Haiti - hell on earth

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Communication is incredibly difficult. Cell phones may work for an hour a day but people are finding it difficult to charge batteries. They can buy credit online but most don't have money.

People are trying to organise the best they can. Most are staying in their neighbourhoods unless these are completely flattened. Those with the closest links to the countryside have taken to the road.

Entire neighbourhoods are out on the street, keeping an eye on one another and on one another's kids, sharing food, cooking collectively, sending groups of young men round the capital to get information and find news of relatives. They have banners with the names of the local street coordination committees. People want to identify themselves. They fear they will be rounded up and taken to tent cities, and are reluctant to leave the relative safety of the areas they know. People want to rebuild where they are. But they have very little, only what they have been able to salvage from their smashed homes.

Small shops opened straight away for people to help themselves to food - sometimes opened by the owners, sometimes by locals. People tend to wait until there is a foreign presence before they break into bigger warehouses or depots. They know the police and UN troops are less likely to fire on them when journalists are about.

The idea of thuggish elements looting goods is nonsense. The police are the thugs of the warehouse owners. The media suggest there have been gun battles with looters, but the only pictures of looters I have seen were of people with their hands tied behind them and shot through the head. That is the way the police operate. Someone told me, "In a sane society the police and UN would be smashing open warehouses and depots."

Delayed rescue

The fact that we saw a handful of "miracle" rescues over a week after the earthquake was not a positive sign. It is an indication of how many people were buried and the delay in getting rescue teams to work. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of lives could have been saved if the rescue teams had got to work earlier.

Thankfully, the earthquake struck just before 5pm local time when most people were outdoors. Night fell about 45 minutes later. Imagine, it will have been completely dark, with people surrounded by the trapped and injured crying in pain. It must have been hell.

You would hope as many lives as possible would be saved immediately and field hospitals set up. But it didn't happen. Instead people are having broken limbs amputated because there is nothing else to do. There are no antibiotics.

It is not a logistical problem - Haiti is an hour's flight from Florida - it is down to the problems the US put in the way. Cuba has a long history of setting up clinics in Haiti, but planeloads of aid from Cuba were turned away, as was emergency medical aid from Venezuela. The elite are getting out to the US. Most have dual nationality and houses in Florida, New York or Boston. But the US task force will prevent boat people leaving the country, and the border with the Dominican Republic is closed.

Ordinary Haitians have always been denied a say in running their country. But not one Haitian politician, including the president, has had anything to say. People say, "We've not heard from anyone. Where is our government?"

The essentials of life are available if you have the cash to pay. There are antibiotics on the black market and petrol at about $25 a gallon. Rice, drinking water, charcoal and cooking gas are also available - all at about five times the former price.

Some neighbourhoods will be near a stream and have water. It will be dirty, but if they have fuel they can boil it. A lot of houses have water tanks which fill when water is available, so people will be getting water from these where they are still standing. Again it is not clean water. One of the biggest problems is finding fuel to boil it.

Women from outlying villages, some of them among the poorest people in Haiti, have been bringing food into the city. But this is on a commercial basis and most people have no money. Everyone without cash is running low on food. Most have seen no aid at all. Where people know of a food distribution centre, few who attend have come away with anything. People say, "If it's such a huge aid operation, how come we have not seen anything?" Aid is being thwarted by the militarisation of the city. Areas are being designated as red, amber or green zones for aid distribution, according to how secure they are perceived to be - a red zone being the least secure. In reality a red zone is likely to be a working class area.

Aid agencies are organising on an ad hoc basis. The US military has taken absolute control, but there is no coordination. Each organisation is running around without local knowledge. Port-au-Prince is difficult to find your way around. As far as I know, there is no accurate map more recent than the CIA's dating from the late 1980s.

One of the hardest-hit areas is Carrefour, an overspill suburb of Port-au-Prince, where more than 500,000 people live. It is a 15-minute drive from the city centre, but people there have not seen a single face from outside - although the main routes appear passable.

Supplying clean water will be the most difficult task. There are no real opportunities for people to organise water supplies themselves. The public water supply was a shambles and water just runs into the sea when it rains because the country has been deforested.

There was very little infrastructure to begin with. It dated from a time when the city had a population of 300,000 to 400,000, not 3 million. I spoke to a town planner before the quake who said the only solution was to tear down the city and rebuild. Most areas had about four hours of power a day if they were lucky and hooked to the grid. But all the cables were overhead and will be down.

I expect a forced evacuation of the city. My worry is that people will be marched out to tent cities and remain there for years. In the medium term there will be a crisis in the countryside. Haiti was self-sufficient in food three or four decades ago and provided most of the Caribbean with rice. Then it suffered structural adjustment. That is why Port-au-Prince exploded. There is nothing to say the process can't be reversed - but it happened quickly and would not be quick to reverse. Those years produced an environmental disaster.

People are incredibly resilient - they have had to survive from day to day. Most are used to living with little or no electricity. But there is a breaking point. People carry illnesses. They are starting from a weakened position and have nothing to fall back on - no savings, no food stores. Resilience can only take you so far.

Popular organisations in Port-au-Prince ran on a shoestring and will find it hard to operate now. The working class was tiny and workers will be landless labourers again. The one sector that was booming was garment manufacturing in the free trade zones, mainly around Port-au-Prince. The largest sweatshop owner immediately announced he would transfer production to Costa Rica. Some well developed peasant organisations have fought rearguard actions over decades. There is always potential, but it is hard at the moment to see what shape self-organisation will take and when it will come.

The US says it won't forget Haiti this time. That is the problem.


With thanks to Charles Arthur, Brian Concannon and Ian Taylor

Haiti coverage in this month's Socialist Review:

Haiti - the making of a catastrophe, by Mike Gonzalez

The taking of Haiti, by John Pilger

Haiti - Repression and Resistance, by Mike Gonzalez

Haiti - hell on earth, by Andrew Taylor

Haiti's burden of debt

Haiti - Toussaint L'Ouverture: The Gilded African

Haiti - who are the real looters?, by Patrick Acureuil and Pepijn Brandon

Haiti - aid of recovery