Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti needs help, against natural disaster and against rich neighbours out to help themselves

EMERGENCY aid supplies are reportedly reaching the people of Haiti at last. But it has been taking time. A doctor friend in the United States was desperately trying to get across there last thing I heard, while on TV we saw British firefighters frustratedly waiting for the go-ahead to start rescue work. A Cuban medical team is in Haiti, and Chinese aid workers have started arriving. The airport has been handed to Americans to run.

Accepting that the earthquake wrecked roads and port facilities as well as damaging the airport, one can still regret that states seem able to move troops and munitions round the globe more quickly than they can bring relief to people one hour's flight from Florida. That said, let's salute those going to help, and hope that common humanity and international co-operation continue to guide their missions, and inspire us to what could be achieved if nations continued working together.

Unfortunately the will to help fellow-human beings is not all that is at work. America seems to be giving priority to getting its troops into Haiti. A French hospital plane was refused permission to land.

It takes a special kind of psycho to rejoice at a disaster such as has befallen the people of Haiti, and declare it "a blessing in disguise". But one does not have to look far to find one in America, where "evil bastard" is often spelt "evangelist", or especially, TV evangelist. Pastor John Hagee was one of several who told people that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgement on "sinful" New Oreleans, and he also says Hitler was sent by the Almighty to hunt out the Jews (as he adds that this was to make them go to Israel, and backs that up with big donations, the Israeli government thinks he's swell).

Now it is TV evangelist Pat Robertson who says Haitians were "cursed" by a "pact to the devil."

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said on Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club." "They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal. .. ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other" "

Haitians fought for their freedom during France's revolutionary wars, and obtained independence in 1803, five years before Napolean III (Louis Bonaparte) was born. The nearest Toussaint L'Ouverture came to a pact with the devil was a secret agreement with the British, followed later by commercial agreements with Britain and the United States. I guess they don't teach a lot of history at Reverend Pat Robertson's Sunday school, but I'm wondering what kind of Bible they use to teach his brand of religion. That right, Reverend, the Plagues were sent to punish Moses and the Israelites. for asking Pharaoh to let them go?

Poor people in New Orleans, like those in Haiti, may have wondered how come the Almighty's wrath fell most heavily on them, considering someone said "blessed are the poor", and how His blessing in disguise mostly benefited those with big contracts, and the developers of real estate. Because while we may only wonder at the ways of "the Lord" we have a right to ask questions of governments.

As Peter Hallward says, writing in the Guardian, " Any large city in the world would have suffered extensive damage from an earthquake on the scale of the one that ravaged Haiti's capital city on Tuesday afternoon, but it's no accident that so much of Port-au-Prince now looks like a war zone. Much of the devastation wreaked by this latest and most calamitous disaster to befall Haiti is best understood as another thoroughly manmade outcome of a long and ugly historical sequence". (If we are serious about assisting this devastated land we must stop trying to control and exploit it. Guardian Comment is Free, January 13)

"The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake back in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of 7 May 1842 may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap ­Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, mostly recently in 2004 and again in 2008; the storms of September 2008 flooded the town of Gonaïves and swept away much of its flimsy infrastructure, killing more than a thousand people and destroying many thousands of homes. The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable".

But it is not natural disasters alone that have made Haiti the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Rather, the country's poverty and political history have made it so vulnerable and incapable of coping with the calamities.

As Ted Rall puts it:

"How did Haiti get so poor? Despite a century of American colonialism, occupation, and propping up corrupt dictators? Even though the CIA staged coups d'état against every democratically elected president they ever had? It's an important question. An earthquake isn't just an earthquake. The same 7.0 tremor hitting San Francisco wouldn't kill nearly as many people as in Port-au-Prince.

"Looking at the pictures, essentially it looks as if (the buildings are of) breezeblock or cinderblock construction, and what you need in an earthquake zone is metal bars that connect the blocks so that they stay together when they get shaken," he quotes Sandy Steacey, director of the Environmental Science Research Institute at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. "In a wealthy country with good seismic building codes that are enforced, you would have some damage, but not very much."

We've seen Haitians struggling to dig people out by hand, and the Haitian Red Cross tring to cope, but there were neither the equipment, the ambulances, or the medical staff to treat people. That's not due to tectonic plates. "Ninety-nine percent of the death toll is attributable to poverty", says Rall.

How did Haiti become so poor?

"The story begins in 1910, when a U.S. State Department-National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) consortium bought the Banque National d'Haïti--Haiti's only commercial bank and its national treasury--in effect transferring Haiti's debts to the Americans. Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy the country in order to keep tabs on 'our' investment.

"From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines imposed harsh military occupation, murdered Haitians patriots and diverted 40 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs. Ambitious Haitians were shunted into the puppet military, setting the stage for a half-century of U.S.-backed military dictatorship.

"The U.S. kept control of Haiti's finances until 1947. Still--why should Haitians complain? Sure, we stole 40 percent of Haiti's national wealth for 32 years. But we let them keep 60 percent.

"Despite having been bled dry by American bankers and generals, civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed President-for-Life François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30,000 Haitians and drove educated people to flee into exile.

"Upon Papa Doc's death in 1971, the torch passed to his even more dissolute 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier. The U.S., cool to Papa Doc in his later years, quickly warmed back up to his kleptomaniacal playboy heir. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Castro's Cuba, Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International. The money was placed in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.

"Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.

"The Duvalier era, 29 years in all, came to an end in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France, saving him from a popular uprising. Once again, Haitians should thank Americans. Duvalierism was 'tough love.' Forcing Haitians to make do without their national treasury was our nice way or encouraging them to work harder, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, in this case, flipflops.

"The U.S. has been all about tough love ever since. We twice deposed the populist and popular democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The second time, in 2004, we even gave him a free flight to the Central African Republic! (He says the CIA kidnapped him, but whatever.) Hey, he needed a rest. And it was kind of us to support a new government formed by former Tonton Macoutes.

"Yet, despite everything we've done for Haiti, they're still a fourth-world failed state on a fault line. And still, we haven't given up. American companies like Disney generously pay wages to their sweatshop workers of 28 cents an hour. What more do these ingrates want?"

Peter Hallward again:

The noble "international community" which is currently scrambling to send its "humanitarian aid" to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's phrase) "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies. Aristide's own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country. Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day". Decades of neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future. It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today. Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti's agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums. Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately sub-standard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more "natural" or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered. As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: "Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses." Meanwhile the city's basic infrastructure – running water, electricity, roads, etc – remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government's ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil. The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission's mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this "investment" towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international "aid". The same storms that killed so many in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal "reform", and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster. If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then we should take this comparative point on board. Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti's people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop ­trying to control Haiti's government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we've already done.

Many people are raising concern that like New Orleans and Iraq, Haiti will be a victim of what Naomi Klein calls "Shock Doctrine" - that wars and natural disasters can be used to smash a people's will to resist, opening the way for big capitalist corporations and right-wing governments to go in and do as they please.

A Facebook group, "NO SHOCK DOCTRINE FOR HAITI" says:
'The people of Haiti need help. We must dig them out of the rubble. We must feed and clothe them, and then we must work with them to re-build their country.

Yet some see this as an excuse to strip their economy of what assets it has left. Some see the shock of the earthquake as an opportunity to impose unpopular policies on a grieving people.

America's radical right have long seen disasters as a chance to push devastating policies on the distracted poor. They know it is the only way people will accept their economies being plundered.

This "Shock Doctrine" which brought us General Pinochet and Russian oligarchs is now moving swiftly on Haiti. These are the people who forced through the privatisation of social housing after Katrina - pushing the poor out of their homes without their consent. They used the Asian Tsunami as an excuse to take coasts out of the possession of poor fisherman, and hand them to western hotel conglomerates.

And now, one of the most influential American think tanks - the Heritage Foundation - is already suggesting they do the same to Haiti. The IMF are alleged to have demanded pay freezes and energy price hikes in exchange for a help.

We must help the people of Haiti build a country they want, not one which is forced on them by the people who brought us the credit crunch, South Americas generation of dictators, and George W Bush.

See here, for example:

On Thursday, a number of progressive organisations in the United States, including the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti(IJDH), called for the different aid missions arriving in Haiti to make sure their work was co-ordinated and that it respected the dignity of Haitians, involving them in decision-making, and ensuring accoutability. Otherwise they would cause more suffering, warned IJDH director Brian Concannon.

At present the signs are not too hopeful.

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