We are now into the sixth day after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which struck at 4.30pm on Tuesday 12 January. It was evident straight after the disaster that an urgent response would be essential, yet humanitarian aid is only now beginning to reach small numbers of people. Aid - and the aid agencies - continues to sit on the tarmac of Port-au-Prince airport, which is now controlled by the US military. Parallels with Hurricane Katrina cannot be ignored - not least the racist attitudes towards Black people which have been exposed. The US Secretary of Defense, for example, described the people hungry for food as ‘scavenging’ and ‘looting’, and much of the media is using similar derogatory language to describe the suffering of the Haitian people, who are presented as victims. This representation contradicts the reality of Haitians helping each other; a friend of mine, for example, has turned her home into a hospital treating the wounded with whatever she and others have to hand. People all over the city are working together to help in whatever way they can - while the wait continues for international promises to be fulfilled.
From the very beginning it was clear that the tragedy of the earthquake would be used as an opportunity for the US to further militarize the country and control the political process. The silence of puppet President René Préval and the resulting absence of any leadership could also be seen as part of the justification for US intervention and involvement. It is not extreme to question whether the US had any influence in maintaining his silence.
The day after the earthquake, The Foundry (the blog of the right wing neo-con think tank) published the following headline, warning us that disaster capitalism was ready to roll: ‘Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the US’ and called for the ‘reshaping’ of Haiti. A few hours later it had removed the headline and changed it to: Things to do while helping Haiti. They also removed the direct reference to reshaping the country, but the message remained clear, with reference to military involvement and the inclusion of President Bush in the ‘long-term recovery and reform’ - meaning occupation and control. Many of the comments left are highly critical of the blog post and further speak to the revulsion felt by many with the Foundry’s position:
‘The US Government response should be bold and decisive. It must mobilize US civilian and military capabilities for short-term rescue and relief and long-term recovery and reform. President Obama should tap high-level, bipartisan leadership. Clearly former President Clinton, who was already named as the UN envoy on Haiti, is a logical choice. President Obama should also reach out to a senior Republican figure, perhaps former President George W Bush, to lead the bipartisan effort for the Republicans.’
Various blog posts since then have echoed much of the analysis in the mainstream media in the US and Britain, in which historical facts are distorted and ignored regarding the role of the US and France in particular in the underdevelopment and exploitation of Haiti. Even the naming of this as a’natural disaster’ is flawed, putting the blame on poverty and lack of infrastructure without any explanation as to why this is so.
The disaster is years of crippling debt, including the equivalent of $21 billion in today’s money paid to France (following independence); continued support by the US of the Duvalier dictatorships, and US occupation (1915-1934) and de facto occupation since 2004. When democracy was finally attained with the election of President Aristide, the US did everything it could to undermine the Government. When that failed they backed the 2004 coup which led to the President’s exile.
We are constantly being bombarded with ‘news’ on how much money has been donated and by whom, with every commercial outfit jumping on the donor bandwagon, from Apple Mac to T-Mobile. Yes, it’s wonderful that businesses are helping to facilitate donations, but let there be no doubt and name it for what it is disaster capitalism. The constant updates on the huge sums of money being donated to mega NGOs such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children, and the hourly reports on how much aid is being flown in to Port-au-Prince, give the impression that a great deal is happening, when in reality very little of this aid has yet to reach the people who need it (and a significant percentage of donations goes towards charities’ operating and administrative costs). But again there is much more to this story. The New York Times recently reported on the US military preventing planes from landing with urgent food and medical supplies, further delaying the start of the distribution process, and a report in today’s AlertNet states that Western Union offices are still closed.
French, Brazilian and other officials had earlier complained about the US-run airport’ refusal to allow their supply planes to land. A World Food Programme official told The New York Times that the Americans’ priorities were out of sync, allowing too many US military flights and too few aid deliveries. The Geneva-based aid group Doctors Without Borders put it bluntly: ‘There is little sign of significant aid distribution.’ The ‘major difficulty,’ it said, was the bottleneck at the airport. It said a flight carrying its own inflatable hospital was denied landing clearance and was being trucked overland from Santo Domingo, almost 200 miles away in the Dominican Republic, delaying its arrival by 24 hours.
Michel Chossudovsky has written an excellent report on the US military and political operations in Haiti, questioning whether this is a ‘humanitarian operation or an invasion’. He provides a detailed list of ‘US military assets’ being deployed, with decision-making on the ‘humanitarian operation’ being led by’US Southern Command’.
The main actors in the US’s ‘humanitarian operation’ are the Department of Defense, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). (See USAID Speeches: On-The-Record Briefing on the Situation in Haiti, 01/13/10). USAID has also been entrusted with channelling food aid to Haiti, which is distributed by the World Food Programme. (See USAID Press Release: USAID to Provide Emergency Food Aid for Haiti Earthquake Victims, January 13, 2010)
A massive deployment of military hardware and personnel is being contemplated. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has confirmed that the US will be sending up to 10,000 troops to Haiti, including 2,000 marines. (American Forces Press Service, January 14, 2010)
Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its complement of supporting ships have already arrived in Port au Prince. The 2,000-member Marine Amphibious Unit, as well as soldiers from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne division, ‘are trained in a wide variety of missions, including security and riot-control in addition to humanitarian tasks’.
In contrast to rescue and relief teams dispatched by various civilian teams and organizations, the humanitarian mandate of the US military is not clearly defined:
‘Marines are definitely warriors first, and that is what the world knows the Marines for, [but] we’re equally as compassionate when we need to be, and this is a role that we’d like to show - that compassionate warrior, reaching out with a helping hand for those who need it. We are very excited about this.’ (Marines’Spokesman, Marines Embark on Haiti Response Mission, Army Forces Press Services, January 14, 2010)
These numbers are in addition to the UN MINUSTAH force of 9,065 plus civilian staff whose record of death and destruction is well documented in the film We Must Kill the Bandits by Kevin Pina and on Haiti Action. The support of President Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas party remains strong and vocal in Haiti despite their being prevented from participating in the 2006 elections and banned from taking part in the next elections. The militarization of the earthquake in Haiti is a continuation of the US’s determination not to enable the rightful return of elected President Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas, and to ensure that the main focus is on security and keeping the Haitian élite in power.
‘A palace built atop a mountain by the man who runs one of Haiti’s biggest lottery games is still standing. New-car dealers, the big importers, the families that control the port - they all drove through town with their drivers and security men this past weekend. Only a few homes here were destroyed.
‘All the nation is feeling this earthquake - the poor, the middle class and the richest ones,’ said Erwin Berthold, owner of the Big Star Market in Petionville. ‘But we did okay here. We have everything cleaned up inside. We are ready to open. We just need some security. So send in the Marines, okay?’
18th January 2010
More Haiti coverage/comment on the website:
Does Haiti exist? by Leonardo Padura Fuentes
Haiti: disaster aid or disaster capitalism? by Richard Swift