New Internationalist

Haiti: disaster relief or disaster capitalism?

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Richard Swift reports from the Caribbean.

‘All Hands on Deck for Haiti!’ shouted the headlines in the Trinidad Express. It was ‘Hold on Haiti: We Are Here For You’ from the Barbadian Press. The echoes of solidarity reverberated throughout the Caribbean as Haitians struggled to pull themselves out from under the rubble of the Force 7-plus earthquake that devastated the overcrowded Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince. At this writing the number of dead remains uncertain but the Haitian Government claims that 75,000 people have already been buried in mass graves without even being identified. The final death toll could top 200,000 – ten per cent of the city’s population. The ramshackle capital, where building codes are almost non-existent, has had its hardest-hit quartiers reduced to a crumble of cement and other building materials. These areas included the university sector where many buildings collapsed, leaving students and teachers buried underneath their own classrooms.

Accusations of inefficiency, corruption and looting of food stocks quickly emerged, as did charges by small (but usually quite effective organizations) like the French Médicins Sans Frontières that the US military was monopolizing ports of entry and thus impeding the efforts of others

Schoolchildren elsewhere were among the primary victims as many were inside these large but precarious educational institutions at slightly before 5pm on Tuesday, 12 January, when the quake hit (the Haitian school day is in the afternoon). The UN and other expatriate aid and security workers were also prominent among the victims, as they were largely resident in the kind of large building structure that proved deadly when it collapsed. Ironically the informal squatter areas such as Port-Au-Prince’s massive Cité Soleil shantytown (‘the most dangerous place in the world’) were relatively less affected: there is only so much damage that can be done when a flimsy tin structure collapses.

Promises, promises

A groundswell of sympathy across the world and promises of a massive amount of both official and privately-raised aid from all quarters quickly followed the quake. But time was of the essence. The international press reached Port-Au-Prince long before the massive amount of promised food, water, tents and rescue equipment. So the first days were filled with images of the increasingly frustrated population trying to dig out their families and neighbours with little more than their bare hands. Predictably, the hard-hit Haitian infrastructure of ports, airports and road systems – poor at the best of times – quickly became clogged by the competing claims and demands of donors. The overall co-ordination was lacking, as both the UN and the Haitian Government were crippled by quake damage. Accusations of inefficiency, corruption and looting of food stocks quickly emerged, as did charges by small (but usually quite effective organizations) like the French Médicins Sans Frontières that the US military was monopolizing ports of entry and thus impeding the efforts of others.

The response in the Caribbean region is heartening, promising not only aid but the regularizing of the status of the thousands of ‘illegal’ Haitians who have already fled their poverty- and disaster-stricken homeland and are resident in virtually every other Caribbean country. The members of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community and Common Market) and other Caribbean states went further, offering the possibility of taking in and helping settle those who no longer felt there was a future for them in Haiti. The Prime Minister of St. Vincent spoke for many when he proclaimed: ‘We cannot treat these Haitians as if they are from another planet.’ Still, with a few possible exceptions like Guyana these small and mostly poor Caribbean states have limited capacity in this regard. The other sentiment that reverberated throughout the region was the worry that the involvement of outsiders in Haiti’s affairs would only make matters worse in the long run.

A terrible history

There is good reason for worry. The terrible history, both recent and not so recent, of the country (vicious dictatorships, death squads, periodic invasions, official corruption, hurricanes and landslides, an HIV epidemic, debt enslavement) should leave Haitians and their real friends sceptical of the motives of those who for years have created dependency and debt under the guise of being helpful. Haiti has for years shown a fierce spirit of independence, which first surfaced during the slave revolt inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution in the late 18th century. The ‘Black Jacobins’ as they were called by the illustrious Caribbean historian C L R James successfully threw out the French planter class and established an independent Black Republic in 1791 and 1792. Independence was formally declared in January 1804. Repeated attempts by Napolean and his successors to undo Haitian independence failed with great loss of life. Toussaint Louverture and his comrades had led the way in establishing the world’s first post-colonial society. It is a feat for which Haitians have had to pay dearly, as the colonial masters led by the former colonizer France imposed a draconian price in debt charges. The price for recognition of Haiti’s right to self-determination was 150 million francs, imposed in 1825. Poor Haitians were still paying off this debt up into the 1940s. So Haiti was not only the first beacon of independence but also the first example of how the Global North would use debt strangulation to impose conditions of poverty and limit the possibilities of self-determination. Many more such examples across the globe were to follow.

So Haiti was not only the first beacon of independence but also the first example of how the Global North would use debt strangulation to impose conditions of poverty and limit the possibilities of self-determination

Haiti sank from being the centre of global sugar production to the most poverty-stricken country in the Western hemisphere. Today, per capita GDP hovers around $2 a day per person. From 1957 to 1986 the country suffered under the brutal rule of the Duvalier family propped up by the US as a bulwark against Cuban communism. The country’s ability to feed itself was undermined by neoliberal reforms that allowed a flood of cheap imported foodstuffs that crippled Haitian agriculture and swelled the population of Port-Au-Prince with unemployed peasant farmers. Many former farmers now lie under earthquake rubble. Haiti also bore the brunt of the HIV epidemic, with about five per cent of the population infected – a rate 10 times greater than neighbouring Latin American countries. The internal politics of Haiti have been subject to external manipulation (primarily US and French) in the post-Duvalier era. The populist priest Jean-Betrand Aristide was reinstated after a military coup annulled his election in the 1990s. This was brought about by US pressure orchestrated by former President Jimmy Carter. Then the Bush Administration turned around and helped remove Aristide from power through a paramilitary coup in 2004 partially because his minimum wage reforms and assertions of national sovereignty.

Disaster capitalism

‘Helping Haiti’ has been a classic case of what the Canadian writer Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’, where big powers use aid as a way of imposing free market arrangements and debt obligations on an enfeebled polity in desperate need of outside assistance. Already there are signs that this is at play in the current crisis. With many still buried alive in the Haitian capital, the influential rightwing think tank The Heritage Foundation posted their own set of aid criteria on their website – ‘In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the US response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.’ The Heritage agenda includes countering the influence of Hugo Chávez in the region, interdicting the drug trade and preventing illegal Haitian immigration to the US.

‘Helping Haiti’ has been a classic case of what the Canadian writer Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’, where big powers use aid as a way of imposing free market arrangements and debt obligations on an enfeebled polity in desperate need of outside assistance

They called on the Obama Administration to send a bi-partisan team of Bill Clinton and George W Bush (who was so helpful in post-Katrina New Orleans) to oversee the effort. Even before the earthquake Clinton, who has become a kind of roving ambassador for US business, was already busy remaking Haiti. His efforts included a kind of tourist zone in the northern part of the island involving a deal with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines investing $55 million to build pier facilities along the coastline in Labadee and turning the town of Milot into an eco-tourist resort. The other prong of Clinton’s vision is the development of a larger sweatshop textile sector, enlisting the support of George Soros to build a $50 million new industrial park. Clinton believes that the already cash-strapped Haitian Government could ‘create more jobs by lowering the cost of doing business, including the cost of rent’.

It is little wonder that Caribbean opinion looks at US and other Northern aid to Haiti with a degree of caution. The Prime Minister of Jamaica caught the flavour when he insisted that this time provided a second opportunity (following on from the 2008 Hurricane) to ‘really help’ (with the emphasis on ‘really’) Haiti. In the meantime, Caribbean Cruise Lines announced that its plans to land a boatload of holidaymakers at the Labadee Pier would go ahead despite the carnage in the south of the country. It rejected charges that this was obscene. Business as usual.

more coverage/comment on Haiti:

Aid or invade? Blog by Sokari Ekine

Does Haiti exist? comment piece by Leonardo Padura Fuentes

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