Haiti's misery before Sandy

Ashley Smith describes how decades of neoliberalism and imperialist intervention set the stage for a new level of devastation after Hurricane Sandy.

People near Port-au-Prince stranded by storm damage (Chimen Lakay)People near Port-au-Prince stranded by storm damage (Chimen Lakay)

HURRICANE SANDY ravaged New Jersey, New York and other areas of the Northeast, destroying homes and depriving people of power and vital services for days. The most advanced capitalist state in the world struggled to respond to the emergency and still failed to come to the rescue of many-working class and poor people who were left to fend for themselves and depend on their neighbors' generosity.

While the world was transfixed by the images of devastation in New York City, Sandy's even greater destruction in Haiti went almost unnoticed. The hurricane luckily didn't strike the beleaguered country directly, but grazed the nation's south. However, even this glancing blow wrecked that section of Haiti.

The country has barely recovered from the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of the country's capital of Port-au-Prince, killing as many as 300,000 mostly poor people. Since then, a sequence of tropical storms and hurricanes, most recently Isaac, has tormented the dispossessed and impeded reconstruction of the country. More than 370,000 Haitians are still trapped in refugee camps living in tents and improvised housing.

Sandy dumped as much as 27 inches of rain on the island in just one day. The water flooded the camps, destroyed temporary housing and drove an estimated 200,000 people into another round of homelessness. Only 17,000 of those have been provided with emergency shelter. More than 54 people have been killed, 20 are reported missing, and many more are expected to be found dead once the government and aid workers are able to reach areas that are currently inaccessible due to storm damage.

Sandy hit Haiti's agricultural sector particularly hard, destroying as much as 70 percent of the crops in the south and killing large numbers of livestock. Director of the Ministry of Agriculture for the Southern Department Jean Debalio Jean-Jacques said, "Everything the peasants had in reserve--corn, tubers--all of it was devastated. Some people had already prepared their fields for winter crops and those were devastated."

Without crops to sell, peasants will be impoverished, and the urban population will become even more dependent on buying expensive imported food. Even before this storm, Haitians took part in a wave of protests against the escalating cost of food in the country. Experts predict an international rise in the cost of food, which means that Haiti is headed for a food emergency.

With floodwaters sweeping through a country that lacks basic sanitation, epidemiologists fear a spike in cholera cases across the country. Cholera is a water-born disease caused by bacteria that infects the small intestine, causing diarrhea and consequent dehydration. It's transmitted by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated by infected people. If untreated, the disease kills people.

Haiti already suffers from more cases of cholera than the entire world combined. More than 600,000 people, one-sixth of the country's population, have contracted the disease since it first emerged in 2010. More than 7,500 people have died, hundreds of new cases appear each week, and two to three children are killed each day. There are already reports of an increase of cholera cases among the new homeless and those who are still living in refugee camps.

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NONE OF this devastation is natural. While Sandy hit other Caribbean nations like Cuba and Jamaica, none of them suffered the extent of damage and loss of life as Haiti did. The cause for Haiti's exceptional experience lies in its history of strangulation by imperial powers and the reactionary policies of its morally repugnant elite.

The country was originally a slave colony ruled by France. After Black slaves led by Toussaint L'Ouverture revolted and finally freed themselves in 1804--the first and only successful slave revolution in human history--the capitalist slaveholding powers of the world throttled the country trying to prevent the rebellion spreading to other colonies.

France subjected the country to structural adjustment at birth, demanding compensation for the loss of its slaves in return for loans. France thus robbed the country of--in today's currency--$22 billion. As a result, Haiti's economic development was subject to debt manipulation that kept it in desperate poverty for the next two centuries. Its ruling class and their imperial overseers hoarded what money the economy produced.

These two forces combined to destroy the country's ecosystem, especially its forests, making it vulnerable to hurricane damage. The French slaveholders cleared much of the country to set up plantations for sugar cane and other crops. After independence, Haitian landowners further cut the forests to produce charcoal as the primary cooking fuel for the poor urban masses in Port-au-Prince.

By 2006, more than 98 percent of Haiti had been cleared of its original tropical forest. Without that natural barrier to flooding, hurricanes create killing torrents of water laying waste to everything in their path. And even minor rainstorms strip the land of topsoil, compromising peasant farming in the process. The U.S. further destroyed peasant life in the countryside by flooding the country with subsidized American food exports in the 1980s.

The U.S. and the Haitian ruling class saw in the country's struggling peasantry in the countryside an opportunity for development. In the 1980s, the U.S. and the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier implemented a neoliberal plan to transform the country's capital, Port-au-Prince, into an export-processing zone.

Duvalier struck deals with U.S. multinationals to set up sweatshops in the capital city, luring peasants to work making everything from baseballs for Rawlings to Pocahontas T-shirts for Disney. But the meager number of jobs could not absorb those masses that migrated to Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. neoliberal program wrecked Haitian agriculture and created giant slums in the capital where desperately poor people live in poorly constructed homes with minimal services. In this way, neoliberal policies established the social conditions that turned the earthquake into a mass killer in 2010.

The U.S. and the Haitian ruling class have stood in the way of every effort at reforming the countryside or city in the interests of the peasants, workers and the urban poor. When the masses of Haiti rose up, overthrew U.S. ally Baby Doc and elected reformist political leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990, the U.S. responded by backing a right-wing coup the next year. When Aristide was elected again in 2000, the U.S. supported another coup against him in 2004.

Those coups blocked any attempts to redress the country's deforestation, impoverished peasantry and urban destitution. After the 2004 coup, the U.S., France and Canada pushed the UN to occupy Haiti on the anniversary of its emancipation in 1804. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has bolstered neoliberalism, defended the right-wing political governments that replaced Aristide, repressed popular opposition, and sustained the rule of the country's kleptocratic ruling class.

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FOR ALL their crocodile tears shed after the 2010 earthquake, the U.S., the UN and the international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have utterly failed to reconstruct the country. They haven't provided permanent housing for those who lost their homes in the quake. And the aid they provided bypassed the Haitian state further incapacitating it--making it unable to coordinate relief efforts then or now.

The right-wing Haitian governments that the U.S. and MINUSTAH have supported since 2004 have shown no interest in helping the people. They're puppets of imperialism and the Haitian rich. The current government of neo-Duvalierist Michel Martelly, elected in 2011, is more interested in restoring the old Haitian army than providing aid to quake refugees let alone the victims of Sandy.

The MINUSTAH occupation, which was dramatically enlarged after the quake, claims to provide peace, security and space to enable the reconstruction of the country. It has in fact aided and abetted the Haitian state's repression of the popular movements for reform in the city and countryside. Even worse, the UN brought the plague of cholera to the country in 2010.

Haiti had not suffered an outbreak of the disease in over 100 years. When cholera suddenly spread throughout the country, Haitians located its origin in a UN base near Mirebalais staffed by Nepali soldiers. They observed their latrines leaking waste into a tributary that flowed into the Artibonite River that then transmitted it to the capital and from there around the country.

Even though internationally renowned epidemiologists corroborated Haitian claims, the official UN investigation refused to identify the UN base as the source of the epidemic. Now, however, one of the principal scientists assigned to the investigation, Dr. Daniele Lantagne, has concluded after further study that Haitians were correct all along.

She told the media, "the most likely source of the introduction of the cholera into Haiti was someone infected with the Nepal strain of cholera and associated with the United Nations Mirebalais camp." Representatives from the UN, which is now the target of a lawsuit demanding compensation from victims and their families, have attempted to deflect the new conclusive evidence of their culpability.

A UN official in Haiti stated, "The investigation is still with the legal office," and another, Undersecretary-General Hervé Ladsous, declared that it is "impossible to establish the origins of the disease."

As Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a group that monitors the UN, declared, "No one is accusing the UN of deliberating poisoning Haiti's water supply. But when one of its own designated experts concludes that a UN division negligently causes a mass epidemic, the victims are owed a better response than denial and deafening silence."

Now, at Haiti's moment of greatest need, the U.S. and the rest of the international community are withdrawing aid from the country. Jonathan Watts reports in The Guardian, "There has been a 96 percent drop in financial support for UN humanitarian programs over the past two years, despite the continued vulnerability of the Western hemisphere's poorest country." International aid has fallen from $2 billion in 2010 to just $75 million in 2012.

But they aren't ending the MINUSTAH occupation. Claiming Haiti has made "considerable strides," the UN Security Council voted to extend the occupation for yet another year. While they will reduce some of the international military and police forces, they want to make sure they keep a lid on any resurgence of a popular movement for reform and prevent an exodus of refugees from the disaster-ridden country.

Former U.S. Ambassador Janet Sanderson made these intentions absolutely clear in a cable from 2008 exposed by WikiLeaks. She declared, "a premature departure of MINUSTAH would leave the [Haitian] government...vulnerable to...resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces--reversing gains of the last two years."

MINUSTAH forces are backing Martelly's increasingly despotic and unpopular rule. He has turned to targeting all sorts of progressive activists and movements. For example, he singled out lawyer Mario Joseph for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux for intimidation.

Joseph became a target after he brought an unsuccessful lawsuit for the prosecution of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes against humanity. He also called for investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human rights into what he calls "the deterioration of and contempt for human rights in Haiti."

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WITH MINUSTAH troops patrolling the country and backing Martelly's rule, the U.S. has returned to its tried-and-failed neoliberal program of turning Haiti into an export-processing zone. Bill Clinton, the much-hyped "savior of Haiti," has pioneered this effort. He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined President Martelly and former President René Préval to christen a new sweatshop, the Caracol Industrial Park, near the northern city of Cap-Hatien.

They have promised that the park will create 65,000 new jobs, but in a country where unemployment is currently estimated to be 60 percent, this is a drop in the ocean. The South Korean textile magnate, Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd., is the first to open business in the park. It has shut down its sweatshops in Guatemala, where its labor costs had risen, to open this new one in Haiti.

It didn't have to invest any money in the project. Deborah Sontag noted in the New York Times, "thanks to a deal that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped broker, Sae-A looks forward to tax exemptions, duty-free access to the U.S., abundant cheap labor, factory sheds, a power plant, a new port and an expatriate residence outfitted with special kimchi refrigerators."

Sae-A also secured opt-out clauses in the agreement, which enable it to scrap its operations if costs (i.e. wages) increase or conditions become destabilized (i.e. union struggles).

Environmentalist have criticized the project for preventing the development of farms on the fertile land the park occupies as well as threatening the fragile ecosystem of the Bay of Caracol. Labor activists have documented that Sae-A has proved itself unwilling to even pay the state-mandated minimum wage of $5 a day in its other operations in the country.

But the Clintons, their puppet Haitian politicians, the capitalists, and sadly actor Sean Penn were happy to announce that Sae-A just shipped its first order of 67,000 T-shirts to Wal-Mart. Bill Clinton celebrated this as "the beginning of the flowering of Haiti's north across every economic sector." He declared it "economic anchor of the region."

In reality, it is a neoliberal noose around the neck of Haiti. The park is an example of what Naomi Klein famously called disaster capitalism, in which corporations take advantage of natural and unnatural disasters to reorganize economies for their own profit.

This neoliberal program fails to address the crying needs of the country's peasant majority and will trap urban workers in sweatshops that don't pay a living wage. As Haitian academic Alex Dupuy noted, "This is: Been there, done that. This is not a strategy that is meant to provide Haiti with any measure of sustainable development...The only reason those industries come to Haiti is because the country has the lowest wages in the region."

The imperial powers, the UN and their NGO allies have not only failed Haiti; they have created the social conditions that turned natural disasters like the earthquake and hurricane Sandy into social catastrophes. The only hope amid this horror is the stirring of resistance over the last year by Haitian students, teachers, workers and peasants who have protested against the UN occupation, Martelly's government, and their deplorable conditions.