The powerful earthquake that struck Haiti shook loose reserves of generosity and heroism, both within and outside the devastated nation. But even as communities await the first signs of aid, predators are circling with plans for a “new” Haiti.
The Heritage Foundation has declared the tragedy to be an “opportunity” to place Haiti under direct corporate rule, cutting the local elite out of the deal altogether. The Haitian people (like those of New Orleans, another battered Caribbean city) are not to be consulted.
Denied even the most basic social safety net, Haitians have developed deep-rooted traditions of grassroots self-organization. In the face of the earthquake, communities have risen to the challenge, organizing rescue, water and food and setting up their own “triage” systems to streamline help for the injured. Observers have been awed by the orderly self-discipline demonstrated under unimaginable conditions.
The response of the United States – the country most associated with Haiti’s history of despotism over the last century – has been revealing. U.S. authorities declared themselves in charge, took control of the national palace and the airport, and implanted over 16,000 troops.
Sparking the outrage of even U.S. allies (mostly unreported here), they redirected incoming international aid flights to Mexico and the Dominican Republic in order to bring in soldiers and weapons. They thus rapidly provided the one form of “assistance” that no one asked for or wanted but assured that other powers would not gain too much influence in Washington’s back yard.
Food and water were also brought in, of course – for the troops and the U.S. embassy (the true seat of power in Haiti). Haitians, meanwhile, have faced the humiliation of U.S. troops handing out rations with their guns pointed at gatherings of traumatized civilians.
U.S. media outlets rushed in hundreds of reporters who have dutifully sensationalized any incidents of violence that might justify Washington’s security obsession. In shades of post-Katrina New Orleans, scavenging refugees have been cast as “looters” as though even in an apocalyptic landscape private property is more sacred than the lives of poor, dark people.
Relief teams that have simply appeared and started handing out supplies are overwhelmed by hungry crowds. Those missions, such as the Venezuelan, that subordinate themselves to existing community organizations have gone extremely smoothly.
Crises fall most heavily upon the most vulnerable. In the Caribbean, vulnerability is structural. Loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund in 1986 forced Haiti -then self-sufficient in rice – to drop its protective tariffs. Within two years Haitian rice farming was wiped out by a flood of heavily subsidized U.S. imports.
Sugar production suffered the same fate. In 1994 the U.S. demanded privatization of public enterprises as the price for allowing the return of the ousted president. The only grain mill was privatized and promptly closed by its new owners, leaving Haiti to import its grain.
The national cement works were sold off and shut down immediately. Haiti, a nation resting on a limestone foundation, must purchase cement from abroad. Those familiar with “Free Trade” ideology will recognize that these are not the unfortunate side effects of this policy, but its intended and inevitable outcomes.
To its international tormentors Haiti’s most profitable national resource is its grinding poverty. Textile and assembly plants can pay as little as they want and exercise total control of workers’ lives with the backing of government and private thugs.
The U.S., France and Canada stand ready to use whatever force is necessary to block any democratic reforms that could threaten this cozy arrangement. An annoying attribute of democracy is that those who have it inevitably want to use it to improve their own lives.
It should be noted that the U.S.’s predatory stance is unvarying, regardless of what political party or chief executive presides in Washington. Imperial policy is set at levels far above what a mere president may tinker with. Every aspiring candidate must explicitly accept this in order to pass the elite vetting process that allows him or her to be anointed as “viable.”
The president sets the “tone” and administers the details of policy but does not question the imperatives of empire. A wry Mexican saying could as easily sum up the Haitian reality: “Poor Haiti,” it would go. “So far from God, so near to the United States.”
Haiti burst onto the global stage at the dawn of the nineteenth century, sending shockwaves through the slave societies of the hemisphere (and immediately facing a U.S. economic blockade). The contours of that conflict remain in place: the aspirations of a battered people versus the insatiable hungers of wealthy and powerful elites.
Today Haiti desperately needs all the help it can get from any source that will provide it. Survival is, after all, a precondition for freedom. But if today our Haitian neighbors need our direct assistance, tomorrow, when the TV anchors have all flown home, their long struggle for a Haiti by and for Haitians will require of us our continuing and uncompromising solidarity.
Ricardo Levins Morales is a local political artist working at RLM Art Studio. He welcomes reader responses through his website at www.rlmarts.com.