New Internationalist

Battered on all sides

The people of Haiti are once again bracing themselves for the hurricane season: this time last year the country was devastated by four hurricanes in just one month. The Guardian reported:

‘The four tropical storms, ending with September’s Hurricane Ike, turned Haiti into a wasteland. Nearly 800 people died, about 60 per cent of the country’s harvest was destroyed and entire cities were rendered desolate and uninhabitable. Life in the western hemisphere’s poorest country went from grim to desperate. Weeks later, the floodwaters have receded and the dead are buried, but millions of cubic feet of mud remains, rendering cities such as Gonaives sticky, squelching versions of Pompeii.’

In 2006 and 2007 I experienced two hurricanes, one in Miami and the other in Port-au-Prince.  Fortunately, both were relatively minor but still the damage caused in Port-au-Prince alone (the hurricane hit the southern part of the island) was significant. In Miami, queues of residents filled up the supermarkets, stocking up with trolley-loads of supplies – a very different response from that in Port-au-Prince, where people do not have the money for such massive consumption. For the majority of Haitians the only response is to try to move to higher ground and to pray they will live out the storms.  

It is ironic that the first hurricane of the season is called Bill, given that former US President Bill Clinton was recently made UN Special Envoy to Haiti. It is no less ironic that both the US and the 9,000 UN forces (MINUSTAH) (who have been in occupation of the island for the past six years and have contributed to the present chaos, violence and poverty in the country) are the ones now once again mandated with the responsibility of ‘helping’ Haiti. Support capitalism even in the world’s poorest countries by destroying with one hand and rebuilding with the other! Clinton has recently promised to rid Haiti of its failed state label, as if the US and other Western nations such as France have not been the main contributors to the failure in the first place. 

Clinton described his new job at the Haitian Diaspora Unity Congress in Miami. It was a gathering of more than 300 Haitian professionals and aid workers to talk about how to consolidate efforts to help their homeland. Clinton opened his remarks with ironic modesty, telling the room that his job is to coordinate the efforts of the UN agencies in Haiti, ‘and do a few other things, too’. Those things, he expounded, include improving disaster prevention and recovery, seeking investors and donors, hectoring donors to follow through on pledges, and presenting ‘the best possible image of Haiti to the rest of the world’. The last point got the most applause. Ridding Haiti of its failed state label is an essential part of Clinton’s job, and possibly the most challenging.

The media and NGOs discuss with no reference to historical fact. There is no connection made between failed state status and the impact of globalization, exploitation and crippling debt. Only in June this year was justice achieved and $1.2 billion of debt cancelled. In 1825, following the slave revolution which led to Haiti’s independence, France demanded payment of 150 million francs – which had an immediate and direct impact on the ensuing poverty of the island. The various US occupations and exploitation of the island, dating from 1915 onwards, support of the repressive dictatorships of the Duvaliers and, more recently, the flooding of cheap US rice on Haiti’s markets, have also been major contributors to the failed state and its impoverishment.   

Haitian human rights and political activists have not been silent on the UN atrocities committed in their country. Nor have they been silent on the role of Special Envoy. In a recent article by Ezili Danto, the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network [HLLN] presented a seven-point request to Bill Clinton laying out clearly what he can do to really help Haiti. Rather than pleas for charity, the seven points included granting special protection status to Haiti, which would enable Haitians in the US to work and end the mass deportations; an end to the UN occupation at a cost of $50 million per month; exposing the ‘UN killings, rapes, arbitrary arrests and political persecutions’; cancelling the whole debt with no conditions; supporting fair trade not sweat shops; stopping grossly unfair free trade deals and ineffective initiatives, such as the Caribbean Basin Initiate Investment Support, or the Special Export Zones under the Hope Act, which bans trade unions to protect workers' rights, thus pummelling, bullying and beating Haiti into the dust of misery, debit and poverty). And instead, supporting Haitian food production and domestic manufacturing, job creation, public works projects; sustainable development; and good working culture that values human rights.

They ask for an end to USAID policies such as trading through USAID and ‘predator NGOs which feed of the poverty of the country’ and instead for the US to directly support Haitian democracy, good governance, development, self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

This cannot be done if the Haitian Government has to compete with foreign-funded NGOs and charities which are not elected or accountable to the people of Haiti, but are predatory and promoting dependency and their own organizations' interests for self-perpetuation in Haiti.

And they demand support of the rule of law – not through the UN or USAID but through Haiti’s own existing laws, to encourage the maximum leveraging of diaspora remittances as the real and most effective aid to the country. If the international community, NGOs and the UN continue to explain Haiti’s poverty without acknowledging and acting on the real reasons and their own failures, then the role of Special Envoy will be just another job for aid workers and more wasted millions.

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