The betrayal of Haiti

August 2, 2010

Conditions in Haiti are still appalling six months after the quake, reports Ashley Smith.

SIX MONTHS after Haiti's catastrophic earthquake, the promises of the world's most powerful governments to provide billions in aid to one of the world's poorest and weakest governments have been betrayed.

There was an immediate outpouring of solidarity after the quake struck Haiti on January 12--people from the U.S. to Palestine and beyond gave to NGOs and charities, even when they couldn't afford much themselves.

At the end of March, the United Nations held an international conference for donors to fund the rebuilding of Haiti, where dozens of countries promised almost $10 billion over the next few years and more than $5 billion for the first 18 months of emergency reconstruction.

But the record of the world powers is a stark contrast to the generosity of their citizens. The U.S., France, Canada and the UN--not to mention a range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with connections in high places--have done next to nothing to provide alternative shelter to refugees. They have failed to remove the rubble, let alone begin reconstruction, and they reneged on their pledges to deliver aid.

A family living in the Corail Cesselesse camp outside Port-au-Prince in July
A family living in the Corail Cesselesse camp outside Port-au-Prince in July (Talea Miller)

Instead, Haiti's earthquake is being used as an excuse to ratchet up a neoliberal economic plan for the country and to bolster the now six-year-old UN occupation to repress any resistance.

Meanwhile, the situation in Haiti remains dire. The earthquake killed some 300,000 people, including an estimated one-quarter of government workers. It destroyed countless houses, leaving 1.5 million people homeless, and it collapsed the National Palace and wrecked a majority of other government buildings. Overall, the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that the quake caused between $8 billion and $13 billion in damage.

Six months later, those 1.5 million people are still homeless, struggling to survive in 1,300 refugee camps. Astonishingly, 232,000 of these homeless are still without tents or tarps, according to reports. Only one-quarter of the camps are managed by the either the Haitian government or aid organizations.

According to the Montreal Gazette's grim account, Port-au-Prince:

still looks like a war zone...The camps erected by hundreds of thousand of Haitians in the hours after their lives were shattered are becoming permanent slums.

Late afternoon torrential rains soak belongings and leave lake-size puddles in which mosquitoes breed, then spread malaria. Deep, raspy coughs can be heard everywhere. Scabies and other infections transform children's soft skin into irritating red bumpy rashes. Bellies are swelling and hair turning orange from malnutrition. Vomiting and diarrhea are as common as flies.

While injuries from the quake have healed into scars, there are countless accidents from the chaotic living conditions--toddlers falling into vats of boiling rice or beans, people breaking limbs on chunks of concrete and wire, entire families poisoned by carbon monoxide as they cook in their tents. Around the city, the stench of rotting bodies has been replaced by the stench of rotting piles of garbage.

Neither governments, international institutions nor NGOs have made a dent in constructing alternatives to these camps. Indeed, the one major alternative camp that has been established exposes how the Haitian elite is exploiting the crisis for profit.

The Haitian government, in cooperation with the U.S. military, began construction in Corail Cesselesse, nearly 15 miles from Port-au-Prince with the aim of building a new city of 300,000. It appointed Gerard Emile "Aby" Brun, the president of Nabatec Development, to oversee the transfer of some 7,000 people from a squatter camp on the Petionville Golf Course to the new location.

According to the Associated Press' Jonathan Katz, Brun "is also a lead negotiator with South Korean garment firms to build factories that Haitian officials say will likely go into Corail Cesselesse. The camp he set up is a potential source of workers for those factories, which can take advantage of generous U.S. import laws for Haitian-assembled textiles."

However, the camp is located on a flood plain with no vegetation to provide shelter from the scorching sun or the torrential storms of hurricane season. An Oxfam worker told the New York Times that the plan for Corail Cesselesse "does not represent clear strategic thinking on the part of the government. It's like Sudan. There's not a tree in sight. And people feel marooned. They are having issues finding income-generating activities, and soon, they are going to have trouble feeding themselves."

Meanwhile, in Port-au-Prince and its surrounding towns, despite the promises, ruined houses, hospitals and buildings remain as they were the day after the earthquake.

So far, only 5 percent of the estimated 26 million cubic yards of rubble from the earthquake has been removed. The New York Times reports that "experts say it would take a thousand trucks three to five years to clear away the wreckage, though fewer than 300 trucks are hauling now." Donor countries, NGOs and the Haitian government have only managed to build 5,500 hurricane-proof shelters.

LEADING FIGURES in the relief effort--like Bill Clinton, co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC)--claim that the failed promises of reconstruction are the result of the enormity of the disaster and the international economic crisis that depleted resources available for Haiti.

But these are excuses. If Haiti were a priority, the great powers would find the money. Since it isn't, they have only promised the paltry sum of $10 billion. Compare that to the amount the U.S. spends on its real priorities--for example, the Pentagon, which is $663 billion for 2010. And the scale of the disaster, rather than being an excuse for inaction, should be the reason for a massive mobilization of resources for reconstruction.

Rather than step up the relief effort, donor countries--with the help of the Western media--are scapegoating the Haitian government to deflect attention for how little they've done.

For example, they blame Haitian President René Préval for failing to overcome problems with land tenure and to secure plots for new housing. But most of the big landowners are allies of the U.S. Thus, the U.S. government is in a better position than the powerless Préval administration to compel landowners to donate for new construction.

This isn't to leave Préval off the hook. He has been a pathetic figure, disappearing in the wake of the earthquake and, despite grumblings about violations of sovereignty, providing Haitian cover for imperial betrayal.

For example, on the July 12 six-month anniversary of the quake, while the capital city sat in ruins--and its people in vast new tent slums--Préval gave out medals to honor representatives from countries and NGOs that have done so little to rebuild Port-au-Prince.

But to blame Préval as the primary reason for the dysfunctional condition of the Haitian state is absurd. The U.S., France and Canada as well as the UN are directly responsible for undermining the capacity of the Haitian state to coordinate reconstruction, let alone future development of the country.

The betrayal of Haiti began centuries ago. After Haiti's successful slave revolution won independence from France in 1804, European powers undermined every attempt by the country to chart an independent course of development in the interests of its people. Famously, France demanded that Haiti pay--in today's dollars--$21 billion in reparations for the French slavemasters' loss of their property--that is, their slaves.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has imposed neoliberal policies--what Haitians have called the "Plan of Death"--that compromised the state's ability to run the economy. For example, the U.S. compelled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his then-ally Préval to privatize state-owned companies and cut tariffs on rice imports. These policies increased unemployment among urban workers and undercut Haitian rice production to the extent that the country today is dependent on subsidized American rice. As a result, per capita income has fallen by one-fifth--from $600 in 1980 to $480 today.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and its international allies collaborated in neutering every attempt to use the Haitian state to improve the conditions of impoverished peasants and the urban poor. For example, Aristide was forced out of his elected position as president twice by coups in 1991 and 2004--to prevent social reform in the interests of Haitian peasants, workers and the poor.

Since the second coup, the Haitian state has not been in control of the country in any way. The U.S., other imperial powers, and international financial institutions are running Haiti's economy, and the UN, through its misnamed United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), has occupied the country since 2004, ruling it in traditional neocolonial fashion.

NOW THESE powers need a scapegoat because, after all the fanfare that accompanied the donor conferences, they have failed to deliver.

Only Brazil, Norway, Estonia and Australia have submitted all their promised donations to the IHRC. The Washington Post reported that donors have only supplied 2 percent of the $5.3 billion promised for the critical first 18 months of emergency reconstruction. According to the UN Human Development Program, the IHRC itself has only dispensed $506 million--only 9 percent of the funds budgeted for 2010 through mid-2011.

The U.S. has played a central role in obstructing aid to Haiti. The Senate held up the U.S. contribution of $2.8 billion, with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar playing a key role in blocking this aid package. Lugar insists that until Préval can ensure free and fair elections--translation, ones that pro-U.S. candidates are sure to win--and reduce barriers to private investment, the U.S. should not release its full contribution to the IHRC.

As a result of such maneuvers, the IHRC has only $90 million in its coffers. No one should be holding their breath until more arrives. The world's main governments have a dismal track record on fulfilling humanitarian promises for Haiti. A previous UN donor conference for Haiti in April 2009 got pledges of $400 million, but only 15 percent of the funds ever materialized.

What money has been spent by the IHRC shows that the world's most powerful government care more about padding the pockets of their own corporations. Beverly Bell of the Institute for Policy Studies found that huge sums of money have:

gone right back to donor nations, as with the $0.40 on every U.S. government aid dollar that paid for the U.S. military presence in Haiti for, at least, the first two months after the quake. Untold dollars go to U.S. firms, like the agribusiness corporations, whose surplus rice is being purchased by USAID to deliver as aid...

There are the fees paid to a small army of consultants working for foreign governments and international agencies...Then there is graft, corruption and poor planning, all of which further redirects aid dollars away from desperate earthquake survivors.

The UN has also failed Haiti through the crisis. UN officials live apart from the Haitian masses in relative luxury. In a revealing public relations disaster, the UN spent $10 million to rent two cruise ships, the Ola Esmeralda and the Sea Voyager--dubbed the "Love Boat" by UN staff--to house officials from the World Food Program and MINUSTAH.

Edmond Mulet, the former Guatemalan diplomat who heads the UN mission, told reporters that the ships are a reward for the UN staff's hard work. "It is the least we could do for them," he said. "They are working 14, 16 hours a day. The place was pulverized. Living conditions are really appalling."

Richard Morse, the Haitian American musician and owner of Port-au-Prince's Hotel Oloffson, captured the message that the UN is sending in a statement to reporters:

If the UN is living on a cruise ship, it is a perfect metaphor for how they are viewed in the country. If they think that quake refugees should be living on cruise ships, then they should get cruise ships for the Haitian people, that's all I'm saying. Unless, of course, I'm misinterpreting this, and they really are better than the Haitians.

MINUSTAH, meanwhile, has been occupying the country since 2004, with forces drawn from Brazil and several other countries, including Israel. Between them, Mulet, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Brazilian Gen. Luiz Guilherme Paul Cruz have increased the UN occupation force to 8,940 soldiers and 4,391 police officers.

The UN occupation costs more than $51 million per month. UN troops don't speak Haitian Creole. In concert with the U.S.-trained Haitian police, they patrol poor neighborhoods, seizing political prisoners and repressing dissent.

Just as they did in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, foreign governments and the media have played up the threat of violent crime in the refugee camps to justify the increased troop presence. Instances of rape and sexual violence against women are undoubtedly a real problem. But neither the UN nor the Haitian police are capable of solving them.

In fact, a variety of human rights investigations have documented human rights violations by both the Haitian police and MINUSTAH forces. As recently as 2007, MINUSTAH expelled 114 Sri Lankan soldiers after allegations of rape and child abuse. In the current crisis, Haitian women have complained that UN soldiers and police have demanded sex in exchange for food and aid.

To really address the causes of violence and rape in the camps, the international powers would have to address the horrific living conditions in the camps--the very thing they have avoided. Spending $51 million a month on soldiers and cops will only increase violence--the violence of repressive forces used against desperate poor people, especially when they protest their deteriorating conditions.

IN JUNE, protests swept Haiti in opposition to the MINUSTAH occupation and the Préval administration. Graffiti spray-painted on the ruins of Port-au-Prince denounces the UN, the U.S., NGOs and Préval.

Many of the protests and much of the graffiti calls for the return of Aristide. They also object to Preval's handpicked electoral commission, which is expected to ban the most popular political party in the country, Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas, and thereby rig the election scheduled for November 28.

MINUSTAH officials have made it clear that their main worry is the growing resistance, and their soldiers have attacked demonstrations. For example, on May 23, UN soldiers went on a rampage in the massive refugee camp opposite National Palace, firing tear gas and rubber bullets for hours. On the same day, MINUSTAH soldiers stormed the University of Haiti, firing more tear gas and rubber bullets into a student protest.

The hope for Haiti lies in this renewed resistance to colonial occupation. Only resistance can compel international forces to deliver on promised aid--and make sure that aid serves the interests of the Haitian peasants, workers and urban poor. As Jacqueline Cherilus, a 22-year-old medical student at Université Lumière, told a reporter:

Americans and everyone who've sent tents: We're tired of that stuff, those same tents and tarps. We need construction. You see how strong the rains are becoming? Tents can't resist that rain. How long can we live in tents and tarps. You can't live for two or three years under a tarp. We need houses. We're going to have hurricanes soon and flooding.

The aid is poorly organized and poorly divided. There are lots of people who don't receive anything. To have real aid, we need social change."

Outside of Haiti, activists must stand in solidarity with the emerging protest movement against the occupation and for development in the interests of Haitian peasants, workers and urban poor.

We must make several demands. First of all, we should support Haiti's right to self-determination. Haitians and their government should be in control of the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country, not the imperial powers, their corporations, the UN and the NGOs.

We should call for the promised aid to be immediately released to the Haitian state so that it can improve its capacity to deliver housing, health care and education. We must also call for an end to the UN occupation of Haiti and for an end to its ban on the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Moreover, Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular political force in the country, must be allowed to participate in upcoming elections.

On top of the pittance of aid, they have promised, the U.S., France and Canada should pay reparations for the damage they have done to Haiti. France can begin with repaying $21 billion it extorted from the country when it won independence.

Only when Haitians are allowed to determine their own destinies in economics and politics will Haiti be able to develop in the interests of its people.

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