Haiti: the Disaster Both Natural and Political

Shashwat Sinha

At around 5 pm on January 13, 2010 a massive earthquake measuring 7.0 on Richter scale hit Port-au-Prince, the heavily populated capital city of Haiti.  Within the next few days more than 200,000 people were reported dead with over one third of the population of Haiti rendered homeless. The city looks like an ancient ruin with the infrastructure of the city, including the presidential palace, rich and poor localities completely razed to ground.  At least another 300,000 have been rendered homeless. The government and all essential public services - hospitals, ports, communication, transportation, water, electricity, sewage – which were bad even at the best of times, have now totally collapsed. 
The catastrophe in human terms is massive and its repercussions incalculable. While many countries promised aid, much of it is still to arrive and be distributed. So, the actual conditions on the ground show that thousands of people (both alive and dead) are still buried under rubble with no one to dig them out, thousands of wounded have not yet been treated, thousands more are fleeing the wretched city while thousands more who have not got water or food are turning violent and looting the city.
With the US taking over the airport a whole new dimension has been added. Countries like France and organizations like the International Red Cross are complaining that their planes with relief equipment are being turned away while 60 Belgian doctors have had to leave their patients and exit the country. The US is being openly accused of ferrying army and police rather than food and aid materials. They have also been active in giving help to their own stranded personnel rather than the Haitians.
It appears that the US is unfairly taking advantage of this catastrophe to finally, in the name of aid and rehabilitation, get Haiti in its grip. History shows that the US has invaded and colonized Haiti in the past and has consistently, till the present, interfered in that country’s affairs. Haiti is repeatedly dubbed as the poorest country in the western hemisphere; but we should pause and think why it remained so poor? This earthquake has clearly shown that it is not only a natural disaster that has devastated Haiti but also one caused by decades of manmade neglect, exploitation and poverty. An earthquake of similar intensity in the western advanced world or in socialist Cuba would not kill nearly as many people or destroy the place as it did in Haiti.
Ever since Columbus discovered it in 1492 and started his first massacre and exploitation of native Indians, Haiti has had a traumatic history. Soon, none of the original Arakawan tribes were able to survive the enslavement by western invaders, mainly French, or the diseases they brought in against which they had no immunity. The colonisers repopulated Haiti with African slaves brought in through the flourishing slave trade and Haiti soon became dominantly populated with black slaves. Haiti was also the first country to witness a successful slave rebellion against their French imperialists and became the first slave state to successfully fight its colonial masters to become a republic in 1804. But even while the French colonisers were forced to leave they demanded and took heavy reparation for loss of profits, resources and cheap black labour. 
Haiti has thus been the victim of colonial exploitation for centuries but its back was finally broken by the financial doom it suffered when the US invaded and conquered it in 1915 in order to keep tabs on its ‘investment’ (Citibank took over Haiti’s debts by buying its central bank) and ruled it as its own country till 1934.  During this period the US diverted nearly 40% of Haiti’s resources to the US, bringing profits to its banks and financial institutions. The control of Haiti’s finances was maintained until 1947, completely crippling the country.    
Since 1957 the US propped up and supported corrupt dictators, including the notorious Papa Doc Duvalier and his gangsters who tortured, abducted and killed anyone who opposed the regime. US neoliberal policies crippled Haiti’s food self-sufficiency to create a market for US products. Popularly elected leaders in Haiti were deposed in US-sponsored coups at the first sign of any pro-people policies. One such President – Jean-Bertrand Aristide – was deposed first in 1990, to usher in “market reforms”, whereby Haiti was forced to end its self-sufficiency in rice production and become a captive market for US rice. The devastated farmers became cheap fodder for sweatshops US industrialists. Aristide was reinstated in 1994 by Clinton on the promise of more neoliberal policies. He was again elected President in 2000 but deposed in a coup sponsored by the Bush regime in 2004. 
It is the neoliberal policies that have forced Haitians to leave the countryside and work in sweatshops, living in packed slums in the city – which were the worst hit during the quake. Following the 2004 coup, the UN, “international community” and various NGOs have had a free run in Haiti, virtually acting as private service providers in place of the crippled public sector. Thus, when the quake hit, there was no Haitian infrastructure in place and the foreign players were focussed on getting their people out of the country.    
Haiti is deeply in debt and many progressive groups are demanding that the present aid that US and other powers (who impoverished Haiti and trapped it in debt in the first place) are offering be given as grants and not loans that will only increase its indebtedness. Even right-wing papers like the Washington Post feel that the least the Obama regime can do is help cancel or lessen the debts to IMF and WB and also give the 100,000 Haitians who are illegal immigrants in the US temporary Protected Status as it is their earnings that they send back home which forms one third of Haiti’s GDP and from which over 100,000 Haitian families benefit.
It is ironic and insulting then to the people of Haiti when President Obama announced President Bush and President Clinton to head Haiti’s relief program. President Clinton pushed for the neo-liberal policies in Haiti which contributed to further impoverishing of Haiti. The neo-liberal policies in Haiti resulted in complete destruction of the agrarian and self-sustaining society. A vast majority of people live on less than $2 a day whereas a tiny, extremely wealthy capitalist class enjoys and controls most of the resources. 
Haiti is now ridden with NGOs and UN agencies with very little coordination between them. The food, medicines and other humanitarian aid remained at Port-au Prince’s airport for many days with no one to distribute it to the suffering people. US choppers started dropping relief material in the affected areas several days after the quake. A very critical danger pointed out by Naomi Klein (author of Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) is that the US will use it as an opportunity to make way for its corporations to ‘rebuild’ Haiti, securing contracts worth billions of dollars. So any relief offered by the US has a potential danger of being seen as an ‘investment’ by its government and corporations, thereby again bleeding Haiti to recover the ‘investments’ and reap profits out of this tremendous human catastrophe.
Meanwhile countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico have rushed humanitarian and medical aid, skilled medical volunteers and quake relief experts to Haiti, even as leaders like Castro, Chavez, Ortega and Morales have expressed apprehension about the heavy deployment of US troops in Haiti. France, which like the US is a former occupier of Haiti, has also accused the US of ‘occupation’ in the name of relief.

From the Horse’s Mouth
The conservative US think-tank Heritage Foundation has commented that “Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and America is the most generous.” In the light of Haiti’s history, and especially the recent role of Clinton and Bush in the impoverishment of Haiti, such posturing by the US is the height of hypocrisy.
A remark by the Heritage Foundation the very next day after the quake is revealing of the real agenda behind the US military-driven relief plan: "In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake 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." It seems that the Pentagon-led relief drive has an agenda similar to the right-wing military coup in the Honduras and the establishment of US military bases in Columbia – to step up US presence in a region which has seen the rise of several powerful challenges to US hegemony and “public image” in recent years.

As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military will not confine itself to an agenda of humanitarian relief: it will also have a key repressive role, with an eye to possible long-term presence. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen in a Pentagon briefing communicated as much, when he said, “The initial intent is to strategically place some of our soldiers so that they can help with that relief distribution...And then obviously we’re all focused on the security piece, as well...We very much hope to stay ahead of that, but recognize that there are possibilities that we need to plan for.”

It is not enough to aid Haiti to stand on its own feet again; ‘disaster capitalism/imperialism’ must be prevented from taking root in Haiti, since it would be a more subtle force which will bring long term destruction, far greater than any natural calamity. Like the right-wing military coup in the Honduras and the establishment of US military bases in Columbia, the present intervention mounted by the Obama administration and the Pentagon is also driven by Washington’s stepped-up efforts to assert its dominance in the hemisphere.