultural revolution” is needed in Haiti. Brousseau neglects to mention that ordinary Haitians already had their cultural revolution long ago, without any help from foreigners or elites, and created a progressive democratic movement. Not only that, but what they achieved was hardly inadequate. On the contrary, the program of the Lavalas movement, had it been supported and not crushed by violence, could have solved many of the problems created by colonialism.

Looking back: reasons for Haiti’s poverty

Journalists used the earthquake as an opportunity to discuss the history of Haiti’s misery. French and American colonial practices are explained with varying degrees of detail, but Canada’s role in the 2004 coup d’etat is unexplained. In fact, five weeks of copious journalistic output in Quebec produced one sentence mentioning (not explaining) that Canada was involved in a coup d’etat in 2004, validating the thesis of Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model—whereby mainstream media toes the line of existing power structures and points the finger elsewhere.

One week after the earthquake, Quebec journalist Chantal Hebert recommends in her blog with La Presse that Michael Ignatieff and Denis Coderre patch up their differences so Coderre could handle the Haiti dossier. During the last trusteeship in Haiti, Coderre was special advisor to Haiti and skilfully ensured that blame for Canada’s role in the coup be deflected. Hebert’s suggestion, if realized, would guarantee more of the same.

Shockingly, several high-profile journalists look to Haitian cultural “defects” to explain Haiti’s economic woes. There is no corresponding inquiry into US, French or Canadian cultural flaws that would induce these nations to sack Haiti. Richard Hetu, for example, a New York correspondent for La Presse explored the reasons for Haiti’s poverty in his blog. He relates uncritically the ideas of New York columnist David Brooks who notes that even though over 10,000 NGOs in Haiti “are doing the Lord’s work...even a blizzard of these efforts does not seem to add up to comprehensive change.” For Brooks, the “thorny issue of culture" is the root of Haiti’s poverty. Quoting Lawrence E. Harrison’s book, The Central Liberal Truth, Brooks points out that “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences,” such as “the voodoo religion” and “high levels of social mistrust...difficulty internalizing responsibility, and faulty child-rearing practices”.

Patrick Lagace is a prominent columnist with La Presse in Montréal. In no uncertain terms, he attributes Haitian misery to passivity: “...Sorry, but Haitians collectively are horribly, depressingly and dangerously passive...I believe I’ve described the urgency with enough compassion to have the right, just once, to say that by their passivity, Haitians actively contribute to their misery.” Twisting historical fact in new ways, Lagace claims Haitians were too passive to oust their own elected president (Aristide), whom he describes as a dictator: “No one is ever brutal with Haiti for fear of being called insensitive or racist. Haitians don’t need it anyway. They’re already brutal amongst themselves, tolerating dictators and putchistes. And when an elected president screws them, it’s the US marines who kick him out, not Haitians.”

Francois Brousseau, like Lagace, also muses as to the cultural roots of Haiti’s poverty. “Perhaps there is something in the local culture...something that blocks things such as economic development, an enterprising spirit, construction and projects.” He wonders also if voodoo and superstitions do not "stuff Haitian minds with a dreadful fatalism.”

Attitudes toward Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas

Quebec mainstream media attitudes toward former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide—despite voluminous and widely published research dispelling the lies about his second presidency—have not changed since prior to the 2004 coup. He is consistently depicted as a megalomaniac, a dictator, a last-ditch hope for desperate Haitians, and a danger to Haiti. The real story of his ouster is apparently not worth sharing with the Quebec public, perhaps because it involves Quebec political figures and NGOs.

Furthermore, the tendency to focus only on Aristide and not on the grassroots movement that brought him to power (or the corrupt opposition that undermined him) has the added benefit of keeping the Quebec public unaware that there is a coherent democratic force in Haiti. We are not told, for example, that in 2009, the party Aristide created, Fanmi Lavalas, the largest political organization in Haiti, was banned from elections. Nor are we told that 90 per cent of the voters boycotted the election. Why is this dynamic democratic political force not being discussed or supported by Quebec mainstream commentators?

Evoking old disinformation, Vincent Marissal likens public demands for the return of Aristide to the pleas of desperate people clinging to a former dictator for help. “It’s not for nothing that we see banners and graffiti demanding the return of Aristide. People are looking for a glimmer of hope, even if it means looking into the darkest corners of their recent past.”

Michel Arseneault did not challenge his interview subject, Jean-Marie Theodat, after his absurd reply to Arseneault’s inquiry as to whether Aristide should return to Haiti: “If he returned, it would be like adding another layer to the destruction already caused by the earthquake.”

Brousseau portrays Aristide as a sort of madman: “...The dark episode of February 2004...when the US of George Bush, together with Canada and France as sidekicks, apprehended the elected president in his home and sent him into exile, a Jean-Bertrand Aristide with all his very real errors, prey to his visions.”

Finally, Quebec caricaturists expressed themselves when after the earthquake Aristide requested to return to Haiti from an illegal US-imposed exile. Serge Chapleau, caricaturist for La Presse, portrays a feeble Aristide waving a feeble Haitian flag. The caption reads: “When it rains, it pours.” (A similar translation would be, “Bad things come in twos.”) In Sherbrooke’s La Tribune, caricaturist Herve Philippe portrays Aristide holding a halo above his head and we read the following: “The former Haitian president in exile, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, capitalizes on the chaos in Haiti to stage a comeback by posing as the Messiah.” In Gatineau’s Le Droit, caricaturist Bado shows us Baby Doc riding a wooden horse yelling: “If Aristide can do it, so can I!”


If the function of media in a democratic society is to provide its citizens with the information and ideas they need to take meaningful action in their democracy, then Quebec’s opinion writers have failed dramatically. Quebec, home to one of the world’s largest Haitian diaspora populations, is being told that Haiti should once again be controlled by everything but the will of its own majority population; that Canadian crimes in Haiti are not worth mentioning; that Haitians possess cultural flaws that perpetuate their suffering; and that Haiti’s most popular political figure and the party he led—the most popular in the country—have no place in Haiti’s future. It is clear that unless Quebeckers read outside the mainstream media they will support ideas destined to perpetuate the errors of the past and prolong the suffering of the people of Haiti.

This article originally appeared in Haiti Analysis.


Arseneault, Michel.  "Il faut rebâtir par le bas!" Actualité.  March 1, 2010, pp 18-21.

Beaulieu, Carole. Et si on anexait Haïti?. Actualité. April 1, 2004.

Beaulieu, Carole.  "Haïti: parlons franchement!" Actualité.  March 1, 2010, p. 9.

Brousseau, François. « Les conditions de la renaissance. » January 18, 2010.

Brousseau, François. “Commentaire – les damnés de la terre.” Le Devoir, January 14, 2010.

Brousseau, François. « Reconstruire. » Le Devoir. January 25, 2010.

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Hétu, Richard.  "Pourquoi Haïti est-il si pauvre?La Presse Blog.  Januay 15, 2010.

Lagacé, Patrick.  "Haïti, malade de ses charades."  La Presse. January 30, 2010.

Légaré-Tremblay, Jean-Frédéric. «Urgent ! Vide politique à combler» Actualité. January 28, 2010.

Marissal, Vincent.  "En attendant la secousse politique." La Presse.  February 6, 2010.

Marissal, Vincent.  "Le temps d’agir." La Presse.  February 12, 2010.

Mercure, Philippe.  "Charles-Henri Baker: l'entrepreneur au grand-coeur."  La Presse. February 17, 2010, p. A18. 

Samson, Jean-Jacques.  Un nouvel Haïti.  Le Journal de Québec.  January 19, 2010.

Trudel, Jonathan. "16 solutions pour l'avenir."  Actualité.  March 1, 2010.  p. 22-24.

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