Revolution #208, July 25, 2010
Haiti: Six Months After the Earthquake...The Deadly Realities of Imperialist Aid
Six months ago, on January 12, 2010, a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, an island nation of about 9 million. The quake killed at least a quarter million people, and left over 1.5 million homeless. As Revolution brought out at the time, this devastation did not result solely from a natural disaster. It was made massively worse by a century of U.S. domination and especially by conscious U.S. policies of the last 30 years. These policies systematically destroyed much of Haiti's agricultural economy, forcing millions of former peasants to crowd into the small capital of Port-au-Prince in the hope of finding jobs or education. This flood of people was densely packed into poorly constructed housing, in conditions of extreme poverty, with little infrastructure—and all sitting on a known earthquake fault about which the people were never warned—and no basic housing codes were created and enforced, no emergency plans developed, etc. It was known that Port-Au-Prince would be a death trap in the event of a likely earthquake—but nothing was done about this. So the deaths of hundreds of thousands were not an "act of god" or "fate"—they were an imperialist crime against humanity. (See Revolution, #s 189-191 and #196.)
After the Earthquake the U.S. Rushes In… to Protect Its Interests
When the earthquake hit, the U.S. rushed to the scene of their crime—not to help the masses of suffering people, but to establish control. U.S. troops seized the only international airport, and U.S. soldiers began flooding in, even as Haitians and others who wanted to help, as well as aid supplies and medical help, were turned back. The airport, far from being a launch pad for a massive relief effort, became the main bottleneck in the aid effort, as huge amounts of food and supplies ended up being warehoused for days, weeks, months, while people suffered, starved and died of treatable injuries and disease.
In spite of this reality, the U.S tried to put on a big show of "compassion." TV cameras broadcast heart-wrenching scenes of high-tech U.S. and Israeli rescue teams pulling people from the rubble. But you had to read the fine print to learn that these teams rescued a total of less than 200 people. In fact, it was the Haitian masses, clawing through mountains of rubble with their bare hands, braving the imminent danger of being crushed, who were responsible in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake for rescuing countless numbers of people who would have died.
Initially, Obama announced a pledge of $100 million to Haiti—less than the cost of a half day of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, describing this paltry sum as the "start" of "one of the largest relief efforts in history." There was a lot of outrage, both in the U.S. and internationally, at the fact that the richest and most powerful country in the world was doing so little to help in the face of such a huge catastrophe. And this forced the U.S. to up its pledges several times, finally reaching $1.2 billion. But to date, six months later, as recently reported by Anderson Cooper on CNN—not one penny of this financial aid has actually been delivered!
Suffering Amidst the Rubble
It has been six months since a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in January. The city of Port-au-Prince is still literally buried in rubble, making transportation difficult and rebuilding nearly impossible. There is little recovery and rebuilding. Why?
First of all, this reflects the fact that Haiti is an impoverished country that has been economically and politically stunted because it has been dominated by imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism. Experts estimate that it would take 1,000 trucks three years to remove all the rubble. So far only 2% has been cleared. But the media reports that Haiti only has 300 trucks.
And then there are the rules of capitalism—in which nothing gets done unless there is a profit to be made. So millions of trucks and other heavy equipment in the U.S., including tens of thousands of pick-ups and SUVs sitting unsold on car lots because of the depressed economy, are not used to help hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti who are suffering.
There are the huge roadblocks thrown up by capitalist relations of ownership and production in Haiti itself. Listen to the following from the New York Times: "[D]ebris… also has a potential monetary value if it is to be reused. ‘It's not just the rubble, it's the question of rubble ownership,' Mr. Scales [of the International Organization for Migration] said. Most [people on the land to be cleared] are renters, but the rubble technically belongs to the property owners. And sorting out who owns what land, and getting their permission to excavate has proved difficult."
Think about what is being said here: "It's not just the rubble, it's the question of rubble ownership." What is happening here speaks volumes to the utter insanity and brutality of the rules operating in the capitalist system—and the complete inability of this system to even address, much less meet, the basic needs of the people. 1.6 million people must live in the streets during hurricane season while the propertied classes determine who should gather profits from the ruins of their former homes!
But the most stunning failure has been housing. Only 28 thousand people have been placed in permanent or stable temporary shelter, while 1.6 million remain homeless. Most people have not even received tents. By official figures, only 97,000 tents have been put up since the earthquake—one for every 16 homeless people—and most of these are now falling apart. Tens of thousands of people do not even have tarps. Most of those who lost their homes still remain in the roughly 1,200 camps around the earthquake zone. Only one fourth of these camps are even being run by organized agencies—which are more likely to provide latrines, lights and perhaps clean water. The rest are pulled together by the masses of people, usually led by a committee of residents, fending for themselves to get food, water and sanitation. Said Menmen Vilase, a 9-months pregnant woman: "I'd love to live under a plastic sheet, but I can't afford it."
The New York Times (July 10, 2010) described one of these camps built single file along the median strip of a busy highway. Dozens have been injured when cars crashed into their shanties. Latrines were finally built in March by the French group, Islamic Aid, but they are across the road, so many people who are sick with diarrhea have to dart through traffic to get to bathrooms. A Revolution reporter visited this same shantytown in January—in all this time these latrines are the only substantial aid they have received.
Faced with all this, tens of thousands of people have moved back into homes badly damaged and unsafe, living daily with the terror of being buried alive if the unstable structures collapse, if another earthquake hits. Others have moved into cemeteries, a municipal dump, flooded sports fields. People live amidst rubble still containing human remains; one man said "it is better to be here with the smell of the dead bodies than to be down at that camp where it stinks of pee."
The New York Times reported that UN officials "urge patience… They point to accomplishments in providing emergency food, water and shelter and averting starvation, exodus and violence." Nigel Fisher, deputy special representative of the United Nations secretary general in Haiti told the Times that "What hasn't happened is worth noting. We haven't had a major outbreak of disease. We haven't had a major breakdown in security." (7/10/10, all emphasis added)
Now, when people like this talk about "violence" and "breakdowns in security," they are not talking about the security of the masses. They are not talking about the increasing levels of rape of women in the camps or the stealing and selling of children into the international sex trade, or attacks on "squatters" by machete-wielding thugs of large land-owners—all of which has been happening.
What they mean is that there has not, so far, been a major political uprising of the Haitian people against the U.S./UN occupation or against the failure of the imperialists and the subservient Haitian government to meet the most basic needs of the people. When they speak of "avoiding exodus," they are bragging that they have prevented large numbers of Haitians from escaping the desperate conditions there and coming to the United States. To the U.S. and other imperialists (including the UN) millions living on the edge of death is quite fine as long as people are kept from the point of either rising up or flooding into the U.S. where they might be a source of social instability.
The Promise and Reality of Aid
But what about all those billions of dollars of aid pledged to Haiti? Wasn't that a sign of genuine concern? And hasn't that helped people?
There are three realities to look at here. The first reality is that when you read the fine print, the aid pledged to Haiti came with "conditions," which were basically that Haiti officially give up its national sovereignty. The International Donors' Conference in March established a "Haitian Recovery Commission" to administer international aid, and insisted that this HRC stand above any oversight of the Haitian government or judiciary. The HRC has 24 members—half Haitians and half representatives of international donors and lenders, and is co-chaired by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Given that these "international donors" already hold the money and the guns in Haiti, this means in practice that the representatives of U.S. imperialism will call the shots on how Haitian society is reorganized in the wake of the earthquake—if it ever is rebuilt, which is a real question mark at this point.
In April, the Haitian Parliament acceded to these terms for receiving aid, in spite of some protests that this represented an unconstitutional loss of Haitian sovereignty. According to Reuters, President Rene Preval told them that "the operation of the commission would facilitate the release of massive reconstruction financing that will be administered through a Multi-Donor Trust Fund, to be supervised by the World Bank"—i.e., vote for this or we won't get any aid.
The "justification" for this outrageous imposition of foreign control is the history and present reality of widespread corruption and "incompetence" of the Haitian government. There is a racist and colonialist sub-text here—the imperialists imply that Haitian people are just too ignorant to handle their own affairs, so it is up to the great powers to "pick up the white man's burden" (as the pro-imperialist British writer Rudyard Kipling once called it) of running their society for them. This "native" corruption and incompetence is a prime justification for imperialist intervention of all kinds, and a prime way of covering up the enormous failures of their system.
Now it has to be said that in the wake of Katrina, the Wall Street debacle, the housing collapse, and the capitalist oil catastrophe in the Gulf, the U.S. should shut the fuck up about other nations' incompetence and corruption!
But more importantly, governmental corruption in Haiti (and elsewhere) is very real, but it is directly a product of U.S. domination! As Revolution noted right after the earthquake (see Revolution #188):
"The news reports talk about Haiti's poverty, but they don't tell you why Haiti is so poor. Very few people know that Haiti was the scene of the only successful slave revolution in history—when the heroic descendants of African slaves drove out the strongest army in the world at that time, the French. Very few people know that the world's powers—especially the U.S., which at that time feared the influence of Haiti on the slaves in this country, and France—embarked on a policy of isolating and impoverishing Haiti. Very few people know that for nearly 20 years in the early 1900's the U.S. marines occupied Haiti, suppressing a liberation struggle and implanting puppets. Very few people know that the U.S. backed the infamously cruel tyrant 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, and then his son 'Baby Doc,' in the middle of the century. And all too few know that it then conspired to overthrow the popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1990's and then again in 2004. All these criminal actions—this long criminal history of oppression—flowed from the economic and political needs of the U.S. ruling classes during the time when the U.S. was run, first, by a coalition of capitalist and slave-holding classes, and then more recently by the ruling capitalist-imperialist class. Throughout the last two centuries, the U.S. has backed up reactionary ruling classes within Haiti as part of this."
To put it bluntly, the U.S. has been the primary force shaping—often violently—the Haitian state and social and economic structure. And very specifically, the U.S. worked to overthrow any regime that was not thoroughly "corrupt." Why? Because the people the U.S. wants as local power structure in Haiti are those willing to sell out the interests of the people and nation of Haiti to the U.S., in return for prestigious titles, connections and a fat salary. How can it then complain that the same people are "corrupt" and "incompetent"?!?!
But with its Parliament having succumbed to U.S. blackmail, Haiti now confronts a second reality—that the vast majority of aid that was promised hasn't come through. According to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, only about 2% of the pledged aid has been delivered to Haiti—and how much of that has actually gone to the Haitian people, rather than being siphoned off to various capitalists, power-brokers, etc., is anyone's guess.
And along with this, even to the extent that aid is available, the "normal workings" of capitalist relations are paralyzing reconstruction work. There have been frequent reports in the media that plans to build better camps are stymied by the failure to get permission from large landowners who control possible sites. In fact, there are many reports of people being evicted from encampments set up after the earthquake because landlords thought they could put even rubble strewn land to more profitable use. (One of the encampments that the Revolution reporter stayed at while in Haiti was subsequently evicted.)
The third reality here is that the U.S. plan for Haiti—should it ever actually materialize—is to rebuild it to better serve the needs of U.S. imperialism, and not to help the Haitian people.
According to Ansel Herz writing on HaitiAnalysis.com, "[Hilary] Clinton, along with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, are touting a plan devised by Oxford economist Paul Collier to expand tariff-free export zones around Haiti. Their plan calls for Haiti to lift urban slum-dwellers out of poverty through jobs in textile factories, like the Inter-American Garment Factory…"
The Corail-Cesselesse camp north of Port-au-Prince has been touted by the HRC as the "future" of Haiti. According to a report by Jonathan Katz in the Associated Press (July 13) there are plans to house 300,000 people in transitional then permanent shelters and provide them with jobs. According to Katz, the jobs being looked at right now are low-wage Korean garment companies. So far about 7,000 Haitians have been bused in to live in tents, followed by thousands more squatters desperate to find a piece of safe dirt on which to stretch some tarps.
But even this plan for organized misery has run up against powerful obstacles. Big landowners in the area claimed the land, and have tried to evict residents; they send thugs in the night to threaten people with machetes and guns. Finally in early-July they were able to officially open the camp with great fanfare, but on July 13, a summer squall hit the camp and destroyed 344 tents, leaving 1,700 people with no shelter at all. As Haiti stands at the beginning of hurricane season, this incident shows that the international and local authorities view even the residents of their future "model city" as disposable commodities whose lives and happiness count for nothing except an opportunity for capitalists and imperialists to profit from them.
In July demonstrations of thousands took to the streets in Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities. While there were many diverse forces and demands, the unifying theme was to demand the resignation of the government of President Rene Preval. Annessy Vixama, a leader of Tet Kole, one of the major peasant organizations in Haiti, has raised the just demand that "the state has to change from attending to international businesses that are acting against the majority of the people and start attending to the peasants."
As pointed out above, the state, in Haiti or anywhere else, is never "neutral"; it does not represent "the people" or "the nation" in general—it arises on the basis of, reflects and serves the underlying economic and political system in a given country. In Haiti the basic system is exploitation and domination by the imperialists (mainly the U.S.) and by the imperialists' allies within Haiti amongst the large landowning and capitalist classes. This is the system, these are the class forces, that the state was built to serve and which it can only serve. And in fact, if the Haitian state is weak, that is mainly because the imperialists have repeatedly opted to rule directly, through coups, invasions and occupations; in fact, Haiti has been under U.S./UN occupation since President Aristide was kidnapped and taken out of the country in 2004, and most aid and investment bypasses the government and is funneled through NGOs (generally pro-imperialist "non-governmental organizations.")
The mounting struggle against this government and demands that it meet the needs of the people are completely just and should be supported by people everywhere. And such struggle has the potential to strengthen and push forward a movement for revolution that is aimed at the fundamental problem of U.S. imperialism and its stranglehold domination of Haiti.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.