Humanitarian aid or military occupation?

January 19, 2010

Ashley Smith explains why help hasn't reached most of the victims of Haiti's earthquake--because the priority of the U.S. government is on imposing its control.

WHEN HURRICANE Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, George W. Bush displayed a callous disregard for the Black victims of the disaster.

When his administration finally responded, it deployed the National Guard and armed Blackwater personnel to impose order, rather than putting the priority on providing food, shelter and safe water. Kanye West's words during an NBC Concert for Hurricane Relief--"George Bush doesn't care about Black people"--were proved right.

On the surface, the response of the Obama administration to the horrific earthquake that struck Haiti last week couldn't seem more different. "I have directed my administration to respond with a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives," Obama declared. "The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble, and to deliver the humanitarian relief--the food, water and medicine--that Haitians will need in the coming days."

His words were a stark contrast to the ravings of the racist right. Rush Limbaugh claimed that Obama's speech was an attempt to win support among "both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country," and that "we've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax." Writing in the New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks dismissed the idea that aid could help Haiti in this crisis--because Haiti's culture is "more progress-resistant than others."

A U.S. soldier monitors a crowd of people waiting for aid in Haiti
A U.S. soldier monitors a crowd of people waiting for aid in Haiti (Fred W. Baker III)

Compared to such statements, Obama's sympathetic response and promises of aid may seem decent and just. But in the week since the earthquake, it has become clear that the U.S. isn't pursuing a humanitarian policy.

Though it is an opponent of the Obama administration, the conservative Heritage Foundation accurately described the aims that are driving U.S. policy in Haiti:

The U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti's long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.

While on the ground in Haiti, the U.S. military can also interrupt the nightly flights of cocaine to Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the Venezuelan coast and counter the ongoing efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to destabilize the island of Hispaniola. This U.S. military presence, which should also include a large contingent of U.S. Coast Guard assets, can also prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea in rickety watercraft to try to enter the U.S. illegally.

Meanwhile, the U.S. must be prepared to insist that the Haiti government work closely with the U.S. to insure that corruption does not infect the humanitarian assistance flowing to Haiti. Long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are also badly overdue.

What you can do

Donations and aid are desperately needed in Haiti. Here are some organizations with connections to the grassroots movements in the country.

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, organized by the solidarity organization Haiti Action, delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2004 after the coup d'etat that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office.

For more information, including a telephone contact, go to the Canada Haiti Action Network Web site.

The Zanmi Lasante Medical Center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and delivers health care through a network of clinics. The health center survived the earthquake and delivering aid to the disaster zone. You can donate to the center through the U.S. non-profit organization Partners in Health.

SOPUDEP is a pioneering school in Petionville. The resources of the school and its teachers are being mobilized to assist the neighboring population. You can support the school via the Canadian-based Sawatzky Family Foundation.

However impolitic--the piece was quickly removed from the Heritage Web site--this actually describes the policy that Barack Obama is carrying out.

IF THE Obama administration were pursuing a humanitarian policy in Haiti, it wouldn't have appointed George Bush to join former President Bill Clinton in overseeing fundraising for disaster relief.

Not only did Bush spectacularly fail the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but his administration orchestrated a political destabilization campaign against Haiti's democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Bush imposed sanctions on the country that undermined Aristide's presidency and impoverished the masses. The U.S. then backed a right-wing coup that toppled the government in 2004.

Appointing Bush to oversee aid to Haiti is like putting Nero in charge of the fire department.

Then there's the mismatch between Obama's words about "full support" and the pittance his administration plans to spend to address the crisis--just $100 million. As Bill Quigley, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote, "A Kentucky couple won $128 million in a Powerball lottery on December 24, 2009. The richest nation in the history of the world is giving Powerball money to a neighbor with tens of thousands of deaths already?"

Moreover, a week into the disaster, while U.S. officials, privileged Americans and rich Haitians received quick relief, the promised aid hasn't reached the mass of Haitian people.

Amid a crisis where the first 48 hours are decisive in saving people's lives, the United Nations--and the U.S. in particular--failed to come anywhere near addressing the needs of the 3 million people impacted by the earthquake.

Every minute that aid gets delayed means more people dying from starvation, dehydration, injury and disease--and yet by Monday, the UN only planned to distribute food and water to 95,000 people.

An estimated 1.5 million people are homeless and sleeping in the streets, as many as 200,000 have died, and with each tick of the clock, the toll grows higher. Why could the U.S. not rush aid to Haiti? Why were American helicopters and transport planes so late in starting aid drops?

The U.S. and UN claimed that damage to Haiti's airport, port and roads impeded delivery of doctors, nurses, food, water and rescue teams. But the U.S. always seems to find ways around such obstacles when it comes to invading countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly the means exist to deliver aid quickly to a country an hour away from Florida.

SO DID the U.S. relief operation fail to live up to its mission? The truth is that disaster relief for the poor is not the mission in Haiti, just as it wasn't the priority in New Orleans or any other disaster.

Instead of rushing aid to Haiti's poor, the Obama administration has prepared a military occupation, claiming that armed forces are necessary to control what they expected to be angry Black people.

The corporate media coverage shifted from its initial sympathy with victims of the disaster to churning out scare stories about looting. "[M]arauding looters emptied wrecked shops and tens of thousands of survivors waited desperately for food and medical care," Reuters claimed. "Hundreds of scavengers and looters swarmed over wrecked stores in downtown Port-au-Prince, seizing goods and fighting among themselves."

In other words, the media took a few isolated conflicts and blew them up into an implication that Haiti's poor are a violent threat--and the real obstacle to relief efforts.

These scare stories in turn became a justification for not delivering aid. Writer Nelson Valdes reported:

The United Nations and the U.S. authorities on the ground are telling those who directly want to deliver help not to do so because they might be attacked by "hungry mobs." Two cargo planes from Doctors Without Borders have been forced to land in the Dominican Republic because the shipments have to be accompanied within Port-au-Prince by U.S. military escorts, according to the U.S. command.

When asked why the U.S. hadn't used its C130 transport planes to drop supplies in Port-au-Prince, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, "It seems to me that air drops will simply lead to riots."

Of course, precisely the opposite is case. People will riot because they lack food and water.

The real situation is quite different. As author Richard Seymour wrote:

The striking fact, patiently reported by observers on the ground, is that Haiti is not gripped by anarchy, "mob rule," mass slaughter or anything of the kind. There was probably no more violent crime this weekend, and probably less than in some American cities. Instead, while aid is obstructed, Haitians have cooperated to undertake rescue efforts and administer aid without the assistance of relief workers.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rightly describes Obama's military intervention as "occupying Haiti undercover." The U.S. has taken control of Haiti's main airport and seaport, and is in the process of deploying 10,000 U.S. troops to bolster the 9,000 UN troops already occupying the island. Half of the soldiers will police Port-au-Prince, and half will be deployed on military vessels surrounding the island.

In a puff piece meant to support this occupation, Time magazine perhaps unintentionally revealed the colonial nature of the operation. "Haiti," they write, "for all intents and purposes, became the 51st state at 4:53 p.m. Tuesday in the wake of its deadly earthquake. If not a state, then at least a ward of the state."

The U.S. is using its position of power to impose its control over the country and impede relief efforts, turning away planes from Doctors Without Borders, the Mexican government and the Caribbean Community and Common Market. Jarry Emmanuel, the air logistics officer for the World Food Program, complained, "There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti. But most of those flights are for the United States military. Their priorities are to secure the country."

In a stunning video report from Port-au-Prince, an Al Jazeera reporter said:

Most Haitians here have seen little humanitarian aid so far. What they have seen is guns, and lots of them. Armored personnel carriers cruise the streets. UN soldiers aren't here to help pull people out of the rubble. They're here, they say, to enforce the law.

This is what much of the UN presence actually looks like on the streets of Port-au-Prince: men in uniform, racing around in vehicles carrying guns. At the entrance to the city's airport where most of the aid is coming in, there is anger and frustration. Much-needed supplies of water and food are inside, and Haitians are locked out.

"These weapons they bring," [an unidentified Haitian says], "they are instruments of death. We don't want them; we don't need them. We are a traumatized people. What we want from the international community is technical help. Action, not words."

AS ANGER among Haitians simmers over the lack of real relief, it is only a matter of time before heavily armed U.S. and UN forces open fire and kill innocent Haitians.

Already, on Wednesday evening, CBS News reported, "Controlled chaos turned to confrontation near the airport in Port-au-Prince today, when UN peacekeepers were ordered to clear the street filled with Haitian men seeking jobs. The force was made up of Jordanian, Pakistani and Indian forces that were unable to speak Creole, English or French. They did their talking with nightsticks and rubber bullets. At least one rubber bullet was seen fired into the crowd. No one was seriously injured."

U.S. ships are in the process of surrounding the island. Some will provide floating hospitals. But they are also there to prevent an exodus of refugees out of Haiti.

Under some pressure, Obama granted Temporary Protected Status to Haitian refugees currently in the U.S.--but only for 18 months. At the same time, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced that any Haitians who attempt to enter the U.S. will be returned to Haiti.

The Obama administration is already coordinating plans for the restructuring of Haitian society--in the interest of international capital. It is implementing what author Naomi Klein calls the "Shock Doctrine"--when capitalist powers use economic or natural disasters to impose neoliberal programs, such as opening up national markets to multinational corporations, privatization of state-owned companies and cuts to the minimum wage.

The UN's special envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, had been hard at work implementing such proposals before the crisis. He cut deals with cruise ship companies to dock on Haiti's northern coast and pushed the re-development of the Haitian sweatshop industry.

Now Obama, Clinton and Bush will further impose neoliberal "reforms." Already, the International Monetary Fund has extended $100 million in loans to Haiti during the crisis, and all of that money comes with strings attached. As the Nation's Richard Kim wrote:

The new loan was made through the IMF's extended credit facility, to which Haiti already has $165 million in debt. Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage, and keeping inflation low. They say that the new loans would impose these same conditions. In other words, in the face of this latest tragedy, the IMF is still using crisis and debt as leverage to compel neoliberal reforms.

While the U.S. sends soldiers to police Haiti instead of providing humanitarian aid, Haitians in the U.S., Haiti solidarity activists and unions are mobilizing to meet the needs of the Haitian poor--and help empower them to take control over their society. In one powerful example, the National Nurses Organizing Committee is in the process of mobilizing 7,000 nurses from the U.S. to volunteer in Haiti to provide medical care.

As activists continue to donate money to organizations like the Haiti Relief Fund and Partners in Health that aim to empower Haitian grassroots institutions, we must make several demands on the Obama administration.

First, we must demand that Obama immediately stop the military occupation of Haiti, and instead flood the country with doctors, nurses, food, water and construction machinery. Soldiers with guns will only make the situation worse.

Second, the U.S. must also end its enforcement of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's exile and the ban on his party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in elections. Haitians, not the U.S., should have the right to determine their government.

Third, we must demand that the U.S., other countries and international financial institutions cancel Haiti's debt, so that the aid money headed to Haiti will go to food and reconstruction, not debt repayment.

And we must agitate for Obama to indefinitely extend Temporary Protected Status to Haitians in the U.S.--and open the borders to any Haitians who do flee the country.

Only through agitating for these demands can we stop the U.S. from imposing its Shock Doctrine for Haiti at gunpoint.

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