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Haiti's disaster of the free market

June 4, 2004 | Page 3

FLOODS, MUDSLIDES and an earthquake devastated Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the last week of May, but the disaster had its roots in not-so-natural causes.

Haiti was once known for its lush forests and rich soil, but desperate poverty forced Haitians to cut down the trees--to sell on the market or provide charcoal for cooking. Now, 99 percent of Haiti's forests are gone--along with the root structures that kept rain from washing away the soil. That's why last week's rains caused huge mudslides that instantly swept through villages, forcing many residents to evacuate their houses by cutting holes in the roofs.

At least 2,000 people are confirmed dead, and more are still missing. And the crisis isn't over. Relief workers are scrambling to bury the decomposing bodies before they spread even more death--and to deliver water and food, a task made much more difficult since roads to the affected areas have been washed out.

U.S. news accounts of the disaster claimed that the American soldiers occupying Haiti leapt into action to provide humanitarian relief. The truth is far less flattering.

Even as the scale of the crisis exceeded initial projections, the U.S.-led multinational force in Haiti suspended airlifts of relief supplies. "I thought the force was going to continue [its helicopter flights]," said World Food Program official Guy Gavreau. But U.S. officials in charge of military operations told Gavreau that "it's not their mandate."

Gavreau predicts that by summer, more than 100,000 displaced people may require food, medicine and shelter. But the U.S. Agency for International Development has allocated a total of $50,000--or 50 cents a person!

Not only has the U.S. failed to provide help on an adequate scale, but it also bears primary responsibility for the poverty at the root of the crisis.

Consider one small example. In the early 1990s, when U.S. demand for chicken in left American poultry producers with surplus product, they decided to sell the excess for cheap in Haiti, wiping out Haiti's budding domestic poultry industry. At the same time, Haiti's debt left it at the mercy of harsh loan terms set by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which meant the country couldn't impose tariffs on U.S. goods. As a result, the market was flooded, and at least 10,000 poultry workers in Haiti lost their jobs.

If you repeat this scenario over and over again, it's easy to understand how Haiti's debt trap turned into the death trap of floods and mudslides.

Washington has turned Haiti--which won its independence 200 years ago as the first independent Black nation in the world--into the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and it will do nothing to ease the catastrophe that it created.

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