by Ashley Smith
14 January, 2010
Ashley Smith describes the natural and not-so-natural factors that contributed to the devastation when Haiti was struck by a strong earthquake.
A DEVASTATING earthquake, the worst in 200 years, struck Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, laying waste to the city and killing untold numbers of people. The quake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, and detonated more than 30 aftershocks, all more than 4.5 in magnitude, through the night and into Wednesday morning.
The earthquake toppled poorly constructed houses, hotels, hospitals and even the capital city’s main political buildings, including the presidential palace. The collapse of so many structures sent a giant cloud into the sky, which hovered over the city, raining dust down onto the wasteland below.
According to some estimates, more than 100,000 people may have died, in a metropolis of 2 million people. Those that survived are living in the streets, afraid to return inside any building that remains standing.
Around the world, Haitians struggled to contact their family and friends in the devastated country. But most could not reach their loved ones since phone lines were down throughout the country.
One person who did reach relatives, Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor and publisher of the Brooklyn-based Haitian Times, stated, “People are in shock. They’re afraid to go out in the streets for obvious reasons, and most of them can’t get inside their homes. A lot of people are sitting or sleeping in front of the rubble that used to be their homes.”
President René Préval issued an emergency appeal for humanitarian aid. He described the scene in Port-au-Prince as “unimaginable. Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them. All the hospitals are packed with people. It’s a catastrophe.”
The weak Préval government was unable to respond to the crisis, and the United Nations–which occupies Haiti with close to 9,000 troops–was completely unprepared to manage the situation. Many UN leaders and troops died in buildings that collapsed, including their own headquarters.
International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said that 3 million out of Haiti’s 9 million people would need international emergency aid in the coming weeks just to survive. The UN, U.S., European Union, Canada and countless non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have promised humanitarian aid.
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WHILE MOST people reacted to the crisis by trying to find a way to help or donate money, Christian Right fanatic Pat Robertson stooped to new depths of racism. He explained that Haitians were cursed because they made a pact with the devil to liberate themselves from their French slave masters in the Haitian revolution two centuries ago.
The corporate media at least reported that shifting tectonic plates along a fault line underneath Port-au-Prince caused the earthquake–and that Haiti’s poverty and the incapacity of the Préval government made the disaster so much worse. But they didn’t delve below the surface.
“The media coverage of the earthquake is marked by an almost complete divorce of the disaster from the social and political history of Haiti,” Canadian Haiti solidarity activist Yves Engler said in an interview. “They repeatedly state that the government was completely unprepared to deal with the crisis. This is true. But they left out why.”
Why were 60 percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince shoddily constructed and unsafe in normal circumstances, according to the city’s mayor? Why are there no building regulations in a city that sits on a fault line? Why has Port-au-Prince swelled from a small town of 50,000 in the 1950s to a population of 2 million desperately poor people today? Why was the state completely overwhelmed by the disaster?
To understand these facts, we have to look at a second fault line–U.S. imperial policy toward Haiti. The U.S. government, the UN, and other powers have aided the Haitian elite in subjecting the country to neoliberal economic plans that have impoverished the masses, deforested the land, wrecked the infrastructure and incapacitated the government.
The fault line of U.S. imperialism interacted with the geological one to turn the natural disaster into a social catastrophe.
During the Cold War, the U.S. supported the dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier and then Baby Doc Duvalier–which ruled the country from 1957 to 1986–as an anti-communist counterweight to Castro’s Cuba nearby.
Under guidance from Washington, Baby Doc Duvalier opened the Haitian economy up to U.S. capital in the 1970s and 1980s. Floods of U.S. agricultural imports destroyed peasant agriculture. As a result, hundred of thousands of people flocked to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince to labor for pitifully low wages in sweatshops located in U.S. export processing zones.
In the 1980s, masses of Haitians rose up to drive the Duvaliers from power–later, they elected reformer Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be president on a platform of land reform, aid to peasants, reforestation, investment in infrastructure for the people, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers.
The U.S. in turn backed a coup that drove Aristide from power in 1991. Eventually, the elected president was restored to power in 1994 when Bill Clinton sent U.S. troops to the island–but on the condition that he implement the U.S. neoliberal plan–which Haitians called the “plan of death.”
Aristide resisted parts of the U.S. program for Haiti, but implemented other provisions, undermining his hoped-for reforms. Eventually, though, the U.S. grew impatient with Aristide’s failure to obey completely, especially when he demanded $21 billion in reparations during his final year in office. The U.S. imposed an economic embargo that strangled the country, driving peasants and workers even deeper into poverty.
In 2004, Washington collaborated with Haiti’s ruling elite to back death squads that toppled the government, kidnapped and deported Aristide. The United Nations sent troops to occupy the country, and the puppet government of Gérard Latortue was installed to continue Washington’s neoliberal plans.
Latortue’s brief regime was utterly corrupt–he and his cronies pocketed large portions of the $4 billion poured into the country by the U.S. and other powers when they ended their embargo. The regime dismantled the mild reforms Aristide had managed to implement. Thus, the pattern of impoverishment and degradation of the country’s infrastructure accelerated.
In 2006 elections, the Haitian masses voted in longtime Aristide ally René Préval as president. But Préval has been a weak figure who collaborated with U.S. plans for the country and failed to address the growing social crisis.
In fact, the U.S., UN and other imperial powers effectively bypassed the Préval government and instead poured money into NGOs. “Haiti now has the highest per capita presence of NGOs in the world,” says Yves Engler. The Préval government has become a political fig leaf, behind which the real decisions are made by the imperial powers, and implemented through their chosen international NGOs.
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THE REAL state power isn’t the Préval government, but the U.S.-backed United Nations occupation. Under Brazilian leadership, UN forces have protected the rich and collaborated with–or turned a blind eye to–right-wing death squads who terrorize supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas Party.
The occupiers have done nothing to address the poverty, wrecked infrastructure and massive deforestation that have exacerbated the effects of a series of natural disasters–severe hurricanes in 2004 and 2008, and now the Port-au-Prince earthquake.
Instead, they merely police a social catastrophe, and in so doing, have committed the normal crimes characteristic of all police forces. As Dan Beeton wrote in NACLA Report on the Americas, “The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which began its mission in June 2004, has been marred by scandals of killings, rape and other violence by its troops almost since it began.”
First the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have used the coup and social and natural crises to expand the U.S.’s neoliberal economic plans.
Under Obama, the U.S. has granted Haiti $1.2 billion in debt relief, but it hasn’t canceled all of Haiti’s debt–the country still pays huge sums to the Inter-American Development Bank. The debt relief is classic window-dressing for Obama’s real Haiti policy, which is the same old Haiti policy.
In close collaboration with the new UN Special Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, Obama has pushed for an economic program familiar to much of the rest of the Caribbean–tourism, textile sweatshops and weakening of state control of the economy through privatization and deregulation.
In particular, Clinton has orchestrated a plan for turning the north of Haiti into a tourist playground, as far away as possible from the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince. Clinton lured Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines into investing $55 million to build a pier along the coastline of Labadee, which it has leased until 2050.
From there, Haiti’s tourist industry hopes to lead expeditions to the mountaintop fortress Citadelle and the Palace of Sans Souci, both built by Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of Haiti’s slave revolution. According to the Miami Herald:
The $40 million plan involved transforming the now quaint town of Milot, home to the Citadelle and Palace of Sans Souci ruin, into a vibrant tourist village, with arts and crafts markets, restaurants and stoned streets. Guests would be ferried past a congested Cap-Haïtien to a bay, then transported by bus past peasant plantations. Once in Milot, they would either hike or horseback to the Citadelle…named a world heritage site in 1982…
Eco-tourism, archaeological exploration and voyeuristic visits to Vodou rituals are all being touted by Haiti’s struggling boutique tourism industry, as Royal Caribbean plans to bring the world largest cruise ship here, sparking the need for excursions.
So while Pat Robertson denounces Haiti’s great slave revolution as a pact with the devil, Clinton is helping to reduce it to a tourist trap.
At the same time, Clinton’s plans for Haiti include an expansion of the sweatshop industry to take advantage of cheap labor available from the urban masses. The U.S. granted duty-free treatment for Haitian apparel exports to make it easy for sweatshops to return to Haiti.
Clinton celebrated the possibilities of sweatshop development during a whirlwind tour of a textile plant owned and operated by the infamous Cintas Corp. He announced that George Soros had offered $50 million for a new industrial park of sweatshops that could create 25,000 jobs in the garment industry. Clinton explained at a press conference that Haiti’s government could create “more jobs by lowering the cost of doing business, including the cost of rent.”
As TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson told Democracy Now! “That isn’t the kind of investment that Haiti needs. It needs capital investment. It needs investment so that it can be self-sufficient. It needs investment so that it can feed itself.”
One of the reasons why Clinton could be so unabashed in celebrating sweatshops is that the U.S.-backed coup repressed any and all resistance. It got rid of Aristide and his troublesome habit of raising the minimum wage. It banished him from the country, terrorized his remaining allies and barred his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular in the country, from running for office. The coup regime also attacked union organizers within the sweatshops themselves.
As a result, Clinton could state to business leaders: “Your political risk in Haiti is lower than it has ever been in my lifetime.”
Thus, as previous U.S. presidencies have done before, the Obama administration has worked to aid Haiti’s elite, sponsor international corporations taking advantage of cheap labor, weaken the ability of the Haitian state to regulate the society, and repress any political resistance to that agenda.
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THESE POLICIES led directly to the incapacitated Haitian state, dilapidated infrastructure, poorly constructed buildings and desperate poverty that combined with the hurricanes and now the earthquake to turn natural disasters into social catastrophes.
While everyone should support the current outpouring of aid to help Haiti, no one should do so with political blinders on. As Engler said:
Aid in Haiti has always been used to further imperial interests. This is obvious when you look at how the U.S. and Canada treated the Aristide government in contrast to the coup regime. The U.S. and Canada starved Aristide of almost all aid. But then after the coup, they opened a floodgate of money to back some of the most reactionary forces in Haitian society.
We should therefore agitate against any attempt by the U.S. and other powers to use this crisis to further impose their program on a prostrate country.
We should also be wary of the role of international NGOs. While many NGOs are trying to address the crisis, the U.S. and other governments are funneling aid to them in order to undermine Haitians’ democratic right to self-determination. The international NGOs are unaccountable to either the Haitian state or Haitian population. So the aid funneled through them further weakens what little hold Haitians have on their own society.
The Obama administration should also immediately lift the ban against Aristide’s return to Haiti, as well as the political ban on his party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in the electoral process. After all, a known drug criminal and coup leader, Guy Philippe, and his party Front for National Reconstruction (FRN) has been allowed to participate in the electoral process. Aristide and his party, by contrast, are still the most popular political force in the country and should have the right to participate in an open and fair vote.
The U.S. should also stop deportations of Haitians who have fled their crisis-torn country and grant Temporary Protected Status to Haitian refugees. That would allow any Haitians who have fled the political and social crisis since the coup, the hurricanes and now the earthquake to remain legally in the U.S.
On top of that, we must demand that the U.S. stop imposing its neoliberal plans. The U.S. has plundered Haitian society for decades. Instead of Haiti owing any debt to the U.S., other countries or international financial institutions, the reverse is the case. The U.S., France, Canada and the UN owe the people of Haiti reparations to redress the imperial plunder of the country.
With these funds and political space, Haitians would be finally able to begin shaping their own political and economic future–the dream of the great slave revolution 200 years ago.
Donations and aid are desperately needed in Haiti. Here are some organizations with connections to the grassroots movements in the country.
The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, organized by the solidarity organization Haiti Action, delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2004 after the coup d’etat that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office.
For more information, including a telephone contact, go to the Canada Haiti Action Network Web site.
The Zanmi Lasante Medical Center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and delivers health care through a network of clinics. The health center survived the earthquake and delivering aid to the disaster zone. You can donate to the center through the U.S. non-profit organization Partners in Health.
SOPUDEP is a pioneering school in Petionville. The resources of the school and its teachers are being mobilized to assist the neighboring population. You can support the school via the Canadian-based Sawatzky Family Foundation.