Haiti's 9/11


As reports of the disaster in Haiti keep pouring in and cable networks cover the story almost non-stop, I have noticed something is missing.  That something is called “context” – social, political and historical.  You rarely get this if you depend upon the mainstream media – print and television. 


Instead we hear of how generous our country is when it comes to disasters like this one, with the Obama administration pledging $100 million (as a percentage of GDP, this is a pittance compared to many other countries) and sending in the troops to “restore order.”  Too little, too late, especially considering what the US has done to Haiti for the past century (more about this below).  How embarrassing it must be to be arriving later than other countries – such as Iceland within and China.  Help from these two countries came more quickly that the US. Cuba sent doctors to help. Spain announced it was sending more than $200 million.  As this is being written (1/19/10) It has now been one week since the earthquake and still many doctors cannot get into the country and, although aid is arriving, it is still too little, too late.  On CNN last night Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta vigorously complain about the delays of getting help, including Doctors without Borders and needed supplies.  On their web site, Doctors without Borders reports that some are there and “has given primary care to an estimated 3,000 people in the capital and performed more than 400 surgeries.”  Moreover, they have “begun to build an inflatable hospital with two operating theaters and 100-bed capacity in an open field not far from the airport. Though its arrival was delayed by air traffic congestion, the parts are finally arriving in Port-au-Prince. Some came on a plane that was able to land in the capital on Sunday while the rest was transported overland from the Dominican Republic. MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] will have this facility operational as soon as possible.”


Eight days after the earthquake there are still delays in getting supplies and equipment to the country. The Los Angeles Times reports that “the relief effort was increasingly hampered by a crimp in the supply chain: a shortage of gasoline that left medicine, food and water sitting out of reach of the needy.”


Another Katrina response? According to Patrick Cockburn, “In New Orleans and Port-au-Prince there is the same official terror of looting by local people so the first outside help to arrive is in the shape of armed troops.”  As of January 18, according to the New York Times, the UN is sending another 3,500 troops will be added to the existing 9,000 on the ground already. Looting?  Surprise, surprise. (For an excellent analysis of "looting" see the following story on the main page of my web site: When the Media Is the Disaster.) How else will people get much needed food and water? One report says the top target for the looters is toothpaste, “which is smeared under the nose to mask the constant stench of death.” But we treat these as “criminal events” and start making arrests and in some cases shooting the “looters.” A CNN report was titled “A frenzy of looting' seen in Haiti's capital.” At least one Haitian has been killed by the police as reports of them “opening fire on looters.”  The most recent CNN report notes that the Haitian police are overwhelmed and cannot cope with this kind of emergency.  Complicating the situation is the fact that more than 4,000 inmates escaped from the 95-year-old prison after the earthquake destroyed it. The report further notes that the local police force has been described as police force “under-funded, under-trained and full of former soldiers prone to operating outside the law.”


One report (in one of the many alternative news sources, “Medial Global”) Dennis Mileti, former head of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder said: “Ninety-five percent of the victims who are rescued after major urban earthquakes around the planet are rescued by other victims.” Also, he stated that if victims are “not rescued within 24 hours after a major earthquake, they have a very high probability of death. All the search and rescue teams that eventually get there will rescue a handful of people and most of the people they rescue will die.”


And die they have – an estimated 200,000 according to one report, perhaps more since so many bodies are buried under the rubble, another “250,000 injured and 1.5 million left homeless in desperate need of attention,” while about 50,000 “are sleeping on a golf course in Port-au-Prince and the World Food Program is planning a tent city on the outskirts for 100,000” says another report. The current death toll represents about 2% (.022) of the population.  By comparison the deaths from our own 9/11 represented about .000001 of our total population (a ratio of about 22,000:1).


The New York Times reports that thousands are reported to be fleeing the city, while “tent cities” are being constructed everywhere and buses “packed with refugees continued to stream out of the city as people gambled that they had a better chance of finding food and shelter in the countryside.”


As if to pour salt on the wounds, the Los Angeles Times reported that there was an aftershock (6.1 scale earthquake) early on the morning of January 20.


A brief history 


According to Noam Chomsky (Year 501: The Conquest Continues, South End Press, chapter 8) Haiti was ruled by French plantation owners, until they revolted and took over their own country in 1804. Yet despite this independence, writes Bill Quigley the United States refused to recognize the country and in fact continued to refuse recognition to Haiti for 60 more years, mostly because the US “continued to enslave millions of its own citizens and feared recognizing Haiti would encourage slave revolution in the US.”  Quigley also notes the irony that

Haiti was the subject of a crippling economic embargo by France and the US.   US sanctions lasted until 1863.   France ultimately used its military power to force Haiti to pay reparations for the slaves who were freed.  The reparations were 150 million francs.  (France sold the entire Louisiana territory to the US for 80 million francs!) Haiti was forced to borrow money from banks in France and the US to pay reparations to France.   A major loan from the US to pay off the French was finally paid off in 1947.  The current value of the money Haiti was forced to pay to French and US banks?  Over $20 Billion – with a big B.


Chomsky notes that the US intervened 24 times between 1849 and 1913 in order to “protect American lives and property.” William Phillips, Assistant Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, wrote that the Haitian people were inferior and were unable “to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French or to develop any capacity of self government entitling them to international respect and confidence.”  He recommended a policy of US invasion and a military government, which Wilson soon adopted. The invasion was destructive to say the least, as US troops “murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery, and demolished the constitutional system.”  Then, continues Chomsky, after 20 years the US left the country in the hands of the National Guard. The country was ruled by a US-trained black commander, Colonel Démosthènes Pétrus Calixte and Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. During this time US businesses took over Haitian lands and set up new plantations, because of the availability of cheap labor.  Chomsky quotes a New York business magazine that in 1926 described Haiti as “a marvelous opportunity for American investment” since the typical Haitian “is handy, easily directed, and gives a hard day’s labor for 20 cents.”

          The Molina dictatorship ruled until 1941, at which time US-backed Elie Lescot took over and ruled until 1946, at which time a revolution overthrew his regime (a military junta), resulting in the rise to power of Dumarsais Estimé, a former school teacher.  He tried to institute various reforms, but eventually was ousted by another revolutionary junta and was replaced by Lescot. An army escort conducted Estimé from the National Palace and into exile in Jamaica. Major Paul E. Magloire, commander of the Presidential Guard, took over and ruled until he was ousted by still another revolutions, which resulted in the installation of the former minister of labor, François Duvalier (known as “Papa Doc”) as dictator, supported by the US government. According to one Haiti web site, “Duvalier entrenched his rule through terror (an estimated 30,000 Haitians were killed for political reasons during his tenure), emigration (which removed the more activist elements of the population along with thousands of purely economic migrants), and limited patronage. At the time of his death in 1971, François Duvalier designated his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, as Haiti's new leader.”  He came to be known as “Baby Doc.”

          As noted in a recent post by Ashley Smith: “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, hundreds 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.”

          Bill Quigley (law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and a Katrina survivor) reports that Duvalier “stole millions from Haiti and ran up hundreds of millions in debt that Haiti still owes.  Ten thousand Haitians lost their lives.  Estimates say that Haiti owes $1.3 billion in external debt and that 40% of that debt was run up by the US-backed Duvaliers.” Meanwhile, US based corporations have partnered with the Haitian elite to run sweatshops worked by thousands of Haitians who earn less than $2 a day. (For further documentation see The Uses of Haiti (3rd Edition) by Paul Farmer and Noam Chomsky.)

          Chomsky describes the next phase of Haiti’s history as follows: “USAID instituted programs to turn Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” by adhering to the sacred principle of comparative advantage: Haiti must import food and other commodities from the US while working people, mostly women, toil under miserable conditions in US-owned assembly plants.”  According to Paul Street the Haitian workers under Duvalier


were systematically stripped of their ability to feed themselves and to fund basic government services. Haitian rice growers were crushed by government-subsidized U.S. farm exports.  The nation's predominantly female and captive labor force was funneled into slave-like conditions in mainly U.S.-owned export-oriented assembly plants and sweatshops.  Millions of Haitians were consigned to permanent structural unemployment, the drug trade, scavenging, and other hallmark activities of the informal proletariat of the world system's sprawling shantytown periphery.


Chomsky writes that:


Haiti’s first free election, in 1990, threatened these economically rational programs.  The poor majority entered the political arena for the first time and elected their own candidate, a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Washington instantly adopted standard operating procedures in such a case, moving at once to undermine the regime.  A few months later came the anticipated military coup, instituting a reign of terror, which was backed by Bush senior and even more fully by Clinton, despite pretenses.  By 1994 Clinton decided that the population was sufficiently intimidated and sent US forces to restore the elected president, but on strict conditions: that he accept a harsh neoliberal regime.  In particular, there must be no protection for the economy.  Haitian rice farmers are efficient, but cannot compete with US agribusiness that relies on huge government subsidies, thanks largely to Reagan, anointed as the High Priest of free trade with little regard to his record of extreme protectionism and state intervention in the economy… In February 2004, the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the US, backed a military coup and spirited President Aristide off to Africa.  Haiti had by then lost the capacity to feed itself, leaving it highly vulnerable to food price fluctuation, the immediate cause of the 2008 food crisis.


(For excellent sources about the overthrow of the Aristide government, see Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward and An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President by Randall Robinson.)


This was followed by the installation of another puppet government, under the rule of Gérard Latortue, who continued Washington's neoliberal plans. Ashley Smith continues as follows:


“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 crisis.


Jeb Sprague sums up the situation this way:


“The repression of attempts by the people to have a say through democratic means and the forced subjugation of the local economy to global capitalism parallels the assumption of power by elites disconnected from the people they govern.  These are the technocratic elites that Sociologist William I. Robinson in his book A Theory of Global Capitalism refers to as “transnationalised fractions of local dominant groups in the South...sometimes termed a ‘modernizing bourgeoisie', who have overseen sweeping processes of social and economic restructuring and integration into the global economy and society."  Out from the ashes, do not be surprised if the Haitian people refuse to accept this.


Haiti Today: a poverty-stricken Third World Country


After all these years and all the exploitation by mostly US-backed dictatorships and US businesses what did Haiti look like on the eve of the earthquake? Not good. According to the Haiti-Micah Project:

·         The unemployment rate is over 80%.

·         More than half of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day.

·         There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests.

·         About 60% of the population lives in abject poverty.

·         Less than 20% of Haitians age 15 and over can read and write.

·         Fewer than 75% of children attend school.

·         40% of the Haitian population does not have access to primary health care.

CNN reports that in 2007, more than half (55%) of the population lived in households making less than $1 a day and in the past five years, the acute malnutrition rate of children under the age of 5 doubled. The CIA World Factbook notes the following: “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agricultural sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming, and remain vulnerable to damage from frequent natural disasters, exacerbated by the country's widespread deforestation.”  The World Factbook also notes that Haiti’s GDP per capita ranks 203rd in the world (the US ranks 10th).  The Gini index of inequality stood at 59.2 in 2001, making it the 8th in the world in terms of income inequality.


Writing in the Nation, Richard Kim observed: “To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor--by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank.”  The IMF just announced that they were going to offer a loan of $100 million to Haiti, adding to the existing $165 million debt. However, as Kim notes, the loan comes typical conditions, such as:  “raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low.”


In the middle of this tragedy a luxury cruise ship decided to go ahead and land on a private beach where “vacationers frolicked and held a barbecue on the private area” according to Huffington Post. At least the company has donated some supplies. Also, a report by Jeremy Scahill noted that an “Orwellian-named mercenary trade group, the International Peace Operations Association” has “created a special web page for prospective clients, saying: “In the wake of the tragic events in Haiti, a number of IPOA’s member companies are available and prepared to provide a wide variety of critical relief services to the earthquake’s victims.”  This is an example of what Naomi Klein has called “Disaster Capitalism.” 


As I write this commentary (8AM, January 20, 2010), I find it hard to keep up on the news, but I need to stop and post this.  I will continue to post updates on my web site under the heading “Earthquake in Haiti.”


© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.