Haiti: Disaster Capitalism on
an interview with Robert Roth
"Two months after the devastating
earthquake, the situation in Haiti is downright criminal,"
says Robert Roth. According to the spokesperson of the activist
network Haiti Action Committee, major western players such as
the US are more interested in defending their own geopolitical
interests in Haiti than truly helping the hardly hit Caribbean
Johnny Van Hove: Haiti has disappeared
almost completely from the front pages. Since you are in close
contact with a number of Haitian grassroots organizations via
the Haiti Action Committee, could you describe how the situation
down there is at the moment?
Robert Roth: The situation is a catastrophe.
At this point about 230,000 people have died and 3,000,000 people
are still left homeless. Hundreds of thousands of people have
no shelter whatsoever and are literally sleeping outside. Under
sheets, not in tents. In many, many areas there is no water, no
tents, no healthcare. One to two million people are in internal
refugee camps that are now dotting Port-au-Prince. They were set
up by international aid agencies, but they are in terrible shape.
The lack of housing is truly astounding.
We have been getting numerous requests from the poorest communities
in Haiti for funds for tents. With the rainy season coming, there
is a very grave danger of the spread of typhoid, measles, and
dysentery. It could be one these situations in which the aftermath
of a disaster is even worse than the disaster itself. The situation
was, and is, truly criminal.
JVH: Considering the hundreds of international
aid organizations working in Haiti, how could it have come to
RR: The total amount of financial support
that has gone through aid groups is close to one billion dollars.
Haiti is truly flooded with aid organizations and yet very few
aid goods have been distributed. Most goods have been sitting
at the airport or in big warehouses. People who were pulled out
under the rubble by Haitians could not receive medical aid because
it was not distributed efficiently.
You have to distinguish among the aid
groups, of course. Two groups which have been very consistent
in distributing aid goods are Partners in Health and Doctors Without
Borders. On the other hand, the Red Cross has been mostly invisible
in the poorest communities in Haiti. There have been protests
directly at the Red Cross warehouses and offices, demanding that
the aid be distributed. The effectiveness of a number of the aid
agencies has been astonishingly weak. And when a country has been
occupied, when its democratic organizations have been repressed,
and when community-based organizations are marginalized, earthquake
relief just will not immediately get into the hands of the people.
JVH: What is the role of the UN and the
US - which have been major players in Haitian history - in the
RR: The UN and the US have looked at their
role as a security measure. Their concept of aid has been militarized,
which means that they have not been diligent in handing out aid
to communities. The US military has eleven thousand soldiers down
there, the UN nine thousand. Six thousand UN troops have been
there since the coup against the democratically elected president
Aristide in 2004 and they have been a repressive force, an occupying
army in Haiti. In the wake of the earthquake, the US and UN armies
have been essentially patrolling Haiti. I am not saying that there
has been no help. They háve started to distribute food,
tents, health supplies. But it has been much more limited than
you would expect. There have been many reports from various communities
about how armed vehicles just drove by their communities without
JVH: What were the effects of the "militarization"
of the relief aid by the US, amongst other countries - Canada
and Japan sent hundreds of troops too, for instance? The American/Haitian
activist Marguerite Laurent suggested on her blog that humanitarian
aid was blocked in favor of military equipment after the US took
over the Haitian airports in the first few days after the earth
RR: The militarization of the relief aid
really delayed the distribution of food, water, and particularly
medical aid. One of the effects was that in the first few days
after the earthquake, five cargo planes of Doctors Without Borders
were turned away and rerouted to the Dominican Republic. Partners
In Help estimated that about 20,000 people died each day that
aid was delayed.
JVH: Is the lack of security in Haiti
an explanation for the heavy emphasis on sending in forces? Numerous
media reports after the earthquake suggested that insecurity,
rapes, and violence erupting during foreign aid handouts were
RR: The images of insecurity in the media
are not accurate at all. There are always security issues in any
country. But what is remarkable is the discipline, the non-violence,
the resilience, the creativity, and the cooperation that Haitians
have exhibited in the face of this catastrophe. Even days and
days and days after not receiving aid, the US and UN could not
point to any major security issues.
JVH: If Haiti has not been as insecure
as hinted at in the media, how can the massive military response
of the US be explained?
RR: The primary fear of the US was popular,
political unrest. Haiti truly has a very politically conscious
population which has never gone down easily. After the coup in
2004, thousands of people were killed and thousands more imprisoned
and held without charges. Every member of the Lavalas government
- from high level ministers to local officials - were removed
from office. Others were forced into exile.
Still, there has never been an end to
grass roots organizing. Labor unions protested the price of gas
and the privatizing of the phone company. There were major demonstrations
demanding Aristide's return.
Just recently there was a very successful
electoral boycott because the Haitian government denied Lavalas
the right to participate in the election, even though it is the
most popular political party in Haiti.
The US is still not comfortable with the
popular movement in Haiti. You can see this in the continued banishment
of former President Aristide from Haiti. While the Obama Administration
has called on former Presidents Clinton and Bush - who was responsible
for the 2004 coup - to help coordinate aid, it opposes the return
of a former democratically elected president who wants to return
as a private citizen to aid in the reconstruction efforts.
JVH: Surely, there must be other reasons
to justify the militarization of the aid relief?
RR: There is clearly a major geopolitical
and economic interest in Haiti, most prominently by the US. There
is a long history of US intervention in the area, including a
direct US occupation from 1915-1934. This occupation created the
Haitian military and led eventually to the Duvalier dictatorships.
In 1991, the US overthrew Aristide and then again in 2004. So
the US is clearly opposed to the social program of Lavalas and
to its example in the Caribbean.
Haiti is also strategically located close
to both Cuba and Venezuela. Haiti is rich in minerals, such as
marble, uranium, iridium, and oil. Big corporations, such as the
Royal Caribbean Lines, are creating a tourist center in the north
which could have an enormous value for the tourist industry in
the Caribbean area. And Haiti is looked at as a source of cheap
labor. There is a long history of garment assembly in Haiti. Cherokee,
Wal-Mart, Disney, and Major League Baseball all had relationships
with Haiti. If the US plan for Haiti is implemented, the numbers
of sweatshops in Port-au-Prince will surely increase.
JVH: Naomi Klein suggested that "disaster
capitalism" is striking in Haiti. Would you agree?
RR: Absolutely. This is disaster capitalism
on steroids. Number one, you have had an earthquake that ravaged
the infrastructure of a country which has been made poor over
the centuries. Secondly, you have more than 20,000 troops and
massive amounts of capital circulating there. Plus, the Haitian
government has been a very passive partner in the aftermath of
the earthquake. That is a perfect recipe. The reconstruction conferences
in Montreal and Miami are indicating that Haiti will be rebuilt
along the lines of the organizations attending them: the US, Canada,
the World Bank, the Clinton Foundation, the IMF, major business
corporations such as the Royal Caribbean Lines, the Soros Foundation.
Haiti is like a blank board in their minds. It is going be a feeding
JVH: The Haitian government was attending
the reconstruction meetings too, though. What is its role in the
RR: What was remarkable throughout the
crisis was the invisibility of the government. There are two reasons
for that. First of all, the government really seems to have lost
its connection to the Haitian people. President Preval has been
major disappointment since he was elected in 2006. He has basically
been an arm of the occupation forces of the UN. Secondly, the
government of Haiti has been starved for years and years by the
international lending organizations, including USAID. Even now,
the government does not receive true support. It literally gets
only one cent for every dollar spent on Haiti. That really creates
a dependency on international aid agencies. When a crisis such
as this happens, the government is underfunded and the aid agencies
take over. All in all, the invisibility and compliance of the
Haitian government is a token for the fact that the US, the UN,
and the NGOs have taken control of the country.
JVH: Since the relief agencies are not
performing efficiently, who has been providing aid at the grassroots
level in Haiti?
RR: What is happening in Haiti is that
local communities are helping themselves. The mainstream image
of Haitians is that they cannot help themselves, that they are
dysfunctional and violent. The truth could not be more different.
Haiti is a very well organized country at the grassroots level.
There are community committees in every one of the poor neighborhoods,
which have been organizing protests in order to get the aid goods
distributed. They have also been contacting international organizations
they know they can trust and started distributing the aid goods
to their local communities.
An organization which has been very important
is the Aristide Foundation, which has been setting up aid programs,
especially in the refugee camps. They have created mobile schools,
they have developed local health clinics, and they are also setting
up a big health center at the foundation's site. Partners in Health
has continued to provide important support as well. The Haiti
Emergency Relief Fund is funding community projects that are not
getting aided by the big relief organizations.
JVH: According to Marguerite Laurent in
the current issue of the American magazine, The Progressive, the
people that could be saved were saved mostly by Haitians "frantically
using their bare hands to dig through the rubble and lift pulverized
concrete in the immediate forty-eight hours after the earthquake".
Does that give an accurate image of how the digging and rescuing
RR: Laurent is absolutely right. The chair
of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, for instance, was in Haiti
with his family at the time of the quake, and they saw first hand
how Haitians were working day and night to save their families
and friends. That was basically the story in Haiti: Haitians saving
themselves and bandaging and housing each other. They waited for
aid that never came and that is why so many people have died unnecessarily.
JVH: Nevertheless, Haiti cannot rebuild
itself without external help. The Haitian diaspora will keep on
sending close to a billion dollars to their homeland every year.
But what role can international aid agencies play? Who should
be supported in order to help Haiti?
RR: You can't talk about disaster capitalism
and then donate to the big NGOs. If you donate to the Red Cross,
for instance, some help will go to Haiti. At the same time, you
are also donating to a system which is not designed to empower
Haitians. So if you are progressive, if you want democracy in
Haiti, and if you have some faith in the Haitian people, you should
be looking for the groups most closely related to, and working
with, the grassroots organizations. Hopefully, people can donate
to organizations like the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund that are
doing just that.
Robert Roth is a teacher and long-time
Haiti solidarity activist. He co-founded Haiti Action Committee
in 1992. He is a co-author of We Will Not Forget: The Achievements
of Lavalas in Haiti and Hidden from the Headlines: The US War
Against Haiti. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read
other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.