Haiti - the making of a catastrophe

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After the earthquake struck, the people of Haiti needed food, water and shelter - instead they got US troops and predatory corporations. Haiti's problems are not just a result of a natural disaster, Mike Gonzalez argues, but are rooted in the country's history of slavery and exploitation

The numbers are almost incomprehensible, the devastation and loss impossible to imagine. At least 100,000 people lie dead under the rubble, and 2 million are homeless and abandoned. The news footage of whirring helicopters and aircraft carriers outside the ruined ports created a mirage of action - but as the days passed nothing changed in the devastated slums of Port-au-Prince.

The US reaction was to define the problem as the maintenance of public order - and the mass media followed suit in a kind of frenzy. "They show a few people squabbling over abandoned produce or refer darkly to the 4,000 prisoners who escaped from the collapsed prison," says Charles Arthur of the Haiti Support Group. In fact "80 to 90 percent of those in prison are not hardened criminals but people awaiting trial".

Brian Concannon of the US Institute for Peace and Justice in Haiti explains that the "emphasis on security and public order has two consequences; first it slows down the distribution of aid, and secondly it blunts the generous impulses of the public." And while the news cameras showed spectacular shots of collapsed public buildings, they did not, in general, film the devastated hillside slums like Cité Soleil where the overwhelming majority of the dead were to be found. There are 2 million homeless people, not because a luxury hotel or a presidential palace fell to pieces, but because rock and mud obliterated the living space of the migrants driven out of the countryside and into the urban sweatshops of Port-au-Prince.

It is clear that behind the smokescreen of maintaining order Haiti is once again the victim of the way other external interests have used the country. The spectacle of wealthy tourists splashing in the sea at a luxury US-financed resort on the northern coast while US troops disembark in the south to "restore order" is particularly disgusting and eloquent.

The immediate reaction to what could be the worst natural disaster ever was an outpouring of public sympathy. It was not matched by the paltry sums offered by governments or the $100 million "interest-free loan" offered by the International Monetary Fund (under still undefined conditions). History repeats itself. How long will it take impoverished Haiti to pay this one back?

The irony is that much US aid money will be spent on maintaining a military force that, beyond its medical and rescue teams, is little more than an occupation force. As many as 9,000 Brazilian-led UN troops (MINUSTAH) have been in Haiti since 2004, yet they are part of the problem. They have sustained and defended a government that has attacked peasants and students demonstrating in favour of the minimum wage in 2008, and have fallen into corruption and misuse of power.

Most of the population of Port-au-Prince are recent migrants from the countryside. They are now trying to return to their families and escape from a city with no water or electricity. Aid needs to be channelled to them. But who will do it?

Haiti is a country whose government is weak and powerless. In recent years resources have been channelled through NGOs rather than through the state. Yet a number of them, especially the larger agencies, are corrupt and incompetent. Haiti has the highest per capita presence of NGOs in the world, they provide 70 percent of healthcare in rural areas and 80 percent of public services and are unaccountable to the Haitian state or people. Haitians joke that when a minister skims 15 percent of aid money it's corruption, when an NGO takes 50 percent it's overheads.

When a small boy was discovered alive nine days after the tragedy the world's media celebrated. There are many stories like this one, and they reflect the reality of the solidarity, communal support and collective action that is the true story of the Haitian earthquake.

What is the future for Haiti? A committee to reconstruct Haiti met in Santo Domingo only two weeks after the earthquake. The very same multinationals that planned the reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina now squabble over the enormous profits to be made out of rebuilding Haiti - but they will not construct hospitals or social housing. Let New Orleans stand as evidence. Instead they will continue with the plans already under way to turn Haiti into one huge free trade zone, paying starvation wages, producing clothing for the US market in the south and luxury holiday resorts in the north that will turn the monuments of the slave revolution, like Sans-Souci Palace, into a theme park. These plans were drawn up before the earthquake by Bill Clinton, now Obama's special envoy to Haiti. And it was George Bush - who Obama has entrusted with fundraising in Haiti - who oversaw the post-Katrina bonanza that abandoned New Orleans's poor black population to trailer parks.

The alternative is to build on the community spirit that has so clearly emerged in the days since the earthquake. There is much talk of the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But the coalition of grassroots organisations he once represented is no more - only the caricature of it sustained René Préval in government. Aristide's second term in government was at best inefficient and at worst corrupt. While he did propose some progressive measures they came to little, and he has offered no alternative political project.

The organisations that once carried him to power need to be slowly and painfully rebuilt from below. International solidarity can support and encourage those initiatives and expose the hypocrisy of the business executives and imperialist agencies who now attempt to exploit this tragedy to reinforce Haiti's poverty and dependence.


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