Haiti: Four Years On From the Quake

LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN, 20 Jan 2014

Ama Biney – Pambazuka News

The people of Haiti continue to suffer the economic tremors of a post-earthquake reconstruction programme that has failed to transform the lives of the majority of the people, despite the fact that it is the people of Haiti who must not only construct the future of Haiti but also decide that future.

Does the international community remember Haiti four years since the earthquake of 12 January 2010? In reality, the euphemism of ‘international community’ means the Western world, that is, the US, UK and Europe, and certainly not the rest of the 150 countries and more that make up the UN. These Western countries were swift to make pledges of billions of dollars in aid in the immediate aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that broke out and took over 200,000 Haitian lives in a matter of 33 seconds. Yet, many of those pledges have failed to materialise to date. According to Ezili Danto, political activist, lawyer and president of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network (HLLN) writing in May 2011: ‘For less than 1% of every dollar of US donor aid goes to the Haiti government… In fact 93% of USAID funds to Haiti go straight back to purchase US goods and services.’ Similarly, writer Beverly Bell states: ‘Of every dollar that the U.S. government did pay out for initial relief efforts, thirty-three cents went to the U.S. military.’ [1]

‘ORIENTALISING’ HAITI AND AFRICA

The attention span of the Western media is not only short but fickle. Moreover, when it comes to the developing world it continues to ‘orientalise’ the other. Haiti like Africa has been ‘orientalised’ in the Western mindset. Haiti is stereotyped to be a hell-hole, poor, and dysfunctional. In the discourse of ‘failed states’ Haiti is the model of one. Yet, the Western media fails to interrogate how the West is complicit in constructing the hellhole lived in by the masses of Haitian people; how the citizens of Haiti are impoverished by multinational companies ; the outsourcing of sweat shops and how the alleged ungovernability of the Haitian people is due to the dictators the West has propped up over the decades in military and economic aid, from Papa Doc to the current President Michel Martelly.

Four years since the horrifying natural disaster which was exacerbated by Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in late August 2010 that destroyed crops across Haiti and the cholera outbreak in October of the same year, it is necessary to ask: How are Haitians faring in the earthquake aftermath and in the light of the US pledge to Haiti to ‘build back better?’ [2]

An insight into this answer is provided in a point Ezili Danto expresses in an interview with Iya Adjua, that in the immediate aftermath of the quake, the US swiftly dispatched not 20,000 medical doctors (unlike the Cubans and Venezuelans) but 20,000 American troops. [3] Unknown to many is that Haiti is ‘a swimming pool of oil,’ to paraphrase Danto, compared to Venezuela’s ‘cup of oil.’ Put differently, Haiti is fantastically rich in oil reserves which are greater than those of Venezuela. In addition, the small country possesses huge reserves in gas, copper, uranium and over $US 20 billion [4] in the gold that lured Christopher Columbus to the island in the early 16th century.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake the Haitian government moved to hold consultations on reconstruction from 13 March – 20 March 2012 with civil society groups and the private sector, but outside the country. As Bell points out: ‘Besides the government itself, the Haitian business sector was the only one granted substantive participation in the donor meetings.’ [5] The government refused and still refuses to heed the voices of civil society groups in relation to future economic planning of the country. Bell succinctly states: ‘the grassroots was shut out from the moment the earth finished its trembling.’ [6] Furthermore, 53 organisations released a comprehensive paper outlining their demands that the status and rights of women be integral to the efforts to reconstruct a new Haiti, outlining the need for equal access to education and agricultural production be part of the new reconstruction as well as equal representation of women at all levels of the reconstruction programme. [7]

From 25 November to 1 December 2012 the UN independent expert Michel Forst produced a report entitled ‘Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti’ in which he gave a graphic insight into the plight of the majority of Haitians. In short:

‘Eight million Haitians out of an estimated population of 10 million live without electricity. Five million cannot read or write and are in the dark both day and night. Eight Haitians out of ten are living on less than $2 a day. Two percent of Haitians control 69 percent of the country’s wealth. With a working population that is put at 4.2 million, fewer than 200,000 have regular formal work. At least 84 percent of university graduates live abroad.’ [8]

In addition to this bleak socio-economic reality, children have been traumatized by the loss of parents due to the quake and cholera. Organisations have observed that the number of ‘restavek’ (child domestic workers) has increased since March 2012. These children leave the place where they are suppose to be working to go and live on the streets and become vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence. [9] Cross-border trafficking of children into the Dominican Republic where they are sexually exploited continues. [10] As of February 2013, 360,000 people continued to live under tents on account of their homes having been destroyed in the quake. [11] [12]

SHOCKING HAITI INTO PERPETUATED EXPLOITATION

What has occurred on the economic front in Haiti, as the veteran Haitian Lavalas activist Patrick Elie argues, is that:

‘A people can’t be developed from the outside… ‘The Shock Doctrine,’ the book by Naomi Klein, shows that often imperialist countries shock another country and then, while on it’s knees, they impose their own political will while making economic profits from it. We’re facing an instance of the shock doctrine at work, even though Haiti’s earthquake wasn’t caused by the political and economic order. There are governments and sectors who want to exploit this shock to impose their own political and economic order.’ [13]

This imposition has been done in the establishment of the much touted Caracol Industrial Park (CIP) assembly plant complex in the north-eastern region of the country which has been promoted as a job-creation initiative in the post-earthquake reconstruction of Haiti. It became the pet project of the Hilary and Bill Clinton. The latter was the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC)– the donor-dominated body overseeing reconstruction, which was begun 11 months after the disaster, costing $174 million by USAID and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The construction of the assembly plant dispossessed 366 farming families – that is around 3,250 people without consultation and notice. [14] In a breakneck speed to erect the plant, thorough environmental, hydrological and topographical reports according to IDB requirements were circumvented. Such shortcuts are considered illegal under US legislation but seem to be acceptable in a country dubbed the poorest in the Western hemisphere. [15] To date, the port that should have been constructed has not been built. There are also concerns about ground water pollution.

Approximately 1500 workers produce garments for major American retailers such as Walmart, Targets, Kohl and Old Navy. According to the Workers’ Rights Consortium who published report on such sweatshop conditions :

‘Information gathered from interviews with workers from Caracol and review of the pay stubs they are issued with their wages reveal that these workers suffer from theft of their legally-earned wages to just as great a degree as do their counterparts at these other factories, losing, on average, 34 percent of their pay. Workers at Caracol also experience a loss of wages due to underpayment of overtime work, since, as at the Port-au-Prince factories, these hours are paid at a rate based on the 200 HTG per day sub-minimum wage for trainees and transferees, rather than the 300 HTG per day legal minimum wage for regular employees.’ [16]

The CIP showcase and its Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Haitian government, Hilary Clinton and Sae-A (a South Korean firm) in 2010 permits Sae-A to a 15 year tax holiday and a four-year rent holiday on its factory facilities. [17]

Ezili Danto is forthright in pointing out: ‘Historically for Haiti, what is called foreign ‘investment’ has always meant the unscrupulous extraction of profits without regards to its consequences on the people or environment and leaving no useful gain in Haiti whatsoever. .. Foreign investment doesn’t ignite Haiti development when all capital is flown overseas, the companies pay no taxes and there’s no living wage.’ [18]

In short, reconstruction in the mantra of ‘building back better’ has been self-delusional at best to those who coined the slogan and continued exploitation of the Haitian people at its worst. This is because the Haitian people have been placed outside the misconceived development of the Haitian government and its Western partners. The concept of development upheld by the neo-colonial Haitian government that subscribes to the neoliberal economic policies of the US, Canada and Europe is entrenched in the continued belief since Haiti was marked for punitive treatment since the revolt of enslaved Africans in 1791 and in 1991 when Haitians voted for the wrong party and leader – that it is the status of a ‘leta restavek’ [19] (a child servant state) of others. This belief continues to be resisted by grassroots Haitian organisations seeking an alternative development path for Haiti. In the meantime, as Bell points out, ‘Many a corporation, lobbyist, and consultant have seen Haiti’s losses as their gain, leveraging humanitarianism for profit.’ [20]

FAILURE TO INVEST IN AGRICULTURE AND THE PEOPLE

The CIP project has been initiated alongside the continuation of a disastrous food policy by the Haitian government of Michel Martelly. Exacerbating this disaster were the hurricanes Isaac and Sandy as well as the heat-wave of August 2012 which impacted negatively on the overall situation of food security in Haiti. Some 2 million people were affected by Sandy in terms of lack of shelter, potable water and health services. Damage was done to infrastructure, roads, schools and hospitals.

However, soaring food prices existed prior to the hurricanes as there had been food ‘riots’ in Haiti (and elsewhere around the globe) in 2008. The hurricanes devastated crops and created shortages. The Haiti Support Group states:

‘As ever, Haitians are right on target directing their anger at their political leaders. In the past 30 years, it is the disastrous agricultural policy of the klas politik rather than the tireless efforts of Haiti’s peasants that has made the country a poster boy for food dependency and thus price vulnerability. [21]

The causes of Haiti’s food insecurity lie in multiple factors. Among them are the fact that past governments have failed to invest in agriculture that provides employment to over 50 percent of the population, yet in 2012 was allocated only 6 percent of the national budget. [22] Even the World Bank acknowledges that farming is of paramount social and economic importance in Haiti. Other factors include foreign imports such as rice that are cheaper and end up undercutting Haitian agricultural foodstuffs and therefore provide no incentive for Haitian farmers to engage in agricultural production. Chenet Jean-Baptiste of ITECA, a strong farming organisation in the country, states: ‘Frankly, successive Haitian governments have waged war on peasant agriculture as if it was some sort of threat rather than the basis of the nation’s survival.’ [23]

The Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat as well as Chenet Jean-Baptiste both point to the American Food and Drug Administration along with USAID insisting back in1982 that 400,000 Haitian pigs that had contracted swine flu had to be killed as they were a threat to the US hog industry. They believe, along with others, that it was this action that helped to plunge the masses of Haitians into poverty. As the former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide writes: ‘For many peasants the extermination of the Creole pigs was their first experience of globalisation. The experience looms large in the collective memory.’ [24]

In order to reduce poverty in Haiti and achieve food security in the medium to long term, it is necessary to invest in farming by giving Haitians access to land, tools, credit, training to ensure they can feed themselves and their communities. Yet, the Martelly government remains committed to neoliberal policies that make the country wholly dependent on food imports and what Aristide correctly characterises as ‘economic schizophrenia’ which is ‘the logic of global capitalism.’ [25] In short, ‘…the earthquake spawned another huge decapitalisation of the agricultural sector. What the quake itself did not destroy, a massive reverse migration to the countryside, imported foreign food aid, and a post-earthquake tsunami of funding that again largely ignored agriculture, did.’ [26]

THE FIGHT FOR JUSTICE AND THE CHOLERA OF THE UN

Alongside ignoring the centrality of agriculture to the economic security and wellbeing of the Haitian people in people-centred development plans, the international community represented by the UN has ignored and elevated impunity to the highest level by failing to accept responsibility for its introduction of the cholera disease into the country. The Haitian Ministry of Health has refused to take on the world organisation despite the fact that Haiti has not seen cholera in a hundred years. To date 8000 people have died and 700,000 have been infected.

Alongside this, many Haitians question the justification of the UN presence, officially known as the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (or MINUSTAH) that has been present in Haiti since the 2004 ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As Edwidge Danticat and many others have pointed out, not only has the UN Stabilisation force been in Haiti for a decade, there is no war in Haiti in order for peace to be maintained. The UN is meant to fill a void, to support existing institutions and then vacate. Rather than playing a constructive role, she argues that they have played a very destructive role. [27] What really is the role of the UN in a country that sits on billion of dollars of gold, gas, uranium and has the fourth largest US embassy in the world? [28] Whose interests does the UN really serve? That of its main funders, that is, those who sit on its Security Council and wield veto power, or the rights of the vulnerable that it professes to defend?

Hostility and resentment against the UN has increased with the cholera epidemic and then on account of sexual abuse cases carried out by some UN officials in September 2011. The UN soldiers were from Uruguay and are alleged to have been involved in a case of sexual assault of an 18-year-old man. [29] In January 2012 two new allegations of UN police abuse and sexual exploitation of children in Port-au-Prince and in the northern city of Gonnaives transpired. [31] Whilst the issue of sexual abuse has yet to be addressed neither has accountability and admission of responsibility of the cholera outbreak.

This month, the Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph launched a lawsuit in New York’s federal court to challenge the UN on the issue for 5000 Haitian claimants. ‘Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) based in Port-au-Prince of which Joseph is one of its leading lawyers, and the Boston based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, are seeking compensation for Haitians.

The indefatigable Mario Joseph was in London in January 2012 and his commitment and passion for justice were evident when he spoke to a crowded room about the introduction of cholera to Haiti and the hypocrisy and duplicity of the UN. Joseph hardly sleeps and is a thorn in the side of the Haitian ruling class that despise the Haitian people. A sense of deep-seated political injustice spurs him on. Of the UN he says: ‘There’s a huge contradiction between the values they promote and their behaviour in countries like Haiti. Imagine if this[ the cholera epidemic] had happened in the U.S. or France or Canada… Well, it wouldn’t happen there.’ [31] Moreover, he believes: ‘Justice is never going to come unless you fight for it.’ He is of course right. Fighting for political and economic justice for the people of Haiti is integral to the struggle of all peace loving and progressive peoples around the world.

END NOTES:

1. See E. Danto ‘False US Benevolence in Haiti’ 12 May, 2011, http://www.ezilidanto.com/zili/2011/05/us-false-benevolence-in-haiti/ accessed 11 January 2014; see also B. Bell ‘Fault Lines Views across Haiti’s Divide’, Cornell University Press, 2013, p. 78.

2. See “US pledge in Haiti to “build back better” goes unfulfilled” by the Associated Press, 7/22/2012 http://www.denverpost.com/ci_21129355/u-s-pledge-haiti-build-back-better-goes accessed 11 January 2014.

3. See E. Danto interview on Blogtalkradio, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/iyaadjua/2013/10/30/iya-adjua-the-culture-rebel-ezili-dantohlln accessed 11 January 2014.

4. See E. Danto ‘Haiti: Foreign Investment means Death and Repression: A Historical Perspective’ 9 July 2012, http://www.ezilidanto.com/zili/2012/07/4124/ accessed 14 January 2014.

5. See B. Bell, ‘Fault Lines’ p. 89.

6. Ibid, p. 89.

7. Ibid, p. 90.

8. See the ‘Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti’ by Michel Forst, p. 3-4. accessed 15 January 2014.

9. Ibid, p. 13.

10. Ibid, p. 13.

11. See Haiti Briefing, No. 73. February 2013, p. 1.

12. Ibid, p. 73.

13. See Haiti Briefing, No. 75. December 2013, p. 2.

14. Ibid, p. 2.

15. See ‘Stealing from the Poor: Wage Theft in Haiti’s Apparel Industry’, published by the October 2013, http://www.workersrights.org/freports/WRC%20Haiti%20Minimum%20Wage%20Report%2010%2015%2013.pdf accessed 14 January 2014

16. See Haiti Briefing, No. 75. December 2013, p. 3.

17. See E. Danto ‘Haiti: Foreign Investment means Death and Repression: A Historical Perspective’ 9 July 2012, http://www.ezilidanto.com/zili/2012/07/4124/ accessed 14 January 2014.

18. Cited in http://www.coha.org/the-enforcers-minustah-and-the-culture-of-violence-in-port-au-prince/#_ftn13 accessed 14 January 2014.

19. See B. Bell ‘Fault Lines Views across Haiti’s Divide’, p. 146. Her chapter entitled: ‘The Super Bowl of Disasters’ outlines some examples of post-earthquake contracts and grants that profited from the crisis; pp. 146-153.

20. See Haiti Briefing, No. 72. October 2012, p. 1.

21. Ibid, p. 2.

22. Cited in Haiti Briefing, No. 72. October 2012, p. 2.

23. See ‘Eyes of the Heart Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization’ by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Common Courage Press, 2000, p. 15.

24. See Eyes of the Heart, p.13.

25. See Haiti Briefing, No. 72. October 2012, p. 2.

26. Edwidge Danticat interview on KPFA Pacifica Radio, October 29, 2013. http://www.ezilidanto.com/zili/2013/11/ezili-and-edwidge-on-the-haiti-reality/ accessed 11 January 2014.

27. Blogtalkradio, interview with Ezili Danto by Iya Adjua, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/iyaadjua/2013/10/30/iya-adjua-the-culture-rebel-ezili-dantohlln accessed 11 January 2014.

28. ‘Peacekeepers in Haiti face sex attack inquiry’ by Ansel Herz, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2011/09/20119225453490311.html accessed 15 January 2014.

29. ‘New allegations of sexual abuse in Haiti’ by Aljazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2012/01/2012123205718384367.html accessed 15 January 2014.

30. ‘A hero in Haiti’ by Pooja Bhatia, Dec 24 2013, http://www.ozy.com/rising-stars-and-provocateurs/a-hero-in-haiti/1081.article accessed 15 January 2014.

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Ama Biney (Dr) is the Acting Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News.

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