Haiti: A Disaster of Capitalism

Image - Port Au Prince before the earthquake

It’s still not known exactly how many people died in the earthquake of January 12, but current estimates are that over 200,000 people have lost their lives. Reuters announced that figure could jump to 300,000 once all the bodies are recovered. A further 250,000 are said to be wounded and one and a half million people are estimated to be homeless. The earthquake, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, is one of the most lethal disasters in modern history. The aid which followed, or rather failed to follow, shows again what a morally bankrupt system capitalism is.

The Role of Imperialism

Haiti has a double geographical misfortune. It lies on two fault lines (the Septentrional fault in the north and the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault in the south), but perhaps even more disastrously, it’s situated right next to the USA. A former French slave colony, Haiti’s struggle for independence was won by 1804 (See The Black Jacobins by C.L.R.James), but was forced to pay 90 million gold francs to France for its freedom after Charles X (1827-30) sent warships to the island (the equivalent of $21.7 billions today). This devastated the economy and took 122 years to repay. The US invaded in 1915 and although troops were formally withdrawn in 1934, the US maintained fiscal control until 1947. The post war years have been marked by US interference which has left Haiti ravaged, impoverished, corrupt and politically unstable. It is a country which has never been able to shake off debt to the richer nations. Even before the earthquake it was crippled with IMF debt and in reality has been run by the UN since the 2004 coup which killed several thousand people. This has left it at the mercy of an international community which has blocked all attempts to spend UN ‘investment’ on programmes such as poverty reduction or agrarian development and instead kept it firmly on military expenditure.

Not surprisingly then, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere with a GDP of just $6.95 billions per year. Even before the earthquake some 80% of the population lived in poverty, over half living on less than one dollar a day. The food situation in Haiti was serious before the earthquake struck - with more than 2.4 million people considered "food-insecure". Such poverty has meant that the immediate effects of the disaster have been massively amplified. Although it was a well known quake zone (and although Haiti’s authorities were well aware of the risk of an earthquake of this magnitude), its buildings, unlike those in richer countries, were far from quake proof. The buildings in the quake zones of major industrialised nations sit on damping systems that allow them to ride out tremors that not only shake them back and forth but also twist them in the same movement. The simplest concrete structures in the capital of Port-au-Prince not only crumpled under the same strain, they were so badly built some had collapsed previously through shoddy construction, including a school in Pétionville which killed nearly 90 children in 2008. In cities like Port-au-Prince, many people live in poor and densely-packed shantytowns or badly-constructed buildings. Homelessness was rife before the disaster, and the fact that the poorest people didn’t have houses has been cited by relief organisations as adding to the crisis. According the Catholic relief group Caritas International, 70 percent of those displaced by the earthquake in the capital did not own their own homes before the disaster struck.

Humanitarian Relief or Imperialist Security?

The humanitarian relief effort, criminally slow to start, showed capitalism’s inability either to provide aid quickly or widely enough, or with much humanity at all. Bottlenecks and infrastructure damage were blamed for the hold ups, but competing aid agencies, poor organization and, above all, the inability of aid giving countries to see beyond their own interests has left the victims of the disaster vulnerable to disease, hunger and corruption. Medical supplies, food and emergency shelters were slow to arrive, even when they did most sat in warehouses or storage. Very early on U.S. forces refused to allow aid planes to land at the Port au Prince and Jacmel airports. Planes from the Caribbean Community, France, World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders - some loaded with desperately needed medical equipment and field hospitals - were repeatedly turned away by U.S. Marines. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a cargo plane carrying 12 tons of medical equipment, including drugs, surgical supplies and two dialysis machines, was turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport a week after the earthquake despite repeated assurances of its ability to land there. MSF reported it had five planes diverted from the original destination of Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic, leading to patients dying for lack of supplies. As Loris de Filippi, emergency coordinator for the MSF’s Choscal Hospital in Cite Soleil stated,

“I have never seen anything like this. Any time I leave the operating theatre, I see lots of people desperately asking to be taken for surgery. Today, there are 12 people who need lifesaving amputations at Choscal Hospital. We were forced to buy a saw in the market to continue amputations. We are running against time here.”

MSF’s reports have been echoed by other agencies. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the distribution of emergency shelter materials has been agonizingly slow. “As of 11 February, over 49,000 tarps have been distributed along with 23,000 family size tents,” OCHA reported. The Haitian government has insisted that its most urgent need is 200,000 tents-nearly 10 times the number distributed thus far.

Much was made of the US military distributing food, but old imperialist attitudes die hard, and so do the racist attitudes that go with it. The US military carefully policed everything it gave away but did manage to distribute 10,000 meals a day until it decided it was attracting too many people so suspended work. As Lieutenant Brad Kerfoot said of the Haitian people, “My soldiers and I think they’re ungrateful”. While the victims of the disaster face starvation, the US and UN compounds keep a tight grip on the aid whilst themselves enjoying unlimited food, internet access and alcohol. In Pétionville, up the mountain from the capital, 360 US combat troops from the 82nd Airborne Division have set up camp around the Golf Club’s swimming pool and restaurant in order to ‘keep the peace’ and preserve the property of the businessmen and politicians who live in the area. At present over 40,000 homeless people are crammed onto the club’s nine-hole golf course, most without adequate shelter, water or food.

The US showed its true priority when Defense Secretary Gates “wouldn’t send in food and water because, he said, there was no 'structure… to provide security'.” In fact the Pentagon’s first response to the earthquake wasn’t to help with the relief effort at all, it was to send in reconnaissance drones. In all some 22,000 US soldiers, sailors and Marines were dispatched, with combat-equipped troops immediately taking control of the airport, port facilities and presidential palace. Meanwhile, naval warships and Coast Guard cutters set up a blockade of the country’s coast to block the earthquake’s victims from trying to flee to the US. The role of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, is fairly typical. When it finally arrived in Haiti, (with Sidewinder missiles and helicopters), it did so without any emergency relief supplies. It refused to admit wounded Haitians to its large sick bay and temporarily blocked rescue flights to Florida. The US have refused to say how long they intend to stay in Haiti. General Douglas Fraser, chief of the US Southern Command, merely said the forces would be there as long as “necessary.” Where have we heard that before?

Disaster Created by Capitalism

It is estimated that 500,000 people have flooded in to the rural areas from Port-au-Prince and other affected areas under the encouragement of the Government. Conditions in the make-shift camps are unbearable. As one student, Markinson Midey, said: "Anytime they bring food or water, the police make the trucks leave." Aid agencies have criticized the government for failing to organize proper camps and a result many have returned to the countryside where they have families. The fact that they left in the first place because they couldn’t make an adequate living off the land has meant that the strain on the ‘host’ families who now care for them is creating starvation conditions in the countryside. In many cases people are resorting to eating the seeds they have stored for the next season and eating or selling their livestock. The implications for future food production are as obvious as they are terrifying. For those left in the cities, life remains tough. Thousands of demonstrators, most of them women, marched through the streets of Pétionville, a Port-au-Prince suburb recently denouncing the local mayor, Lydie Parent, for hoarding food for resale and not distributing it to the hungry. According to Reuters demonstrators are angry that a significant amount of food aid has been channeled into informal markets where some officials are making a fortune.

The scale of human misery in Haiti cannot be exaggerated. There’s not room to go into all the aspects of the consequences of capitalism’s failure following the earthquake, but examples include the failure to make the emergency camps safe and the increasing incidents of rape and sexual violence against women and girls. Christian fundamentalists such as Baptist missionaries have exploited the chaos by taking children, the most vulnerable victims of the disaster, out of the country illegally. On top of all this the Haitian working class also have to contend with international profiteers who are already gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of an easy profit. Haiti’s bourgeoisie wasted no time in eyeing the disaster speculatively. As Georges Sassine, President of Haiti’s manufacturers association, told the Washington Post, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” and Reginald Boulos, owner of a ‘small empire’ of supermarkets, a hotel and a car dealership said “I think we need to give the message that we are open for business. This is really a land of opportunities.” Meanwhile, US firms have begun jockeying for contracts to rebuild, fully aware of the vast profits to be made by skimming off the aid which is pouring in. One such company, AshBritt is already making deals with local businessmen and politicians to win bloated contracts, and like other conglomerates is eager to exploit cheap Haitian labour. Of course reconstruction requires social stability, so rather than meet the needs of a desperate population, moves are already underway to transform Haiti into a military dictatorship jointly run with foreign forces. Haiti’s legislative elections, previously scheduled for February and March, have been indefinitely postponed and the US in particular is preparing to take over the Haitian government. In February the Miami Herald reported that the US State Department had presented top Haitian officials with plans for an Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. The paper noted the commission’s ‘top priority’ is to

“create a Haitian Development Authority to plan and coordinate billions in foreign assistance for at least 10 years.”

The commission would be co-chaired by the Haitian Prime Minister and

“…a distinguished senior international figure engaged in the recovery effort’ (possibly Bill Clinton) and according to Trinity Washington University professor Robert Maguire, (who spoke positively about the plan), it sounded ‘similar to an idea that Hillary Clinton was considering long before the earthquake.”

So much for the US as the promoters of democracy then. As ever, the US is tightening its grip to make a fast buck while creating even more human misery.

Once again the effects of a natural disaster have been made worse by the system we live under. The needs of the survivors should have been paramount. Instead survivors have been vilified, neglected, abused and attacked as the needs of imperialism and the scramble for profit dominated. Capitalism is about as far from a rational or humane form of social organization as you could get. Life is cheap under it, and the lives of those who have suffered this appalling disaster seem cheapest of all. If anything shows the incompatibility of capitalism with the needs of humanity it is the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.


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