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Chomsky, Farmer Discuss ‘Uses of Haiti’

By Brian Loux


Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky, along with Dr. Paul Farmer of Harvard Medical School, drew yet another crowd that overflowed most of MIT’s large lecture halls Friday night. The two were the keynote speakers in a discussion entitled “The Uses of Haiti,” where the two discussed the current plight and fight for democracy in the country.

“Haiti was the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere, and Bangladesh was in the East,” Chomsky said during his lecture. “It is odd to see that now the most impoverished places are Haiti and Bangladesh.”

The discussion was part of the MIT Western Hemisphere Project and sponsored by the MIT Technology and Culture forum and MIT Pugwash. “We collaborated with Pugwash for this event,” said Erica L. McEvoy ’03, president of the Western Hemisphere Project. “When Pugwash learned that we were having the event with Noam Chomsky, they wanted to co-sponsor the event. They helped a lot with publicity and with A/V, especially putting the talk on the Web.”

While the project is currently focusing on Peru, “we just took events that came to us,” McEvoy said. “Initially Paul Farmer, with whom we were already in contact, wanted to do a talk about Haiti, and we acted upon that.”

The weekend continued with talks on social implications of technology that made up the Student Pugwash Northeast Regional Conference, held this year at MIT.

Dorsinville hopes for democracy

Harvard Research Fellow Nancy Dorsinville introduced the two key speakers. A native Haitian, she thanked the men “on behalf of my countrymen.”

“They call us the poorest country in the hemisphere,” she said, “but I think that is arguable. I think we are the most impovershed.” Dorsinville cited U.S. foreign policy as one reason for Haiti’s perpetual state of poverty, especially the refusal to lend funds for the fledgling democracy which was held back due to election problems. “I think the oldest republic could say the same,” she said. “Every time there was a different prerequisite which we fulfilled. I do not understand what they want in our struggle for democracy.”

She added that nearing the bicentennial anniversary of the nation’s declaration of independence (2004), “In the name of democracy and humanitarian concerns ... we demand a release of these funds.”

Sarcastic Chomsky criticizes U.S.

Chomsky started his talk by informing the audience “at a New York talk [Thursday] night, I had to be taken out under police protection [when I discussed the Middle East]. So if anything happens tonight, I’ll turn it over to Paul,” he said. After the laughter settled down, he added, “So, the Middle East,” and was answered by another round of laughter.

Dry humor was the order of the night, as both speakers frequently used sarcastic quips to make their points, often referring to each others jokes throughout the night. “Both speakers were really cynical and used snide comments, but you could feel the passion in their words,” said Teresa S. Kim ’04 who attended the lecture.

Chomsky compared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to that of Haiti, citing how Palestine and Haiti both harp on their histories while western counties prefer not to think about them. “Those who have their boot on someone’s neck don’t want to think about how it got there,” he said. “Those who have their neck under the boot apparently have a different way of seeing things, because they’re seen as backwards and uncivilized.”

Chomsky then began to discuss his opinion of why Haiti has not met the West’s standards for democracy. He said that Haiti’s idea of democracy runs up against the west’s idea of a democracy run by the elite. “The problem with the election 10 years ago was that it came out the wrong way,” he said. “The United States was certain that their candidate, a World Bank Official, would win ... but out of the woodwork came a populist priest [Aristede] who won because he was focused on things in the country that no one was paying attention to.” He said that since Aristede’s support came more from the poorer areas of the country, this did not fit the top down democracy model the United States wanted and support was withdrawn.

He also went further back into Haiti’s history, praising Haiti’s revolution as the only one in the 18th century calling for universal freedom. “It was beyond idea that black slaves could liberate themselves,” he said. He then documented U.S. involvement in the country starting with Woodrow Wilson’s mandatory foreign investment policy and continued with the rise of the military juntas. He also talked about the refugee crisis of 1991, saying that the U.S. disallowed to return to their homeland when the government had set up a democracy until a military coup reinstated the previous powers.

“Clinton harshly condemned it in the 1992 election,” he said, “and as soon as he got into office he made it harsher.”

Farmer discusses health crises

Farmer was in Haiti for 20 years as a physician and an advocate for the poor. He wrote a book discussing Haiti’s history and its present state of near-collapse also entitled The Uses of Haiti. “I would add when Noam wrote the introduction, he said, ‘This book is slated for oblivion.’ I want to thank you, Noam,” he said. “It was very helpful as a marketing ploy.” He hailed Chomsky in his talk as “the only American intellectual that’s telling the truth about what’s going on in Haiti.”

Farmer briefly commented on the health conditions in Haiti. “No matter how you look at Haiti, the situation is grave.” He discussed the lowering life expectancy, the death rate of women bearing children, and the contaminated water supplies. “As someone supplying health care to Haiti, we need to be concerned about ... what is driving to this pathology.”

Breaking from the planned topic, Farmer followed up on Chomsky’s talk about the county’s history, discussing the elections that he personally saw, specifically the election of 1987 in which the military junta massacred a number of citizens who were swarming to the polls. He noted that the citizenry overcame their fear three years later in the next election to support the popular Aristede.

Farmer finished by recommending that Haiti employ a public health initiative as soon as possible. “I tend to get people when it is too late,” he said. As he outlined his plan, he focused on the need for immediate capital, and criticized the United States for charging interest on a public health loan that they never sent.

Attendees intrigued with talk

As opposed to previous Chomsky talks, Friday’s question and answer session was mild and without incident.

Some attendees were concerned about how the poverty of the country was affecting its delicate ecology. Farmer said that it was “profound” and said that the basic need for fuel has led to massive deforestation, and also pointed out that Cuba has taken an active role in supplying the country with propane fuel as an alternative.

A student asked what the U.S. rationale is for maintaining the economic embargo. Paul said that it really was only the work of a select few in the state department, primarily pointing the finger at Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Chomsky felt that the United States still was not comfortable with the idea of a large populous truly controlling and guiding the country. “We only allow governments that allow private sector dominance,” he concluded.

An audience member asked whether the situation could be solved by internal United States policy changes. Farmer said that positive change would depend on action in this country, but asked, “how many people outside this room know one fact said here tonight?” He continued that if the public did know, they would be far too mad than the government would ever want.

Most of the attendees were pleased with the talk. “Both of them spoke very well,” Kim said, “and their styles also complemented each other.”

McEvoy felt the talk went exceptionally well and the potential for the Western Hemisphere Project. “Basically, we wanted our people to be aware of our neighbors,” she said. “This doesn’t just mean Latin America, but also Cuba, Haiti, the Caribbean, and Alaska. We didn’t just want to make people aware politically, but also socially about what is going on in our hemisphere.”

McEvoy also noted that the program does not sponsor one ideology nor is it only a political forum. “It’s not all political,” she said, “we want to look at social and cultural as well. This is why we sponsor discussion events and had the Latin Chamber Music Festival on Saturday.”