How Haiti was abandoned

January 13, 2011

Ashley Smith describes the broken promises of support for Haiti from the world's most powerful governments--and the neoliberal agenda they are pursuing instead.

WHEN THE devastating earthquake struck Port-au-Prince in Haiti last January, it killed 250,000 people, injured another 300,000, destroyed 250,000 houses, displaced 1.5 million people and reduced large parts of the capital to rubble.

The people of the world responded with an outpouring of generosity. They donated money, volunteered in relief missions and reached out to Haitians in their own countries. The world's most powerful governments, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) collected the donated funds, pledged their own support in the emergency, and promised, in the words of UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton, to "build Haiti back better."

But by every measure, those states and institutions failed Haiti and betrayed the generosity of the world's people.

An angry Ricardo Seitenfus, special representative from the Organization of American States (OAS) to Haiti, told the Swiss daily Le Temps, "If there is failure of international aid, it is Haiti." For that moment of honesty, the OAS fired Seitenfus. But he was right. Haiti's past year explodes the myth of imperial humanitarianism.

One of hundreds of thousands of homeless families still living amid the rubble in Port-au-Prince
One of hundreds of thousands of homeless families still living amid the rubble in Port-au-Prince

WHILE THE U.S. responded to the initial disaster with 20,000 soldiers and a 17-ship naval blockade around the island, other countries, including Cuba and Venezuela, and NGOs rushed to deliver food, water and temporary housing. But since the initial aftermath, conditions for Haitians have actually deteriorated in Port-au-Prince and across the country.

Today, according to the Miami Herald, at least 810,000 people are still trapped in 1,150 tent camps throughout Port-au-Prince. These quake refugees have little hope of finding transitional housing, since only 15 percent of the promised temporary shelters have been built.

And forget about reconstruction. Not even 5 percent of the rubble in Port-au-Prince has been cleared for building new, permanent housing.

The NGOs collected hundreds of millions of dollars, but many have sat on the funds, saving them for future projects. The Red Cross, for instance, collected $479 million in donations for Haiti, but has only spent or committed $245 million to aid projects.

In a scathing study of relief efforts titled "From Relief to Recovery," Oxfam indicted the NGOs and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHCR). Roland Van Hauwermeiren, country director for Oxfam in Haiti, stated, "Despite the success of emergency lifesaving aid after last year's earthquake, long-term recovery from the disaster has barely begun."

The worst offender is the ICHR. As Haitian journalist Christophe Warny wrote:

Everyone counted on the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, with its co-presidents Bill Clinton, the UN's special envoy to Haiti, and Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive. Disappointingly, it has met just three times in 10 months, few projects have been confirmed, and there's poor coordination between the sponsors. Haitian civil society has been spurned. The donor states...seem a long way from the $10-15 billion target announced: just 10 percent of donations have materialized.

Without effective reconstruction, Haitians in Port-au-Prince were been left vulnerable to storms and disease, both of which struck at the end of last year. Hurricane Tomas turned the camps into cesspools of human excrement and trash.

Worst of all, a cholera epidemic has exploded across the country. The World Health Organization reports that the disease has killed more than 3,600 Haitians, and in excess of 170,000 have been infected. Epidemiologists fear that as many as 600,000 will contract the disease in the coming years.

Soldiers from the very force nominally in Haiti to aid the population, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), have been identified as the strain of cholera sweeping the country--specifically, soldiers from Nepal. Harvard University microbiologist John Mekalanos corroborated the findings of other epidemiologists that the strain of cholera came from outside Haiti and "likely did come either from peacekeepers or other relief personnel."

Outraged by the epidemic, Haitians staged a wave of protests in which demonstrators confronted UN forces and called for an end to MINUSTAH's occupation. Desperate to solve a crisis of its own making, the UN sent out emergency plea for more $174 million to help treat victims and prevent the further spread of the epidemic. But according to spokeswoman for the UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the response has been "shameful...The UN has only received $44 million, or 25 percent of the funds we asked for, although [the situation] is of the utmost urgency."

TO COVER up their failure, the major powers, the UN, NGOs and the media have turned to the most traditional of alibis--blaming the victim.

One common form of this alibi is to claim that the Haitian government is responsible. For example, Oxfam argues, "Haitian authorities have been moving extremely slowly to address vital issues. They have not resolved legal complications related to the repair of houses or the removal of rubble from the streets, and have not acted to support people living in camps to move back into their communities or to other appropriate locations."

But the Haitian state itself was shattered by the quake. Many of its buildings were destroyed, including the National Palace, and 30 percent of government personnel were killed.

Perhaps even more common is to highlight insecurity and lawlessness in Haiti, as if this was the reason for the lack of progress after the earthquake. For example, the most recent program by the PBS program Frontline, called "The Battle for Haiti," focuses on the breakdown of law and order in the aftermath of the disaster. As the New York Times review of the program concluded, "The atmosphere of lawlessness discouraged the kind of business investment that might rebuild infrastructure and create jobs."

This was same excuse the U.S. used right after the earthquake to justify its disproportionate military response. But according to the accounts of those in Haiti, there was little violence and crime in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as desperate Haitians rallied to help one another.

Of course, the horrific conditions in the camps have worn away this initial solidarity, leading to violence, especially rape against women. Those conditions--the result of the failure of the great powers and NGOs--are the real source of "lawlessness."

Nicholas Kristoff captured another common and reactionary alibi in his deplorable column in the New York Times titled "Ladders for the Poor." After an absurd homage to entrepreneurialism as a means for the refugees in the camps to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Kristoff warns that aid itself may cultivate a culture of poverty in Haiti. "Whether in America or Haiti," he writes, "poverty is sometimes linked to self-destructive behaviors that lock families into unending cycles of penury."

It is frankly disgusting to argue that people in Haiti driven into refugee camps by the quake and actually denied aid are poor because of their own behavior.

ALL OF these alibis absolve U.S., Canadian, and French imperialism of their responsibility for causing the social conditions in the country that made the earthquake so devastating. Their policies also incapacitated the Haitian state making it unable to develop the country or respond to the emergency.

After Haiti's victorious slave revolution in 1804, France imposed $21 billion in reparations on the country in return of recognition in 1825, structurally adjusting the country at its birth.

After several occupations in the 19th and 20th century, the U.S. backed the kleptocratic dictatorship of the Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier from 1957 to 1986 as a Cold War ally against Russia and Cuba. The Duvalier dictatorships defended the interest of Haiti's elite with brute force, murdering as many as 50,000 peasants, workers and political activists during their reign.

In the 1980s, the U.S., World Bank, and International Monetary Fund pushed Baby Doc to implement a neoliberal development plan that wrecked Haitian society. The plan opened Haiti to U.S. subsidized grain, especially rice, destroying the livelihoods of the peasant majority.

U.S. multinationals established sweatshops in Port-au-Prince to employ the peasants fleeing the countryside. But these factories could only employ at most 100,000, leaving hundreds of thousands in the slums of Port-au-Prince, struggling in the informal economy. Finally, they got Baby Doc to build swank beach resorts for yuppie tourists.

Outraged, the impoverished masses built a movement, Lavalas, that drove Baby Doc from power in 1986. In 1990, the movement's leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ran for the presidency in the first free and fair democratic election in the country's history, winning 67 percent of the vote and trouncing the U.S.-backed candidate Marc Bazin. Aristide attempted to implement a program of social reform to improve conditions for the Haitian masses that ran into conflict with the Haitian ruling class and U.S. imperialism.

The U.S. gave support to two coups against Aristide, one in 1991 and another in 2004. In the run-up to the second coup, Presidents Bill Clinton and then George Bush Jr. imposed an aid embargo to stop social reform and starve the country. The U.S. blocked an Inter-American Development Bank loan of $54 million slated to improve water treatment for Artibonite Valley, the very area where people first contracted cholera.

Since the second coup, the U.S. has ruled Haiti as a neo-colony. It first installed Gerard Latortue as a puppet president. In 2006, it organized an election that was won by Aristide's former ally René Préval. But as recently published cables from WikiLeaks demonstrate, the U.S. was confident that Preval was a toady who could be counted on to pursue a neoliberal agenda in Haiti. One cable calls him "a neoliberal, particularly in that he has embraced free markets and foreign investment."

By undermining Lavalas and Aristide, the U.S. was able to further impose neoliberalism on the Haitian state and economy, privatizing state industry and social services, and opening the country to U.S. multinationals.

The U.S. funneled the bulk of its aid away from the Haitian state and toward NGOs. Numbering over 10,000, the NGOs in Haiti now provide 80 percent of services, the highest percentage in the Western Hemisphere. Most are not registered with the Haitian government and don't even pay taxes.

Haitians now call their country a "The Republic of NGOs." But "republic" is a misnomer, since the NGOs are not accountable to the Haitian people, but to international donors--and most importantly, to the U.S. and other major powers. This incoherent jumble of NGOs failed to provide uniform services to the population even before the earthquake--and failed the Haitian people even more afterward.

To ensure its unchallenged dominance, the U.S. turned to the UN's MINUSTAH soldiers to repress what remained of Lavalas and its political leaders. MINUSTAH and the Haitian police have killed 1,000 people from 2004 to 2006. The U.S. also made sure to stop Lavalas from running in elections--and to prevent Aristide from returning from his involuntary exile in South Africa.

SO U.S. imperialism and neoliberalism are thus responsible for underdeveloping Haiti, crushing a mass political movement, overthrowing Aristide twice and incapacitating the Haitian state as a vehicle for social reform.

Since the quake, as Peter Hallward argues in Damming the Flood, the U.S.- and UN-led relief operation conformed:

to the three main counter-revolutionary strategies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history. (a) It would foreground questions of "security" and "stability," and try to answer them by military or quasi-military means. (b) It would sideline Haiti's own leaders and government, and ignore both the needs and the abilities of the majority of its people. (c) It would proceed in ways that directly reinforce and widen the immense gap between the privileged few and the impoverished millions they exploit.

The U.S. doubled the number of troops deployed in MINUSTAH to 13,000. The UN had already spent $500 million a year on its occupation since 2004, and now, while Haitians are starved of aid and basic housing, the UN renewed that occupation for another year, at the cost of $850 million. These decisions drove fired OAS representative Seitenfus to compare MINUSTAH to a jailer that is "transforming the Haitians into prisoners on their own island."

The U.S. also set up the ICHR as the real government in Haiti, with Bill Clinton as co-chair to ensure its imperial control and the World Bank as the organization's treasurer. Last April, the U.S. strong-armed the Haitian parliament to surrender control over Haiti's finances and reconstruction to the ICHR.

Since then, the U.S. has even sidelined the 12 ruling-class Haitians it accepted onto the ICHR. The Jamaica Observer reported that "Suze Percy Filippine from President René Préval's office spoke passionately on behalf of the 12 Haitian members of the IHRC. She said they felt like mannequins, also unappreciated and at times disrespected. She referred to their attendance at a meeting in September where there no seats provided for them at the table."

She and others penned a letter in protest, stating that "in reality, Haitian members of the board have one role: to endorse the decisions made by the Executive Director and Executive Committee."

The IHRC has dusted off a plan from before the quake authored by British academic Paul Collier along with Clinton as the model for reconstructing Haiti. It is the same old plan of sweatshops, plantations and tourist traps that dates back to the neoliberal schemes imposed under Baby Doc.

While it has failed to collect and disburse the bulk of the $10 billion pledged by governments for reconstruction projects, ICHR has distributed what funds it has not to the Haitian state, but to U.S., French and Canadian multinationals and NGOs. It used the same corrupt system that the U.S. notoriously used in Iraq--the no-bid contract.

These disaster capitalists have launched all sorts of pet projects. Thus, Paul Vallas, who led the privatizing of New Orleans public schools, launched a project to channel public funds into the Haiti's private schools; Korean companies are in the process of setting up sweatshops; and Coca Cola is planning to establish mango plantations.

Former OAS representative Seitenfus rightly judges that "it is unacceptable to from a moral standpoint to treat Haiti as a laboratory. The reconstruction of Haiti and the shimmering promise of $11 billions inspire lust. It seems that a lot of people come to Haiti, not for Haiti, but to do business. For me, as a Latin American, it is a disgrace, an affront to our conscience."

THE U.S. and other powers, along with the UN, have been desperate to maintain a democratic cover for their neocolonial project. With Préval's term as president set to expire, these forces collaborated with him to spend $30 million to stage an election on November 28. The election was a sham from the beginning and only precipitated an even more extreme crisis.

Préval's handpicked Provisional Election Commission (CEP) attempted to rig the outcome. It banned 14 political parties from running, including the country's most popular political party, Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas. Preval did everything he could to position his anointed successor Jude Celestin to win the election.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters joined 45 other lawmakers to protest the election. In a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, they wrote:

Haiti's next government will be called upon to make difficult decisions in the reconstruction process that will have a lasting impact on Haitian society, such as land reform and allocation of reconstruction projects among urban and rural areas. Conferring these decisions on a government perceived as illegitimate is a recipe for disaster.

President Obama and Clinton ignored this plea and forged ahead with their plans, even as the cholera epidemic sparked a wave of anti-MINUSTAH protests. They bullied the OAS and CARICOM into endorsing the election. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Dan Beeton exposed the hypocrisy of Obama, who had just denounced a sham election in Burma. As Beeton wrote, "Much closer to home, the process is about to be repeated, and this time, the Obama Administration seems all too happy to go along with the charade."

Haitians, by contrast, listened to Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas, which called for a boycott. In the event, only 23 percent of the electorate voted--the vast majority sat it out.

The election itself was a carnival of corruption. According to the Toronto Star, it was characterized by "stuffed ballot boxes. Polling stations with no ballots. Dead people on the voters list. Living people left off it. People voting more than once. The weekend election in Haiti had ample evidence of fraud or incompetence, or both."

Nevertheless, the U.S., its allies, the UN, the OAS and CARICOM gave qualified approval to the election. The CEP reported that Mirlande Manigat won 31.37 percent of the vote, ahead of Préval's Celestin with 22.38 percent, who nudged out Kompa musician Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly with 21.84 percent. That forced a runoff scheduled for January, between Manigat and Celestin. Outraged, Manigat, Martelly and 12 other presidential candidates protested the vote, mobilized their paid supporters into demonstrations, and threatened the Préval government.

Faced with a collapse of their electoral charade, the U.S. got the OAS to review the CEP tabulation of the vote. According to the Associated Press, a draft copy of the OAS report "said the disputed November 28th election should neither be thrown out or recounted, but that enough fraudulent or improper ballots should be invalidated to drop ruling-party candidate Jude Celestin into third place and out of the second-round runoff."

The OAS is pressuring Préval to call the run-off election at the end of February between Manigat and Martelly. Manigat is the widow of neo-Duvalierist Leslie Manigat, who the military selected in a fraudulent vote in 1988. Martelly has long had connections with the coup leaders who toppled Aristide in 1991 and 2004.

Most Haitians will not turn out to vote for either, guaranteeing that the U.S. will have selected a puppet government with no democratic mandate to impose its neoliberal plans on the country.

In an act of supreme callousness, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has threatened to push for a suspension of aid to Haiti if the election crisis is not resolved. In reality, the U.S. forced this election on Haiti, and the Haitian people should not be threatened with the cutoff of what little help is reaching the country.

THE U.S., the UN and their NGO accomplices have proven themselves completely unable to help Haitians rebuild from the crisis--in fact, they are one of the principal causes of the unending crises that has wracked the country.

As Seitenfus declared:

I had hoped that with the plight of January 12, the world would understand that it had got it wrong with Haiti. Unfortunately, it has reinforced the same policy. Instead of taking stock, we sent more soldiers. We must build roads, erect dams and participate in the organization of the state, the judicial system. The UN says it has no mandate for that. Its mandate in Haiti is to keep the peace of the cemetery.

The hope lies with the resistance that has emerged across Haiti against MINUSTAH. It lies with the repeated demonstration to demand Aristide's right to return to Haiti. It lies with regular protests by people trapped in the refugee camps, demanding their democratic right to be involved in decisions about aid and the reconstruction of their country.

One protester, Aliodor Pierre, revealed the radical consciousness developing among a section of Haitian population. As an Associated Press reporter described what he had to say:

"I blame this on the United States, because the United States is the world power,: he says. "Why would you accept for us to be living in poverty? If Dessalines [the leader of the 1804 revolution] were alive today," Aliodor says, "he would lead the people in a revolution against the government, foreign soldiers and other foreigners who aren't helping." He hopes the spirits of the ancestors will come back and teach Haitians to be independent again.

The combination of protests and public exposure by outraged officials like Seitenfus can delegitimize the occupation in the eyes of people around the world. In particular, the left inside Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina must pressure their governments to withdraw troops from MINUSTAH. In the U.S. and Canada, the Haitian diaspora and its allies have the potential to agitate for Obama to end the occupation.

Such an international movement can build, over time, a movement for Haitian sovereignty and aid to the people, without strings attached. Only then will the Haitians majority be able rebuild their society in their own interests.

Further Reading

From the archives