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Killer floods hit Gonaïves
Unnatural roots of the disaster

By Ashley Smith | October 1, 2004 | Page 5

AS MANY as 2,500 people may be dead in Haiti, and hundreds of thousands are homeless and threatened with starvation after a heavy storm tore across the country. But this nightmare has roots which are anything but natural.

The storm dumped rain on Haiti's Artibonite region, swelling rivers into a 9-foot wall of water that smashed through the country's third-largest city, Gonaïves. The official death toll stood at 1,650 as Socialist Worker went to press, but 800 more were reported as missing.

And, according to Anne Poulsen, spokeswoman for the United Nations (UN) World Food Program in Haiti, "It's not just people's houses, it's also crops and livestock that have been washed away. So it will take quite some months before people will be able to cope by themselves again."

Gonaïves itself remained under water, with the dead bodies of people and animals everywhere. "The hygiene situation is appalling," said Maiti Alvarez, an aid worker with Oxfam. "There is no running water, no latrine. Some people have been drinking dirty water where dead bodies were floating." And the worst may be yet to come.

Epidemics of cholera and other diseases can spread like wildfire in conditions like these. Many people have no shelter, food or clean water--which led to violence at distribution centers for the pitifully small amount of food aid that has made it to the area around Gonaïves. Outrageously, the U.S. media depicted the rioting as the work of gangs--as if starving Haitians deserve the blame for what is taking place.

United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kofi Annan called the current situation in Haiti a "devastating natural disaster." But the same storm crossed through the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti, and only killed a couple of dozen people.

Indeed, Tropical Storm Jeanne wasn't strong enough to be classified as a hurricane when it hit Haiti. By the time it circled around and struck the east coast of Florida last weekend, it had strengthened into a hurricane--yet the death toll in Florida was less than 10. In reality, the free-market system and the world's biggest imperial powers--above all, the U.S.--are responsible for creating the conditions for an unnatural disaster.

Haiti is prone to killer floods like the one that struck Gonaïves because of centuries of deforestation that leaves the topsoil unable to absorb water. The French, who colonized the island in the 18th century, cleared huge areas of forest to build large plantations, where their African slaves grew sugar cane, coffee and other crops.

After the Haitian slave revolution that won independence in 1804, the world's most powerful nations, led by France, imposed an embargo. The new government was only recognized after it agreed to pay reparations to France for winning its freedom. This crippled Haiti with poverty conditions that have been the source of devastating social and environmental problems ever since.

With no other path to economic development possible, poor peasants divided the slave plantations into small plots of land that they farmed for subsistence. Over generations, the small plots were overworked, producing less and less. As crop yields left peasants scrambling to provide for their families, some turned to dhopping down forests to make charcoal to sell.

U.S. support for the infamous Duvalier dictatorship that ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986 accelerated the deforestation. The regime robbed the country and kept the peasants poor, failing to address the growing agricultural crisis, which in turn intensified the drive of farmers to plunder the forest to make a living.

Some of the worst deforestation in Haiti took place during the 1970s, as a direct result of a U.S.-backed scheme for the Duvalier dictatorship to impose a neoliberal plan of sweatshop development. The plan opened up Haiti to cheap U.S. agricultural exports, encouraging peasants to migrate to the cities to work in new assembly plants built by American multinationals.

But the plan failed. The sweatshops didn't provide enough jobs, the economy went into crisis, and most peasants remained in the countryside, where they chopped down Haiti's remaining trees. "In 1950, about 25 percent of Haiti's 10,700 square miles was covered with forest," the Miami Herald reported. "By 1987, it was down to 10 percent. By 1994, 4 percent. Now, foreign and Haitian scientists find only 1.4 percent of the Maryland-sized nation is forested."

Without the trees, Haiti has suffered an endless series of floods--like the one in May on the Dominican border that killed 3,000 people, and now the catastrophe in Gonaïves. The U.S. has also prevented progressive forces from addressing the country's poverty and the deforestation that is a consequence.

In the 1980s, masses of Haitians rose up to drive the Duvaliers from power, and later elected reformer Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be president on a platform of land reform, aid to peasants, reforestation, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers. The U.S. backed a coup that drove Aristide from power in 1991.

Eventually, Washington restored the elected president in 1994, but on the condition that he implement the U.S. neoliberal plan--which Aristide did, undermining his hoped-for reforms. Eventually, the U.S. grew impatient with Aristide's lack of total subservience and imposed an embargo that strangled the country, driving peasants even in deeper into poverty.

Finally, in February, Washington backed death squads to topple the government, kidnapped and deported Aristide, orchestrated a United Nations (UN) occupation of the country and installed the puppet government of Gerard Latortue to continue its neoliberal plan of sweatshop development. But as even the New York Times admitted, "Conditions in Haiti have steadily deteriorated since Mr. Aristide fled at the end of February, despite pledges of aid from the United States and the presence of a small United Nations force led by Brazil that is struggling to restore order.

"Rebels control much of the north, hundreds of people have died in political strife, and Mr. Aristide's allies have threatened to boycott elections planned for next year. But all of that misfortune was dwarfed by the storm's devastation." Now, after decades of intervention in Haiti that disabled the political forces which could have addressed the causes of the Gonaïves disaster, the U.S. has failed spectacularly to come to the aid of the victims of this latest catastrophe.

After the flooding, the U.S. government--which has disbursed $5 billion to help American victims of Hurricane Ivan--initially promised only $60,000 in aid. After a public outcry, that sum was increased to $2 million. But it is still meager given the scale of the crisis--and the role that the U.S. has played in wrecking Haitian society.

UN forces--which have stood by while the Latortue regime and its death-squad allies have terrorized Aristide supporters--lack the forces to do what's needed to help the survivors, delivering enough food and water for only 20,000 people, as of last weekend. Even worse, UN troops have had to ration the aid, provoking disturbances at distribution sites.

The Latortue regime has done nothing to help the situation. It barely exists and isn't interested in helping the population. Even if it was, it doesn't possess the resources, which the U.S.-backed coup against Aristide effectively destroyed, to supply aid. "We are having trouble organizing and distributing food because there is no authority existing in the town," said Eric Mouillefarine, head of the UN office of coordination for humanitarian affairs in Port-au-Prince.

Washington didn't cause the storm, but it created the conditions that turned it into a mass killer. The U.S. government has the blood of countless Haitians on its hands, and it owes billions of dollars in reparations to Haitians, which they could use to address this crisis and to rebuild society however they see fit.

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