The “shock doctrine” for Haiti

February 8, 2010

Ashley Smith reports that the U.S. is reviving what Haitians call "the plan of death."

ONE MONTH after the devastating earthquake, Haiti continues to suffer under apocalyptic conditions.

The quake killed more than 200,000 people, injured 250,000 and has left over 3 million dependent on assistance for food, water and housing. Contrary to the puff pieces in the media, the relief operation has been a miserable failure. The United Nations admitted at the end of January that had only been able to feed 1 million people, leaving many more without access to food. Whole sections of Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns never even saw relief convoys.

Amid this catastrophe, imperial powers and corporate vultures are circling, eyeing the profits to be made from reconstruction.

The Street, an investment Web site, published an article, misleadingly titled "An Opportunity to Heal Haiti," that lays out how U.S. corporations can cash in on the catastrophe. "Here are some companies," they write, "that could potentially benefit: General Electric, Caterpillar, Deere, Fluor, Jacobs Engineering."

Hillary Clinton celebrates job creation in Haiti inside a clothing factory
Hillary Clinton celebrates job creation in Haiti inside a clothing factory

Other commentators--like James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Haiti under President Bill Clinton--likewise see an opportunity to remake Haiti along free market lines. As he wrote in the New York Times, "This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms." As director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, the reforms he advocates are not designed to meet people's needs, but to pad corporate profits through mechanisms like privatization.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff attempted to pass off the exploitation of cheap labor as a humanitarian initiative:

[T]he best strategy for Haiti: building garment factories. The idea (sweatshops!) may sound horrific to Americans. But it's a strategy that has worked for other countries, such as Bangladesh, and Haitians in the slums would tell you that their most fervent wish is for jobs. A few dozen major shirt factories could be transformational for Haiti.

All of this reads like a sick parody of Naomi Klein's arguments in her book The Shock Doctrine. There, she documents how the U.s. and other imperial powers take advantage of natural and economic disasters to impose free-market plans for the benefit of the elites and their corporations, and to the detriment of the victims. She writes:

Disaster capitalists have no interests in repairing what was. In Iraq, Sri Lanka and New Orleans, the process deceptively called "reconstruction" began with finishing the job of the original disaster by erasing what was left of the public sphere and rooted communities, then quickly moving to replace them with a kind of corporate New Jerusalem--all before the victims of war or natural disaster were able to regroups and stake their claims to what was theirs.

THE U.S. actually had a Shock Doctrine for Haiti on hand--the same one that it has imposed for decades.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. used the dictatorship of Baby Doc Duvalier to impose what the International Monetary Fund calls a "structural adjustment program." Haitians called it "the plan of death."

Duvalier opened up the Haitian economy to heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural exports, especially rice, which undermined the ability of Haitian peasants to compete on the market. Dislocated peasants flooded into Port-au-Prince, swelling the population from 760,000 in the early 1980s to close to 3 million before the earthquake.

The U.S. set up export processing zones in the capital city to take advantage of the new cheap labor. But with only about 80,000 jobs, the sweatshops could not meet the demand for employment. As a result, hundreds of thousands were reduced to desperate poverty in the sprawling shantytowns. They maintained a desperate existence based on irregular employment and remittances from relatives who fled abroad to the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

The U.S. and its multinationals also cut deals with Baby Doc to set up several resorts along the coast to cater to U.S. tourists and the Haitian elite. Club Med opened a swank facility in 1975, and it was joined by dozens of others, mainly around Port-au-Prince and in the country's north, especially around the famous Labadee beach. Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton joined the party for their honeymoon in 1975 and have professed their love of the island's potential riches for decades.

To finance the neoliberal plan, Baby Doc racked up enormous debts to international financial institutions. To Haitian workers, the urban poor and the peasantry, it was a social disaster.

But out of the poverty, the Haitian masses built a mass movement, Lavalas, that drove Baby Doc from power in 1986. In 1990, in the country's first free and democratic elections, one of the leaders of Lavalas, Jean Bertrand Aristide, won two-thirds of the vote on a program to reverse the plan of death.

The U.S., however, would not tolerate any kind of reform. So it backed two coups, one in 1991 and another in 2004 to stop even modest changes to the plan of death. Each coup regime, backed up by the U.S., other governments and the United Nations, attacked the Lavalas movement, killing thousands. The UN has occupied the country since 2004. Since 2006, a former ally of Aristide, René Préval, now the president, has overseen the reimplementation of the American neoliberal plan.

The earthquake has exposed its social consequences. As David Wilson wrote at MRZine, "The results were predictable: a decimated rural economy, a virtually nonexistent infrastructure, and an impoverished, overpopulated urban center so badly constructed that tens of thousands of people, at least, were certain to die when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck."

The U.S. has taken advantage of this natural disaster. It has deployed 20,000 troops to Haiti to buttress the UN occupation of 12,500 soldiers. Now secretary of state, Hillary Clinton convinced Préval to declare emergency powers, which have been largely delegated to the U.S.. From its position of power, the U.S. has pushed for implementing a new version of the same old plan.

THE U.S., a few other imperial powers, some lesser countries and the UN convened a meeting on January 26 in Montreal to profess their concern and promise to aid Haiti.

The 14 so-called "friends of Haiti" at the conference made sure to include Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive to at least give the illusion of respect for the country's sovereignty. But outside, a protest organized by Haiti Action Montreal challenged the meeting with signs demanding "Medical relief not guns," "Grants not loans" and "Reconstruction for people not profit."

Guardian columnist Gary Younge criticized the summit for failing to produce any solutions:

Even as corpses remained under the earthquake's rubble, and the government operated out of a police station, the assembled "friends" would not commit to canceling Haiti's $1 billion debt. Instead, they agreed to a 10-year plan with no details and a commitment to meet again--when the bodies have been buried along with coverage of the country--sometime in the future.

By contrast, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas grouping of Latin American and Caribbean nations opposed to U.S. neoliberal plans has called for relief not troops and cancellation of Haiti's debt. On his weekly television show, Chávez declared that thousands of "soldiers are arriving, Marines armed as if they were going to war. There is not a shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine, fuel, field hospitals--that's what the United States should send. They are occupying Haiti undercover."

While the Montreal summit offered few clues about what the U.S. aimed to do, Hillary Clinton spilled the beans before the meeting when she said, "We have a plan. It was a legitimate plan, it was done in conjunction with other international donors, with the United Nations."

The author of the plan is Oxford University professor Paul Collier. Collier wrote The Bottom Billion, a book widely read in development circles. In it, he advocates a neocolonial strategy for crisis-torn societies. He argues that to be effective, great powers and international bodies like the UN must intervene militarily and occupy failed states. After setting up shop, they then can impose development plans to reconstruct their economies.

In Jean Bricmont's apt phrase, Paul Collier is a "useful idiot for imperialism," providing intellectual justification for conquest and exploitation.

Before the earthquake, Bill Clinton, named by Barack Obama to be a special envoy to Haiti, was already pushing for the implementation of Collier's plan as he outlined it in a paper titled "Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security."

Collier and Clinton call for--surprise, surprise--investment in the tourist industry, re-development of the sweatshop industry in cities, export-oriented mango plantations in the countryside and construction of infrastructure to service this development. Each of these projects serves the interests of multinational corporations and the Haitian elite at the expense of the workers and peasants.

The tourist industry is especially infamous in the Caribbean. As Polly Patullo documents in her book, Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean, the industry is completely controlled by multinational corporations, mainly from the U.S. Patullo quotes one critic of the tourist industry, who argues:

When a Third World economy uses tourism as a development strategy, it becomes enmeshed in a global system over which it has little control. The international tourism industry is a product of metropolitan capitalist enterprise. The superior entrepreneurial skills, resources and commercial power of metropolitan companies enable them to dominate many third world tourist destinations.

The Clinton and Collier plan for sweatshops is even less appealing. Collier practically celebrates the poverty wages that corporations can get away with in Haiti. "Due to its poverty and relatively unregulated labor market," Collier writes, "Haiti has labor costs that are fully competitive with China, which is the global benchmark. Haitian labor is not only cheap, it is of good quality. Indeed, because the garments industry used to be much larger than it is currently, there is a substantial pool of experienced labor."

Given the abolition of tariffs on many Haitian exports to the U.S., Haiti is primed, according to Collier, for a new sweatshop boom.

But this is no sustainable development plan for Haitian workers. At best, Collier promises 150,000 or so jobs. As anthropologist Mark Schulman argues, "Subcontracted, low-wage factory work does not contribute much to the economy besides jobs. Being exempt from taxes, it does not contribute to the financing of Haiti's social services." The jobs themselves don't even pay enough to support life--they pay for transport and lunch at about $1.60 a day.

The U.S. will want to keep wages low, since that is the profitable basis for investment. Already last year, the U.S. pressured Préval to prevent an increase in the Haitian minimum wage.

For the peasant majority in Haiti, Clinton and Collier advocate construction of vast new mango plantations. According to them, such new plantations will both create an export crop and aid the reforestation of the country. While it may create jobs for poor peasants, such plantations won't rebuild the agricultural infrastructure of the country so that it can return to the self-sufficient food system it had before the 1980s. Such self-sufficiency goes against the grain of U.S. policy to control the international food market with its subsidized crops.

Finally, Collier argues for investment in infrastructure--airports, seaports and roads--not so much to meet people's needs as to service the new investments in tourism, sweatshops and plantations.

As a result, Collier's plan will actually increase infrastructural inequities. Businesses will get what they need to export their products, while the needs of the Haitian masses--for navigable roads, for example--will be left unaddressed. Even worse, Collier advocates increased privatization of Haiti's infrastructure, especially the port and the electrical system.

IN REALITY, this "new plan" is the same old plan--"the plan of death" that Haitians rose up against in the 1980s. Nevertheless, in the wake of the disaster, Bill Clinton is pressing ahead.

At a joint press conference with Bill Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon declared, "We have three priorities. First, continuing to provide the humanitarian assistance with effective mechanisms to deliver all these relief items to the people who need it. Second, provide security and stability for people. Thirdly, the reconstruction of the Haitian economy."

The U.S. and UN have failed largely in their relief operation, but have succeeded in establishing military control of the country--effectively seizing control of the country and bypassing the Haitian state.

Beyond this, the Economist magazine argues for the U.S. to set up "a temporary development authority with wide powers to act. Given the local vacuum of power, this is the best idea around. The authority should be set up under the auspices of the UN or of an ad hoc group (the United States, Canada, the European Union and Brazil, for example). It should be led by a suitable outsider (Bill Clinton who is the UN's special envoy for Haiti, would be ideal, perhaps followed by Brazil's Lula after steps down as president in a year's time) and a prominent Haitian, such as the prime minister."

With its intervention in Haiti, the U.S. is sending a signal to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean--where masses of people have rejected neoliberalism and elected reform socialist leaders like Hugo Chávez, who aim to tame the excesses of capitalism and pass reforms to address social needs.

The U.S. already toppled Aristide in 2004. The U.S.-backed coup in Honduras last year is another step down the same road. Washington has expanded its network of military bases in Latin America--especially in Colombia, where it has opened seven new bases. "Barack Obama's administration," writes Greg Grandin in The Nation, has disappointed "potential regional allies by continuing to promote a volatile mix of militarism and free-trade orthodoxy in a corridor running from Mexico to Colombia."

The U.S. intervention in Haiti shows that the U.S. wants to reverse its setbacks of the last decade, reassert its geopolitical dominance and re-impose its economic program--the "plan of death"--throughout the region.

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