The Incapacitation of Haiti
by Ashley Smith
A devastating earthquake, the worst in
200 years, struck Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, laying waste to the
city and killing untold numbers of people. The quake measured
7.0 on the Richter scale, and detonated more than 30 aftershocks,
all more than 4.5 in magnitude, through the night and into Wednesday
The earthquake toppled poorly constructed
houses, hotels, hospitals and even the capital city's main political
buildings, including the presidential palace. The collapse of
so many structures sent a giant cloud into the sky, which hovered
over the city, raining dust down onto the wasteland below.
According to some estimates, more than
100,000 people may have died, in a metropolis of 2 million people.
Those that survived are living in the streets, afraid to return
inside any building that remains standing.
Around the world, Haitians struggled to
contact their family and friends in the devastated country. But
most could not reach their loved ones since phone lines were down
throughout the country.
* * *
WHILE MOST people reacted to the crisis
by trying to find a way to help or donate money, Christian Right
fanatic Pat Robertson stooped to new depths of racism. He explained
that Haitians were cursed because they made a pact with the devil
to liberate themselves from their French slave masters in the
Haitian revolution two centuries ago.
The corporate media at least reported
that shifting tectonic plates along a fault line underneath Port-au-Prince
caused the earthquake--and that Haiti's poverty and the incapacity
of the Préval government made the disaster so much worse.
But they didn't delve below the surface.
"The media coverage of the earthquake
is marked by an almost complete divorce of the disaster from the
social and political history of Haiti," Canadian Haiti Solidarity
Activist Yves Engler said in an interview. "They repeatedly
state that the government was completely unprepared to deal with
the crisis. This is true. But they left out why."
Why were 60 percent of the buildings in
Port-au-Prince shoddily constructed and unsafe in normal circumstances,
according to the city's mayor? Why are there no building regulations
in a city that sits on a fault line? Why has Port-au-Prince swelled
from a small town of 50,000 in the 1950s to a population of 2
million desperately poor people today? Why was the state completely
overwhelmed by the disaster?
To understand these facts, we have to
look at a second fault line--U.S. imperial policy toward Haiti.
The U.S. government, the UN, and other powers have aided the Haitian
elite in subjecting the country to neoliberal economic plans that
have impoverished the masses, deforested the land, wrecked the
infrastructure and incapacitated the government.
The fault line of U.S. imperialism interacted
with the geological one to turn the natural disaster into a social
During the Cold War, the U.S. supported
the dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier and then Baby Doc Duvalier--which
ruled the country from 1957 to 1986--as an anti-communist counter-weight
to Castro's Cuba nearby.
Under guidance from Washington, Baby Doc
Duvalier opened the Haitian economy up to U.S. capital in the
1970s and 1980s. Floods of U.S. agricultural imports destroyed
peasant agriculture. As a result, hundred of thousands of people
flocked to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince to labor for pitifully
low wages in sweatshops located in U.S. export processing zones.
In the 1980s, masses of Haitians rose
up to drive the Duvaliers from power--later, they elected reformer
Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be president on a platform of land reform,
aid to peasants, reforestation, investment in infrastructure for
the people, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop
The U.S. in turn backed a coup that drove
Aristide from power in 1991. Eventually, the elected president
was restored to power in 1994 when Bill Clinton sent U.S. troops
to the island--but on the condition that he implement the U.S.
neoliberal plan--which Haitians called the "plan of death."
Aristide resisted parts of the U.S. program
for Haiti, but implemented other provisions, undermining his hoped-for
reforms. Eventually, though, the U.S. grew impatient with Aristide's
failure to obey completely, especially when he demanded $21 billion
in reparations during his final year in office. The U.S. imposed
an economic embargo that strangled the country, driving peasants
and workers even deeper into poverty.
In 2004, Washington collaborated with
Haiti's ruling elite to back death squads that toppled the government,
kidnapped and deported Aristide. The United Nations sent troops
to occupy the country, and the puppet government of Gérard
Latortue was installed to continue Washingotn's neoliberal plans.
Latortue's brief regime was utterly corrupt--he
and his cronies pocketed large portions of the $4 billion poured
into the country by the U.S. and other powers when they ended
their embargo. The regime dismantled the mild reforms Aristide
had managed to implement. Thus, the pattern of impoverishment
and degradation of the country's infrastructure accelerated.
In 2006 elections, the Haitian masses
voted in longtime Aristide ally René Préval as president.
But Préval has been a weak figure who collaborated with
U.S. plans for the country and failed to address the growing social
In fact, the U.S., UN and other imperial
powers effectively bypassed the Préval government and instead
poured money into NGOs. "Haiti now has the highest per capita
presence of NGOs in the world," says Yves Engler. The Préval
government has become a political fig leaf, behind which the real
decisions are made by the imperial powers, and implemented through
their chosen international NGOs.
* * *
THE REAL state power isn't the Préval
government, but the U.S.-backed United Nations occupation. Under
Brazilian leadership, UN forces have protected the rich and collaborated
with--or turned a blind eye to--right-wing death squads who terrorize
supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas Party.
The occupiers have done nothing to address
the poverty, wrecked infrastructure and massive deforestation
that have exacerbated the effects of a series of natural disasters--severe
hurricanes in 2004 and 2008, and now the Port-au-Prince earthquake.
Instead, they merely police a social catastrophe,
and in so doing, have committed the normal crimes characteristic
of all police forces. As Dan Beeton wrote in NACLA Report on the
Americas, "The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah),
which began its mission in June 2004, has been marred by scandals
of killings, rape, and other violence by its troops almost since
First the Bush administration and now
the Obama administration have used the coup and social and natural
crises to expand the U.S.'s neoliberal economic plans.
Under Obama, the U.S. has granted Haiti
$1.2 billion in debt relief, but it hasn't canceled all of Haiti's
debt--the country still pays huge sums to the Inter-American Development
Bank. The debt relief is classic window-dressing for Obama's real
Haiti policy, which is the same old Haiti policy.
In close collaboration with the new UN
Special Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, Obama has
pushed for an economic program familiar to much of the rest of
the Caribbean--tourism, textile sweatshops, and weakening of state
control of the economy through privatization and deregulation.
In particular, Clinton has orchestrated
a plan for turning the north of Haiti into a tourist playground,
as far away as possible from the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.
Clinton lured Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines into investing $55
million to build a pier along the coastline of Labadee, which
it has leased until 2050.
From there, Haiti's tourist industry hopes
to lead expeditions to the mountaintop fortress Citadelle and
the Palace of Sans Souci, both built by Henri Cristophe, one of
the leaders of Haiti's slave revolution. According to the Miami
The $40 million plan involved transforming
the now quaint town of Milot, home to the Citadelle and Palace
of Sans Souci ruin, into a vibrant tourist village, with arts
and crafts markets, restaurants and stoned streets. Guests would
be ferried past a congested Cap-Haïtien to a bay, then transported
by bus past peasant plantations. Once in Milot, they would either
hike or horseback to the Citadelle...named a world heritage site
Eco-tourism, archaeological exploration
and voyeuristic visits to Vodou rituals are all being touted by
Haiti's struggling boutique tourism industry, as Royal Caribbean
plans to bring the world largest cruise ship here, sparking the
need for excursions.
So while Pat Robertson denounces Haiti's
great slave revolution as a pact with the devil, Clinton is helping
to reduce it to a tourist trap.
At the same time, Clinton's plans for
Haiti include an expansion of the sweatshop industry to take advantage
of cheap labor available from the urban masses. The U.S. granted
duty-free treatment for Haitian apparel exports to make it easy
for sweatshops to return to Haiti.
Clinton celebrated the possibilities of
sweatshop development during a whirlwind tour of a textile plant
owned and operated by the infamous Cintas Corp. He announced that
George Soros had offered $50 million for a new industrial park
of sweatshops that could create 25,000 jobs in the garment industry.
Clinton explained at a press conference that Haiti's government
could create "more jobs by lowering the cost of doing business,
including the cost of rent."
As TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson
told Democracy Now! "That isn't the kind of investment that
Haiti needs. It needs capital investment. It needs investment
so that it can be self-sufficient. It needs investment so that
it can feed itself."
One of the reasons why Clinton could be
so unabashed in celebrating sweatshops is that the U.S.-backed
coup repressed any and all resistance. It got rid of Aristide
and his troublesome habit of raising the minimum wage. It banished
him from the country, terrorized his remaining allies and barred
his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular in the country,
from running for office. The coup regime also attacked union organizers
within the sweatshops themselves.
As a result, Clinton could state to business
leaders: "Your political risk in Haiti is lower than it has
ever been in my lifetime."
Thus, as previous U.S. presidencies have
done before, the Obama administration has worked to aid Haiti's
elite, sponsor international corporations taking advantage of
cheap labor, weaken the ability of the Haitian state to regulate
the society, and repress any political resistance to that agenda.
* * *
THESE POLICIES led directly to the incapacitated
Haitian state, dilapidated infrastructure, poorly constructed
buildings and desperate poverty that combined with the hurricanes
and now the earthquake to turn natural disasters into social catastrophes.
While everyone should support the current
outpouring of aid to help Haiti, no one should do so with political
blinders on. As Engler said:
Aid in Haiti has always been used to further
imperial interests. This is obvious when you look at how the U.S.
and Canada treated the Aristide government in contrast to the
coup regime. The U.S. and Canada starved Aristide of almost all
aid. But then after the coup, they opened a floodgate of money
to back some of the most reactionary forces in Haitian society.
We should therefore agitate against any
attempt by the U.S. and other powers to use this crisis to further
impose their program on a prostrate country.
We should also be wary of the role of
international NGOs. While many NGOs are trying to address the
crisis, the U.S. and other governments are funneling aid to them
in order to undermine Haitians' democratic right to self-determination.
The international NGOs are unaccountable to either the Haitian
state or Haitian population. So the aid funneled through them
further weakens what little hold Haitians have on their own society.
The Obama administration should also immediately
lift the ban against Aristide's return to Haiti, as well as the
political ban on his party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating
in the electoral process. After all, a known drug criminal and
coup leader, Guy Philippe, and his party Front for National Reconstruction
(FRN) has been allowed to participate in the electoral process.
Aristide and his party, by contrast, are still the most popular
political force in the country and should have the right to participate
in an open and fair vote.
The U.S. should also stop deportations
of Haitians who have fled their crisis-torn country and grant
Temporary Protected Status to Haitian refugees. That would allow
any Haitians who have fled the political and social crisis since
the coup, the hurricanes and now the earthquake to remain legally
in the U.S.
On top of that, we must demand that the
U.S. stop imposing its neoliberal plans. The U.S. has plundered
Haitian society for decades. Instead of Haiti owing any debt to
the U.S., other countries or international financial institutions,
the reverse is the case. The U.S., France, Canada and the UN owe
the people of Haiti reparations to redress the imperial plunder
of the country.
With these funds and political space,
Haitians would be finally able to begin shaping their own political
and economic future--the dream of the great slave revolution 200
Ashley Smith writes for the Socialist
Worker, where this originally appeared. He can be reached at: