Profits over people in Haiti

November 12, 2010

Imperial neglect and the pursuit of super-profits have left Haiti vulnerable to disease and further natural disasters, writes Ashley Smith.

TEN MONTHS after the earthquake that killed 300,000 people and drove 2 million people into temporary camps, Haiti is a country betrayed, occupied and oppressed.

The U.S. and other powerful nations, along with the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), pledged money and resources to aid the quake's victims and rebuild Port-au-Prince, the country's devastated capital. All have reneged on their promises, leaving the population vulnerable to an outbreak of cholera--and Hurricane Tomas, which struck the country last week, could turn that into a countrywide epidemic.

Instead, the great powers have renewed their six-year colonial occupation, orchestrated sham elections and laid plans for sweatshop development to exploit the desperate population.

Even before the cholera epidemic and the latest hurricane, conditions were horrific. Over 1.5 million are still trapped in what can only be called refugee camps. There are at least 1,500 of such camps on all sorts of land, from the plaza across from the destroyed National Palace to the medians between roads and golf courses.

Two young Haitians still stuck at the La Piste refugee camp in Port-au-Prince
Two young Haitians still stuck at the La Piste refugee camp in Port-au-Prince

According to an extensive study, titled "We Have Been Forgotten," by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, 75 percent of families in these camps had someone go an entire day without eating, 44 percent drink untreated water, and 27 percent had no access to sanitation and therefore had no choice but to defecate on the open ground.

Moreover, according to the International Organization for Migration, 12,00 refugees have been evicted from their camps and another 87,000 are on the verge of eviction.

There has been next to no reconstruction in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. According to the Los Angeles Times, by the end of this summer, only 2 percent of the rubble had been removed from Port-au-Prince. The capital city is still in ruins. On top of that, the great powers, the UN and the NGOs have barely begun to build alternative housing for the refugees. Only 13,000 temporary shelters--less than 10 percent of the number planned--have actually been built.

Amid these deplorable conditions, criminal businesses prey on people's despair. For example, child traffickers have been doing a booming business. The Miami Herald reports that since the earthquake, "more than 7,300 boys and girls have been smuggled out of their homeland to the Dominican Republic by traffickers profiting on the hunger and desperation of Haitian children and their families. In 2009, the figure was 950, according to one human rights group that monitors child trafficking at 10 border points."

WHILE U.S. politicians and the media like to blame the Haitian state for this dire situation, the truth is that the U.S. is principally to blame for it. The U.S. caused the poverty and prevented Haiti's government from passing reforms in the interest of the masses.

Over the last 30 years, the U.S. imposed neoliberal policies that privatized state industry, smashed tariffs that protected the domestic economy, and opened the country up to sweatshops and tourism. In reaction to the poverty created by these policies, the urban poor, workers and peasants elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas party to improve conditions in 1990.

The U.S., in collusion with Haitian ruling class, proceeded to topple him twice--once in 1991 and again in 2004. Today, they have reduced the administration of current President René Préval to a puppet regime that loyally obeys the dictates of the imperial powers.

The U.S. and other great powers are, in fact, the real state power in the country, through their neocolonial UN occupation. They are largely to blame for the failure to address the needs of quake victims and rebuild the country.

At the end of March, the great powers met in a conference in New York City, set up the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) and pledged $10 billion in aid for reconstruction, with $5.3 billion specified for the next 18 months.

Now, seven months after the conference, the Office of the UN Special Envoy reports that most of the nations have failed to deliver funds. They have only donated 32 percent of the goal for 2010 and 2011 and have actually disbursed even less--22 percent--for projects in Haiti. The U.S. is the biggest offender. It has not donated even one penny of its $1.15 billion pledge.

Moreover, the NGOs that capitalized on the overwhelming sympathy of the world's people for Haitians have similarly betrayed their promises to aid quake victims and help reconstruct the country.

"The large charities have a lot of money in their bank accounts that's not getting spent in Haiti," Melinda Miles of the Haiti Response Coalition told the Associated Press. The biggest culprit is the Red Cross, which had spent only a third of the $480 million it raised after the quake.

Unsurprisingly, Haitians are furious with these NGOs. As anthropologist Mark Schuller reports "Most people are angry at the NGOs because, like it or not, they are the ones that have taken over the job of providing services from the state." He hears the Haitians arguing that "NGOs are getting rich off of our misery and don't really want things to change, because if the problems were solved, the NGOs wouldn't exist."

AS A result of imperial betrayal, post-earthquake Haiti has been left helpless before the threat of disease and hurricanes. As if on cue, both hit in the last month.

A cholera outbreak began in the Artibonite region, the country's breadbasket, as well as in the Central Plateau. This outbreak was not a natural disaster, but the result of dilapidated or non-existent sanitation systems across the country. Carried by human feces, the cholera bacteria wound up in the Artibonite River, which is the source of water for drinking, bathing and irrigation in the two regions.

The World Health Organization reports that the outbreak has sickened 9,100 people and killed 583 in the past two-and-a-half weeks. It has already begun to spread into Port-au-Prince in the slums, as well as the camps. Doctors Without Borders reports it has detected 200 cases in Cité Soleil alone.

The U.S. and other great powers created the conditions for this outbreak. From 2000 to 2004, they imposed an aid embargo as part of their destabilization campaign to topple Aristide's government. That embargo held up an Inter-American Development Bank loan slated to fund the upgrading of the Artibonite region's public water system. As a result, the Artibonite region was a sitting duck for water-borne disease like cholera.

Moreover, the UN occupation itself may be responsible for the introduction of cholera into Haiti. Many reports point to recently deployed Nepalese soldiers as the source of the cholera, a disease that has not been seen in Haiti for 50 years. By contrast, Nepal is plagued with it, including the particular strain that has infected Haitians.

Incredibly, the UN doesn't test any of its soldiers for cholera, including the Nepalese soldiers deployed to a base near the Artibonite River earlier this year. In an investigation of the base, the Associated Press "found open and cracked pipes behind the base...There was an overpowering smell of human waste, and a pipe leading toward a septic tank was leaking foul-smelling black fluid toward the river."

In response, hundreds of Haitian marched from Mirebalais to the base demanding the expulsion of the soldiers.

Hurricane Tomas, which struck on November 5, threatens to turn the cholera outbreak into a full-blown epidemic. Luckily, Tomas had weakened considerably before it hit, but according to the New York Times, it still killed 21 people and left 6,610 homeless. Tomas' winds ripped apart tents and tarps, its rain turned Port-au-Prince's refugee camps into muddy swamps, and its floodwaters may spread the cholera.

Partners in Health reports that "living conditions at the camps...have deteriorated as a result of the storm. Standing water, lack of garbage collection and limited sanitation availability make the camps a potential flashpoint for cholera outbreak."

The U.S. hardly lifted a finger to aid Haiti during the hurricane. It deployed just one aircraft carrier, the Iwo Jima, to conduct aerial surveys of the damage done to the country. The NGOs have been little better. One hurricane victim, Violet Nicolas, told the Inter Press Service, "Our houses are broken again. I've lost my things. They don't do anything for us. We never see them. Since the water has come in here, we're mired in more problems."

While the hurricane has passed, cholera is likely to plague Haiti for years to come. As Partners in Health doctor Evan Lyon told Democracy Now! cholera "will not go away in Haiti until the underlying conditions that make people vulnerable are changed...Maybe this first wave of the epidemic is passing, but more important, this disease will be around as long as there's poor infrastructure."

The New York Times predicts "cholera may become a way of life that could afflict as many as 270,000 people over the next several years."

But as Haiti suffers through catastrophe after catastrophe, the U.S. seems concerned strictly with stabilizing the country by building up repressive forces, establishing cash-for-work schemes to keep quake victims just above desperation and pushing for sham elections to give some semblance of legitimacy to its puppet government. Its aim is to establish a relatively secure business environment for multinational corporations and the Haitian ruling class.

To impose security, the U.S. got the UN to extend its occupation of the country. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has been deployed in the country since the U.S.-backed coup against Aristide in 2004 at the cost of $600 million a year.

Right now, MINUSTAH has 9,000 soldiers and 4,300 officers patrolling the country. In October, the UN Security Council renewed MINUSTAH for yet another year, claiming it was needed to ensure fair elections, control "the rise in number of weapons in circulation" and prevent "grave violations against children affected by armed violence, as well as widespread rape and other sexual abuse of women and girls."

In reality, the UN is part of these problems, not the solution.

The UN mission does not ensure democracy; it was brought in to Haiti to impose order after the U.S. coup against the democratically elected government of Aristide. As the largest armed force in the country, it has repressed protest after protest for the return of Aristide.

As for protecting women and children, its soldiers have been repeatedly accused of raping women, and the epidemic of child trafficking is happening right under the UN's nose. That's why activists in Port-au-Prince protested the renewal of MINUSTAH. As the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) declared, "Money is wasted on the mission, and protesters want real assistance, not he renewal occupying military force."

The U.S. realizes that it cannot extend the UN occupation indefinitely. Therefore, the great powers are training and enlarging the Haitian National Police. Ever since Aristide abolished the Haitian Armed Forces in 1995, the U.S. has built up the police as an alternative to repress the population.

Right now, Haiti has 8,000 police, and the U.S. aims to increase it to 14,000. Canada alone has committed $44 million to equipping and training police officers. The U.S. and other powers hope that at some point the police can replace MINUSTAH as an effective repressive force in the country.

THE U.S. very well knows that the occupation and police alone cannot stabilize society. Some kind of employment to lift Haitians from abject poverty to a level of tolerable misery. So the U.S. has turned to cash-for-work programs that hire quake victims for temporary employment in various projects such as rubble removal.

The cash-for-work programs pay workers the minimum wage of $5 a day, or $4 a day plus a food ration. According to a study by Haiti Grassroots Watch, individual workers can barely survive on this income, let alone support their families. As the study reports, "The Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, which took into account caloric needs, rent, schooling, energy, food and other costs of living, determined a living wage for one adult with two minor dependents to be about $13.88 a day."

Even the U.S. admits that the cash-for-work programs don't successfully remove rubble or enable people to escape poverty. As Robert Jenkins, acting director of USAID-Haiti, cynically writes, its

strategic objective in Haiti was and is to support stabilization in a changing and volatile environment. The initial means (tactics) to this end were number of workers and rubble removal. The underlying assumption in this regard were: (1) Workers (particularly young males) were less likely to resort to violence if employed; (2) infusions of ready cash in the poorest neighborhoods would likely have a salutary effect; (3) rubble removal, again in the poorest neighborhoods, was highly symbolic because it offered hope of return to some form of normalcy.

In other words, these programs are a gimmick designed to secure stability and the appearance, not reality, of progress in reconstruction.

As the final component of its plan for stabilization, the U.S. aims to create the illusion in Haiti of a democratic sovereign state. The U.S., other powers and the UN are pouring millions of dollars into organizing elections for both the parliament and president on November 28. Canada alone will spend $5.8 million on the elections.

To ensure that only their candidates elected, the U.S. has backed Préval's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) in banning the most popular political party in the country, Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas. The CEP has banned Lavalas ever since the coup in 2004.

Thus, the CEP, with the tacit support of the U.S., has rigged the election. Only candidates from the ruling elite or turncoats from the popular movement who have made peace with the occupiers have been allowed to run in the elections. Préval's handpicked successor Jude Celestin currently leads in the polls for president.

Since Lavalas has been banned, popular organizations and the left have denounced the elections as a sham and called for a boycott. The peasants, urban poor and workers will likely respond and not vote at all. If last year's senatorial election, when 3 percent of Haitians voted, is a precedent, the turnout will be abysmal. And without a doubt, the elected president and parliament will have no popular support and will merely function as a puppet for the Haitian ruling class and the great powers.

The U.S. hopes that through its stabilization plan, it can, in the words of UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton, make sure that the country is "open for business." Clinton aims to implement a neoliberal plan developed by Paul Collier entitled Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security and enshrined in the IHRC that includes sweatshop development, tourism and export-oriented agriculture. This plan serves the interests of the multinational corporations and the Haitian ruling class, and is based on the exploitation of the Haiti's desperate poverty.

There is nothing new in this plan--it is the very same one that the U.S. imposed on Haiti since the 1970s. It has not led to development, but the opposite--de-development. It destroyed peasant agriculture, drove people into the cities, but failed to provide enough jobs in the cities, and thus led to the creation of giant slums in Port-au-Prince.

Such neoliberal ideas created the conditions that have turned natural disasters like the quake, cholera and hurricanes into social catastrophes.

The U.S., other powers, the UN and the NGOs have proven themselves incapable of solving the crisis in Haiti. In fact, they are the principal source of the crisis. These powers must be compelled not only to make good on their promises of aid for rebuilding the country after the quake, but also to pay reparations for the decades of damage they have done to Haiti.

Only when the Haitian masses receive such funds and are able to rebuild their society in their interests will they be able to pull themselves out of the endless crises that imperialism has imposed on Haiti.

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