Natural and unnatural disasters

September 23, 2008

Ashley Smith describes the conditions that transformed the hurricanes that struck Haiti into mass killers.

A SUCCESSION of storms struck Haiti in August and early September, bringing devastation to the cities and countryside. First, Tropical Storm Fay swept the island, and then came Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike.

Haiti has the worst poverty in the Western Hemisphere, with over 80 percent of the country's people surviving on under $2 a day. Its peasant majority survives on subsistence agriculture, while the urban poor scrabble together income through day laboring, working in the small sweatshop sector, and hawking whatever they can find.

Haiti's desperate population made headlines across the world when it rioted from Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince in April against the runaway cost of imported food.

The hurricanes devastated the already impoverished masses. They wrecked whole cities, submerging them under 12 feet of water and mud, from Gonaives on the coast to Hinche and Mirebalais in the central plateau. They killed 1,000 people and drove over 1 million out of a population of 8 million into homelessness.

Much of Haiti was devastated by recent hurricanes
Much of Haiti was devastated by recent hurricanes (Radio Nederland)

In Gonaives, the flooding displaced 80 percent of the city's 300,000 people. The flooding has swept human and animal feces into the water, and could easily lead to epidemics of cholera and kill thousands more people.

With the infrastructure of roads and ports severely damaged by the storms, the UN has struggled to get relief supplies to starving and dehydrated people. It has only been able to feed 298,000 people. In several instances, the UN convoys ran out of supplies and turned their guns on enraged people.

Now, with the country's agricultural heartlands completely destroyed and livestock drowned by torrential flooding, the food crisis will grow even more severe. In Les Cayes, on August 25, angry Haitians again threw up barricades to protest the continuing high food costs.

WHILE THE media covered the catastrophe, few reporters drew connections to the political and economic conditions that caused it. The devastation wrought by the storms isn't the result of natural causes, but of imperial intervention in the politics and economics of Haiti for the last several hundred years.

What you can do

You can donate to organizations working to provide help to Haitians after the disasters.

The Partners in Health organization, founded by Haiti solidarity activist, is packed with information on conditions in Haiti, plus information on what you can do to show your solidarity. Also see the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which channels funds into community-based institutions for sustainable development.

For news and activist updates about Haiti and the struggle for justice, visit the Web site.

The International Socialist Review has carried extensive coverage of the food crisis in Haiti and globally, including Sharon Smith's "The revolt over rising food prices."

The contrast with Cuba, which wrested itself free from U.S. dominion, proves the point. Cuba was hit with many of the same storms as Haiti, but because it has a state sector that has invested in strategies like mass evacuation plans and infrastructure to support them, it lost almost no one in the storms.

The U.S., on the other hand, has collaborated with Haiti's morally repugnant elite to subject the country to neoliberal economic plans that have for decades denied their state the ability to address their dilapidated infrastructure, horrible deforestation and poverty.

As a result, storms that other countries survive with relatively little damage turn into mass killers in Haiti. The storms drop their rain, the deforested soil is unable to absorb it, and giant torrents gather in mountain rivers, wash away fields, and descend onto whole cities as deadly floods. As recently as 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed over 3,000 and submerged Gonaives under a several feet of water.

Haiti's deforestation began with French colonialism in the 18th century, when the French cleared huge areas of forest to build large slave plantations.

After the Haitian slave revolution won independence in 1804, the world's most powerful nations, led by France and the U.S., imposed an embargo. The new government was only recognized after it agreed to pay reparations to France for winning its freedom. This crippled Haiti with poverty conditions that have been the source of devastating social and environmental problems ever since.

With no other path to economic development possible, poor peasants divided plantations into small plots of land that they farmed for subsistence. As crop yields declined, peasants turned to chopping down forests to make charcoal to sell to other poor people for cooking fuel.

In the 20th century, the U.S. support for the infamous Duvalier dictatorship that ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986 accelerated the deforestation. The regime robbed the country and kept the peasants poor, failing to address the growing agricultural crisis, which in turn intensified the drive of farmers to plunder the forest to make a living.

"In 1950, about 25 percent of Haiti's 10,700 square miles was covered with forest," the Miami Herald reported. "By 1987, it was down to 10 percent. By 1994, 4 percent. Now, foreign and Haitian scientists find only 1.4 percent of the Maryland-sized nation is forested." France and the U.S. thus denuded the country that was once a tropical rainforest, setting the stage for killer storms.

In the 1980s, masses of Haitians rose up to drive the Duvaliers from power, and later elected reformer Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be president on a platform of land reform, aid to peasants, reforestation and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers. The U.S. backed a coup that drove Aristide from power in 1991.

Eventually, Washington restored the elected president in 1994, but on the condition that he implement the U.S. neoliberal plan--which Aristide for the most part did, undermining his hoped-for reforms. Eventually, the U.S. grew impatient with Aristide's lack of total subservience and imposed an embargo that strangled the country, driving peasants even deeper into poverty.

Finally, in 2004, Washington collaborated with the nation's ruling class and backed death squads to topple the government, kidnapped and deported Aristide, orchestrated a UN occupation of the country and installed the puppet government of Gerard Latortue to continue its neoliberal plans.

Latortue's brief regime was utterly corrupt, as he and his cronies pocketed hoards of money that the U.S. and other powers poured into the country when they ended their embargo. The regime accomplished the complete destruction of the mild reforms Aristide had implemented.

So the pattern of impoverishment, deforestation and degradation of the country's infrastructure accelerated. Unsurprisingly, when Jeanne struck Gonaives in 2004, the regime failed to respond as an entire city drowned.

Finally, in the 2006 elections, the Haitian masses voted in longtime Aristide ally Réne Préval as president on a mild reformist platform. But Préval has been a weak figure, who has collaborated with U.S. neoliberal plans and failed to address the growing social crisis in the country.

Moreover, the food riots brought down his prime minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, in April, leaving the country without an effective government until September 5. Only then did the Haitian Senate finally select Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis as the new prime minister. But with neither the will nor the resources to mount a relief effort, the Haitian state has been nearly irrelevant in the crisis.

IN REALITY, the actual power in Haiti has been the UN occupation. Under Brazilian leadership, the UN forces have protected the rich and collaborated with, or turned a blind eye to, right-wing death squads terrorizing supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas Party. They have utterly failed to address the poverty, wrecked infrastructure and massive deforestation that lead to recent "natural disasters."

They have also completely failed to prepare for or respond to the storms. They had ample time since Hurricane Jeanne destroyed Gonaives in 2004 to build levees to protect that city. They did not. They could have invested in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country and hire unemployed Haitians in the process. They did not. They could have helped with reforestation or improving the country's agricultural self-sufficiency. They did not.

Instead, they have merely policed a social catastrophe, and in so doing have committed the normal crimes, and in some cases extreme crimes, characteristic of all police forces. As Dan Beeton writes in NACLA, "The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), which began its mission in June 2004, has been marred by scandals of killings, rape and other violence by its troops almost since it began."

Amid this hurricane crisis, the UN has done very little to meet the crying needs of the Haitian people. They have promised $108 million of emergency aid, but report "only 2 percent of the...flash appeal has so far been donated."

The UN occupation has proven to be not a humanitarian effort but a vehicle for imperialism and neoliberalism--the very cause of the unnatural disasters we have witnessed this August and September. Various NGOs have attempted to fill the vacuum, but they can only provide band-aids to life-threatening wounds.

The U.S. government's response to this latest crisis has been barbaric. A country that squandered $3 trillion on destroying Iraq has stood by and watched Haiti's agony and done next to nothing.

The U.S. has only allocated $30 million for disaster relief. Thankfully, the U.S. government has temporarily suspended deportations of undocumented Haitian immigrants back to their country, but it refuses to grant them Temporary Protected Status, which allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to stay and work in the U.S.

Despite its own abandonment of neoliberalism and newfound love of state intervention to rescue its own rulers' banks and businesses, the U.S. continues to push neoliberal plans for Haiti.

As a result, the U.S. continues to create the conditions for future unnatural disasters, a terrifying thought given that the hurricane season has only just begun. The U.S. didn't cause the storms, but it created the conditions that turned them into mass killers.

The U.S. government has the blood of countless Haitians on its hands. It owes billions of dollars in reparations to Haitians, which they could use to address this crisis and to rebuild society however they see fit. The hope for accomplishing these goals lies not in the U.S. government or in the UN.

Immediately people can give to organizations that actually provide services in Haiti like longtime Haiti solidarity activist Paul Farmer's health care organization Partners in Health ( or the Lambi Fund of Haiti ( which channels funds into community-based institutions for sustainable development. Give to help.

To build up the society to prevent future unnatural disasters, the Haitian masses struggles will have to unite with a regional and worldwide struggle against neoliberalism and imperialism. Only such an international struggle can win reparations and political space for Haitians to raise themselves from poverty, invest in their infrastructure and reforest their countryside. Only then can we end these abominable and unnatural disasters.

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