COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 2 Mar 2010
Soldiers vs. Doctors in Post-earthquake Haiti
Within hours of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, Cuban doctors, Chinese search and rescue teams and Venezuelan medical professionals were on the ground. When the US military took control of Port-au-Prince Airport, however, they prioritized landing soldiers instead of humanitarian supplies, according to humanitarian organizations like Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and Amnesty International. The militarization of disaster relief has led to harsh condemnation of what critics call an American-led occupation of Haiti.
Speaking to the heavy reliance on military troops, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez observed that “thousands of men are disembarking in Haiti as if it were a war.” Chavez’s sentiments echoed his counterparts in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Beleaguered with increasingly bad press about Iraq and Afghanistan, Western armed forces have an opportunity to highlight their humanitarian face in Haiti. But, some wonder, with what costs?
Military-led versus the civilian-oriented approach favoured by regional countries highlights a difference in approach to disaster relief. Fusing humanitarianism and the military, both the US and Canada say that order must come first to prevent the descent into chaos. Alternatively, Nicaragua told the UN General Assembly that “Haiti needs doctors, engineers, teachers, construction materials. It needs to strengthen its agricultural production; it doesn’t need soldiers.”
Venezuela is providing Haiti free fuel, delivered along with other aid shipments through the Dominican Republic.
Cuba and Venezuela have co-operated to deliver health services to Haiti, according to Al Jazeera’s Tom Fawthrop. Cuban doctors are specially trained for disaster relief and have proven themselves during the earthquakes in Pakistan and Indonesia in 2005 and 2006. Washington declined Havana’s aid during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
However, regional groups, states and humanitarian organizations have had difficulty accessing Haiti. As MSF’s Francoise Saulnier explained to Reuters, “Urgent and vital attention to the people has been delayed (for) military logistics.” As planes and supplies are delayed or re-routed, doctors have had to employ impromptu measures, such as hand-operated breathing devices and saws for amputations, according to media reports.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) was unable to secure US approval to land in Port-au-Prince in January, even though Haiti is a member state. Instead, they have had to form their base for disaster relief in Jamaica.
As the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was invoked in 2004 to justify Haiti’s military occupation, disaster relief justifies the current military intervention. Some 27,000 foreign soldiers are currently stationed in Haiti.
The Canadian Forces contingent consists of 2,046 military personnel, including the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a Naval Task Group, six Griffon helicopters, an urban rescue and recovery team, a detachment of military police, a field hospital, and a sizable Land Force presence, including a light infantry battalion.
Yves Engler, co-author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, describes the militarized response: “Canada sent 2,000 troops while disaster relief teams in Calgary, Toronto and other cities were told to stay at home.” Engler sees this response as a “dangerous sign for a continuation of long-standing policy.”
The policy Engler is referring to is the political interference in Haitian democracy emanating from the ousting of democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004: a move planned by Washington, Ottawa and Paris. In his recently published Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Engler documents how Canadian elite JTF-2 forces secured the airport while 500 Canadian soldiers patrolled the streets and engaged in counterinsurgency operations against Aristide supporters.
In the post-earthquake context, the Canadian military is present in a different capacity. Engler explains that there is “no doubt that Canadian troops are fulfilling a humanitarian function, but troops are not the preferable option.” Engler says doctors and search and rescue teams should be on the ground, not soldiers.
There is growing fear from regional states that the US is establishing a large, permanent military base in Haiti with Canadian support. Recently on the A-Infos Radio Project, Anthony Fenton, co-author of Canada In Haiti, said that states such as Nicaragua and Venezuela have expressed concern that Haiti is becoming “a launching pad for destabilization and continuing Western military and economic hegemony for the entire hemisphere.” With a long-term American presence in Haiti, the US can further its strategic interest in the Caribbean/Latin American region, much like it’s doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US influence in Latin America has declined in the past decade, explained in part by the strengthening of grassroots democratic governments in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Caracas and Havana’s leadership in establishing the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) Trade Bloc based on social issues rather than trade-liberalization, for example, has been a direct challenge to the US-led attempts at establishing the Free Trade Area of the Americas. This movement, combined with the crisis in Haiti, has led analysts like Engler to believe there is “some concern [in the US] that the earthquake would [increase] Venezuelan and Cuban involvement in Haitian affairs.” Increased Haitian involvement with ALBA would strengthen this movement, which has already attracted eight states.
As Michel Chossudovsky, Editor for The Centre for Research on Globalization and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, writes: “In all likelihood the humanitarian operation will be used as a pretext and justification to establish a more permanent US military presence in Haiti.”
First appeared in The Dominion.
Andrew Crosby is a writer, musician, and member of the Vancouver Media Coop. Ajay Parasram is a researcher and writer.
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