Haiti’s buried cry for help
Three years ago, on January 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, causing death and destruction on a terrible scale. But the years since have seen the effects of the earthquake made worse by other factors--not only the failure of powerful governments and international institutions to live up to their promises to provide aid, but the cynical efforts of corporations from the U.S. and elsewhere to make money off Haiti.
Seattle teacherwas in Haiti when the earthquake struck three years ago. Now, on the anniversary of the disaster, he looks at how the people of Haiti have been betrayed and victimized again by the most powerful government in the world.
"When you look at things, you say, 'Hell, almost three years later, where is the reconstruction?' If you ask what went right and what went wrong, the answer is most everything went wrong."
-- Former Prime Minster of Haiti Michèle Pierre-Louis
ON THE third anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti that left tens of thousands dead and injured, the solemn remembrances have been buried under the debris of deception. Barely audible from the bottom of this colossal heap, the cry to "build back better" has turned into raspy whisper--and the world has lost its voice, unable to even vocalize the words "relief for Haiti."
As Nigel Fisher, humanitarian coordinator for United Nations aid in Haiti, admitted in an article in the New York Times, "humanitarian financing for Haiti has all but dried up while needs remain acute."
Some 300,000 Haitians still live as refugees in camps, and more than 60,000 people who live in tents on private land have been evicted. Worse, a now nearly three-year-old cholera epidemic has sickened hundreds of thousands of people and killed over 7,900.
It is now widely recognized that no earnest effort was ever undertaken to meet the needs of millions of Haitians languishing in inhuman conditions. As the Times reported, describing the fading support for Haiti:
[W]hile at least $7.5 billion in official aid and private contributions have indeed been disbursed--as calculated by [special envoy Bill] Clinton's United Nations office and by the Times--disbursed does not necessarily mean spent. Sometimes, it simply means the money has been shifted from one bank account to another as projects have gotten bogged down. That is the case for nearly half the money for housing.
The United States, for instance, long ago disbursed $65 million to the Haiti Reconstruction Fund for the largest housing project planned for this devastated city. The fund, which issued a January 2011 news release promising houses for 50,000 people, then transferred the money to the World Bank, which is executing the project. And there, almost all of it still sits, with contracts just signed.
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The mainstream media would lead one to think that Haiti's primary problem is waning international good will. The U.S. has contributed less than half of the $1 billion it pledged to Haiti. Canada's International "Cooperation" Minister Julian Fantino recently announced a freeze on aid to Haiti, fuming, "We are not a charity foundation."
The major problem, however, isn't abandonment--if only Haiti was lucky enough to have been deserted by "interested" outside parties after the earthquake!
Instead, the U.S., UN and other international financing organizations decided that mere inattention was too good for Haiti. The world's most powerful governments and institutions have imposed policies that have compounded the damage done by the earthquake--a man-made economic and social disaster that in many ways has caused more damage than the natural one that came before it.
Election Puppeteers and the Disaster of Neoliberalism
Take, for example, the 2011 Haitian presidential election. This might have been an opportunity for Haitians to strengthen democracy, electing a leader who shared their values and sense of urgency in the rebuilding effort. Yet the U.S., along with the UN, decided a democratic election would undermine the long history of colonial rule in Haiti.
The U.S. supported Michel Martelly, a former supporter of the U.S.-backed dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Martelly was picked for the job by the U.S. because of his close association with army figures who carried out the first coup against Haiti's first democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. Martelly was also a supporter of the paramilitary forces that carried out another coup--orchestrated by the U.S. under George W. Bush--against Aristide in 2004.
With U.S. and UN support, the Provisional Election Commission (CEP) rigged the Haitian election by banning 14 political parties from running, including the country's most popular party, Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas.
With the help of the international puppeteers and their manipulation of the election, Martelly was able to ignore the mass protests against election fraud and capture the presidency. As Haïti Liberté journalist and editor Kim Ives said in a speech:
Martelly only won through U.S. intervention into the Haitian elections. The first round of the election was complete chaos--a total mess in November 2010. In fact, all but the three frontrunners--Michel Martelly, Mirlande Manigat and Jude Célestin--pulled out of the race and called for the annulment of the election.
Martelly's pledge to make Haiti "business friendly" made him the clear choice for U.S. interests. Not content with simply leaving Haiti to suffer, the U.S. has used Martelly as a pliable figurehead, behind whom it can control Haiti's economy.
The U.S. government and Inter-American Development Bank set aside $220 million to finance the new Caracol Industrial Park, which was designed to provide sweatshop labor for the South Korean-based clothing manufacturer SNH Global. Former President Bill Clinton joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Caracol inaugural ceremony in the fall of 2012.
Whenever the Clintons choose to visit sweatshop workers in the shiny new Caracol factories, they can stay at the Royal Oasis Hotel, with 128 luxurious rooms ranging in price from $190 a night for standard accommodations to $342 for a full suite. The hotel was built with a $2 million equity investment from the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund.
Of course, the Clintons won't have to worry about rubbing elbows with sweaty workers in the lobby, as the U.S. has used its diplomatic authority in Haiti to keep the minimum wage low. It would take more than a month of Caracol wages to spend a single night in the cheapest room at the Royal Oasis.
Isabel Macdonald and Isabeau Doucet's published an investigative report for the Nation magazine on the Clinton Foundation's first project in Haiti, a reconstruction effort in the town of Léogâne. The reporters discovered that the foundation provided the town with trailers from Clayton Homes, the very company being sued in the U.S. for providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency with formaldehyde-tainted trailers following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
As Macdonald and Doucet reported, the trailers were to be used as classrooms--but they incubated mold rather than scholarship and were plagued with high levels of formaldehyde:
As Judith Seide, a student in Lubert's sixth-grade class, explained to the Nation, she and her classmates regularly suffer from painful headaches in their new Clinton Foundation classroom. Every day, she said, her "head hurts, and I feel it spinning and have to stop moving, otherwise I'd fall." Her vision goes dark, as is the case with her classmate Judel, who sometimes can't open his eyes because, said Seide, "he's allergic to the heat." Their teacher regularly relocates the class outside into the shade of the trailer because the swelter inside is insufferable.
Two out of four of these classrooms provided by the Clinton Foundation couldn't be used because temperatures frequently exceeded 100 degrees inside the trailers. As student Mondialie Cineas said, "The class gets so hot. The kids get headaches. And we go to the teacher for him to give us painkillers."
[M]any Haitians never shook the feeling that they were an afterthought and that their institutions and businesses were being bypassed and undermined ...."We called it the second earthquake," said Jean-Yves Jason, mayor of Port-au-Prince at the time.
The UN in the Time of Cholera
There is perhaps no better example of the cruelty of international organizations toward Haiti than the cholera epidemic that broke out in the fall of 2010. Prior to October 2010, there had not been a reported incident of cholera in Haiti in nearly a century, according to the UN World Health Organization. Today, Partners in Health (PIH) reports, "Cholera remains a leading cause of death among young adults in Haiti, and cases continue to spike during rainy periods."
An expert panel of epidemiologists and microbiologists appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon concluded UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal imported cholera to Haiti and contaminated the river tributary next to their base through a faulty sanitation system. "It was like throwing a lighted match into a gasoline-filled room," said Dr. Paul S. Keim, a microbial geneticist who worked on the study.
The UN did not intentionally infect Haiti's water supply. But it is also true the UN has refused to apologize for unleashing cholera on the Haitian population, saying the outbreak was due to a "confluence" of factors "and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual."
Besides introducing cholera, UN MINUSTAH forces have perpetrated mass rape of underage girls, used indiscriminate force in densely populated urban areas that killed dozens of innocent civilians in raids and prioritized security and policing over humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the earthquake, a decision that cost the lives of countless Haitians who were trapped beneath rubble and needed to get water within a few days of the quake.
The UN came to Haiti after Aristide was removed by the U.S. Marines in 2004--a clear attempt to give a humanitarian gloss to U.S. imperial interests. The UN mission is primarily aimed at preventing Aristide's Lavalas Fanmi party from returning to power and has nothing to do with charitable considerations.
Had the popular Lavalas agenda of improving national infrastructure been allowed to proceed, Haiti would have been in a much better position to cope with the cholera outbreak. Investing resources in a national sewage system could have saved thousands of lives. In this way, too, the UN is culpable for the spread of cholera.
The Earthquake and its Aftermath
Two days before the earthquake, my 1-year-old son and I accompanied my wife to Haiti where she was conducting an HIV training course for her university. We thankfully survived the earthquake unharmed and soon began helping to care for others who were badly injured.
We had one emergency medical technician (EMT) at our hotel, and when word got out that there was a trained medical professional present, people began flocking to what became a makeshift medical clinic for hundreds of badly injured Haitians. The EMT quickly deputized my wife and I as orderlies in his driveway "emergency room," where we assisted in whatever way we could--ripping sheets to use as bandages, setting splints, tying tourniquets--despite our lack of training.
On the third day after the earthquake, we drove through the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince and witnessed hundreds of dead bodies lining the streets and people still desperately trying to dig loved ones out of the rubble, while the UN and U.S. soldiers were deployed to security details to protect against the thing that worried them more than rescuing people--possible civil strife, which could threaten U.S. interests.
On the fifth day after the quake, we made it to the airport. To our horror, we saw planes flying in with materiel that that was stacking up on the tarmac. We didn't see a single truck carry the supplies out of the airport in all the hours we spent waiting for our evacuation flight. With thousands of people buried under rubble on that critical fifth day after the quake, the water on that tarmac could have saved thousands of lives.
Now, there is documentary evidence to back up our conclusions about the cynical and self-serving role of the U.S. government and the UN and other international institutions it dominates.
In September of 2011, a massive collection of cables from the U.S. embassy in Haiti was released by WikiLeaks, revealing the U.S. government's role in keeping former President Aristide from returning to Haiti, how the U.S. tried to suppress the minimum wage in Haiti and Washington's attempt to keep Haiti purchasing oil from U.S. corporations rather than the much cheaper supply from Venezuela, among other outrages.
I was particularly interested in the documents from aftermath of the earthquake. While the inclination of ordinary people was to do anything they could to help--remarkably, half of Americans donated to Haitian relief, according to one opinion survey--WikiLeaks documents reveal that the U.S. government and its disaster capitalist counterparts could think only of profit.
For example, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten wrote in a secret February 1, 2010 "situation report" cable sent to Washington: "THE GOLD RUSH IS ON!...As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different [U.S.] companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services."
Innovative concepts like sweat shops. Products such as $342 per night hotel rooms. Services such free delivery of formaldehyde-laced classrooms.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and famous abolitionist, delivered a speech titled "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" His words are appropriate today to describe our nation's appalling treatment of Haiti at its most desperate hour:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake....
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.