Peter Hallward, January 22, 2010
Americas Program Report, Center for International Policy
Nine days after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, it's now clear that the initial phase of the US-led relief operation has conformed to the three fundamental tendencies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history. It has adopted military priorities and strategies. It has sidelined Haiti's own leaders and government, and ignored the needs of the majority of its people. And it has proceeded in ways that Reinforce the already harrowing gap between rich and poor.
All three tendencies aren't just connected, they are mutually reinforcing. These same tendencies will continue to govern the imminent reconstruction effort as well, unless determined political action is taken to COUNTERACT them.
Haiti is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also one of the most polarized and unequal in its disparities in wealth and access to political power. 1 A small clique of rich and well-connected families continues to dominate the country and its economy while more than half the population, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), survives on a household income of around 44 US pennies per day.2
Mass destitution has grown far more severe in recent decades. Starting in the 1970s, internationally imposed neo-liberal "adjustments" and austerity measures finally succeeded in doing what no Haitian government had managed to do since winning independence in 1804: in order to set the country on the road toward "economic development," they have driven large numbers of small farmers off their land and into densely crowded urban slums. A small minority of these internal refugees may be lucky enough to find sweatshop jobs that pay the lowest wages in the region. These wages currently average $2 or $3 a day; in real terms they are worth less than a quarter of their 1980 value.
Haiti's tiny elite owes its privileges to exclusion, exploitation, and violence, and it is only violence that allows it to retain them. For much of the last century, Haiti's military and paramilitary forces (with substantial amounts of US support) were able to preserve these privileges on their own. Over the course of the 1980s, however, it started to look as if local military repression might no longer be up to the job. A massive and courageous popular mobilization (known as Lavalas) culminated in 1990 with the landslide election of the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. Large numbers of ordinary people began to participate in the political system for the first time, and as political scientist Robert Fatton remembers, "Panic seized the dominant class. It dreaded living in close proximity to la populace and barricaded itself against Lavalas."3
Nine months later, the army dealt with this popular threat in the time-honored way—with a coup d'etat. Over the next three years, around 4,000 Aristide supporters were killed.
However, when the US government eventually allowed Aristide to return in October 1994, he took a surprising and unprecedented step: he abolished the army that had deposed him. As human rights lawyer Brian Concannon (director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) observed a few years later, "It is impossible to overestimate the impact of this accomplishment. It has been called the greatest human rights development in Haiti since emancipation, and is wildly popular."4 In 2000, the Haitian electorate gave Aristide a second overwhelming mandate when his party (Fanmi Lavalas) won more than 90% of the seats in parliament.
More than anything else, what has happened in Haiti since 1990 should be understood as the gradual clarification of this basic dichotomy-democracy or the army. Unadulterated democracy might one day allow the interests of the numerical majority to prevail, and thereby challenge the privileges of the elite. In 2000, such a challenge became a genuine possibility: the overwhelming victory of Fanmi Lavalas, at all levels of government, raised the prospect of genuine political change in a context in which there was no obvious extra-political mechanism―no army―to prevent it.
In order to avoid this outcome, the main strategy of Little Haiti's ruling class has been to redefine political issues in terms of "stability" and "security," and in particular the security of property and investments. Mere numbers may well win an election or sustain a popular movement to have everyone knows, only an army is equipped to deal with insecurity. The well-armed "friend of Haiti" that is the United States knows this better than anyone.
As soon as Aristide was re-elected, a systematic international campaign to bankrupt and destabilization his second government set the stage for a paramilitary insurgency and another coup d'etat. In 2004, thousands of U.S. troops invaded Haiti again (as they first did back in 1915) to "restore stability and security" to their "troubled island neighbor." An expensive and long-term UN stabilization mission, staffed by 9.000 heavily armed troops, soon took over the job of helping to pacify the population and the criminalization of resistance. By the end of 2006, thousands more Aristide supporters had been killed.
Over the course of 2009, a suitably stabilized Haitian government agreed to persevere with the privatization of the country's remaining public assets, 5 veto a proposal to increase minimum wages to $5 a day, and bar Fanmi Lavalas (and several other political parties) from participating in the next round of legislative elections.
When it comes to providing stability, today's UN troops are clearly a big improvement over the old national forces. If things get so unstable that even the ground begins to shake, however, there's still nothing that can beat the world's leading provider of security—the US Armed Forces.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that struck on January 12, 2010, it might have seemed hard to counter arguments in favor of allowing the US military, with its "unrivalled logistical capability," to take de facto control of such a massive relief operation. Weary of bad press in Iraq and Afghanistan, US commanders also seemed glad of this unexpected opportunity to rebrand their armed forces as angels of mercy.
That was before US commanders actively began—the day after the earthquake struck—to divert aid away from the disaster zone.
As soon as the U.S. Air Force took control of Haitian airspace, on Wednesday, January 13, it explicitly prioritized military over humanitarian flights. Although most reports from Port-au-Prince emphasized remarkable levels of patience and solidarity on the streets, US commanders made fears of popular unrest and insecurity their number-one concern. Their first priority was to avoid what the US Air Force Special Command Public Affairs spokesman (Ty Foster) called another "Somalia effort" 6 —presumably, a situation in which a humiliated US Army might once again risk losing military control of a "humanitarian" mission.
As many observers predicted, the determination of US commanders to forestall this risk by privileging guns and soldiers over doctors and food has actually provoked some outbreaks of the very unrest they set out to contain. To amass a large number of soldiers and military equipment "on the ground," the U.S. Air Force plane after plane diverted packed with emergency supplies away from Port-au-Prince. Among many others, World Food Program flights were turned away by US commanders on Thursday and Friday, the New York Times reported, "so that the United States could land troops and equipment, and lift Americans and other foreigners to safety." 7
Many other aid flights met a similar fate, right through to the end of the week. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) alone has so far had to watch at least five planeloads of its medical supplies be turned away. 8 On Saturday, Jan. 16, for instance, "Despite guarantees given by the United Nations and the U.S. Defense Department, an MSF cargo plane carrying an inflatable surgical hospital was blocked from landing in Port-au-Prince and re-routed to Samana, in Dominican Republic," delaying its arrival by an additional 24 hours. 9 Late on Monday, January 18, MSF complained that "One of its cargo planes carrying 12 tons of medical equipment had been turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday," despite receiving repeated assurances they could land. 18, MSF complained that "One of its cargo planes carrying 12 tons of medical equipment Had been turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday," Despite receiving repeated assurances they could land. By that stage, one group of MSF doctors in Port-au-Prince had been "forced to buy a saw in the market to continue the amputations" upon which the lives of their patients depended. 10
While US commanders set about restoring security by assembling a force of some 14,000 Marines and soldiers, residents in some less secure parts of Port-au-Prince soon started to run out of food and water. On Jan. On January 20, people sleeping in one of the largest and most easily accessed of the many temporary refugee camps in central Port-au-Prince (in Champs Mars) told writer Tim Schwartz, author of the 2008 book Travesty in Haiti , that "no relief has arrived; it is all being delivered on other side of town, by the US Embassy." 11
Telesur reporter Reed Lindsay confirmed on January 20—a full eight days after the quake—that the impoverished southwestern Port-au-Prince suburb closest to the earthquake's epicenter, Carrefour, still hadn't received any food, aid, or medical help. 12
The BBC's Mark Doyle found the same thing in an eastern (and less badly affected) suburb. "Their houses are destroyed, they have no running water, food prices have doubled, and they haven't seen a single government official or foreign aid worker since the earthquake struck." Overall, Doyle observed, "The international response has been quite pathetic. Some of the aid agencies are working very hard, but there are two ways of reporting this kind of thing. One is to hang around with the aid agencies and hang around with the American spokespeople at the airport, and you'll hear all sorts of stories about what's happening. Another way is to drive almost at random with ordinary people and go and see what's happening in ordinary places. In virtually every area I've driven to, ordinary people say that I was the first foreigner that they'd met." 13
It was only a full week after the earthquake that emergency food supplies began the slow journey from the heavily guarded airport to 14 "secure distribution points" in various parts of the city. 14 By that stage, tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents had finally come to the conclusion that no aid would be forthcoming, and began to abandon the capital for villages in the countryside.
On Sunday January 17, Al-Jazeera's correspondent summarized what many other journalists had been saying all week. "Most Haitians have seen little humanitarian aid so far. What they have seen is guns, and lots of them. Armored personnel carriers cruise the streets and inside the well-guarded perimeter [of the airport], the United States has taken control. It looks more like the Green Zone in Baghdad than a center for aid distribution." 15
Later on the same day, the World Food Program's air logistics officer Jarry Emmanuel confirmed that most of the 200 flights going in and out of the airport each day were still being reserved for the US military: "… their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed." 16 By Monday, January 18, no matter how many US Embassy or military spokesman insisted that "we are here to help" rather than invade, governments as diverse as those of France and Venezuela had begun to accuse the US government of effectively "occupying" the country. 17
The US decision to privilege military over humanitarian traffic at the airport sealed the fate of many thousands of people abandoned in the rubble of lower Port-au-Prince and Léogane. In countries all over the world, search and rescue teams were ready to leave for Haiti within 12 hours of the disaster. Only a few were able to arrive without fatal delays, mainly teams—like those from Venezuela, Iceland, and China—that managed to land while Haitian staff still retained control of their airport. Some subsequent arrivals, including a team from the UK, were Prevented from landing with their heavy equipment lending. Others, like Canada's several Heavy Urban Search Rescue Teams, were immediately readied but never sent; the teams were told to stand down, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon eventually explained, because "the government had opted to send Canadian Armed Forces instead." 18
USAID announced on January 19 that international search and rescue teams, over the course of the first week after the disaster, had managed to save a grand total of 70 people. 19 The majority of these people were rescued in specific locations and circumstances. "Search-and-rescue operations," observed the Washington Post on January 18, "have been intensely focused on buildings with international aid workers, such as the crushed UN headquarters, and on large hotels with international clientele." 20
Tim Schwartz spent much of the first post-quake week as a translator with rescue workers, and was struck by the fact that most of their work was confined to certain places—the UN's Hotel Christophe, the Montana Hotel, the Caribe supermarket—that were not only frequented by foreigners but that could be snugly enclosed within "secure perimeters." Elsewhere, he observed, UN "peacekeepers" seemed intent on convincing rescue workers to treat onlooking crowds as a source of potential danger, rather than assistance. 21
Until the residents of devastated places like Léogane and Carrefour are somehow able to reassure foreign troops that they can feel "secure" when visiting their neighborhoods, UN and US commanders clearly prefer to let them die on their own.
Exactly the same logic has yet condemned to death more people in and around Port-au-Prince's hospitals. In one of the most illuminating yet filed reports from the city, on January 20 Democracy Now 's Amy Goodman spoke with Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health/Zamni Lasante from the General Hospital—the most important medical center in the country.
Lyon acknowledged there was a need for "crowd control, so that the patients are not kept from having access," but insisted that "there's no insecurity [...]. I don't know if you guys were out late last night, but you can hear a pin drop in this city. It's a peaceful place. There is no war. There is no crisis except the suffering that's ongoing [...]. The first thing that [your] listeners need to understand is that there is no insecurity here. There has not been, and I expect there will not be."
On the contrary, Lyon explained, "This question of security and the rumors of security and the racism behind the idea of security has been our major block to getting aid in. The US military has promised us for several days to bring in machinery, but they've been listening to this idea that things are insecure, and so we don't have supplies."
As of Jan. As of January 20, the hospital still hadn't received the supplies and medicines needed to treat many hundreds of dying patients.
"In terms of aid relief the response has been incredibly slow. There are teams of surgeons that have been sent to places that were, quote, 'more secure,' that have 10 or 20 doctors and 10 patients. We have a thousand people on this campus who are triaged and ready for surgery, but we only have four working operating rooms, without anesthesia and without pain medications." 22
In post-quake Haiti it seems that anyone or anything that cannot be enclosed in a "secure perimeter" isn't worth saving.
In their occasional forays outside such Perimeters, meanwhile, some Western journalists seemed able to find plenty of reasons for retreating behind them. Lurid stories of looting and gangs soon began to lend "security experts" like the London-based Stuart Page 23 an aura of apparent authority, when he explained to the BBC's gullible "security correspondent" Frank Gardner that "all the security gains made in Haiti in the last few years could now be reversed [...]. The criminal gangs, totaling some 3,000, are going to exploit the current humanitarian crisis, to the maximum degree." 24
Another seasoned BBC match, Matt Frei, had a similar story to tell on January 18, when he found a few scavengers sifting through the remains of a central shopping district. "Looting is now the only industry here. Anything will do as a weapon. Everything is now run by rival armed groups of thugs." If Haiti is to avoid anarchy, Frei concluded, "What may be needed is a full scale military occupation." 25
Not even former U.S. President (and former occupier Haiti) Bill Clinton was prepared to go that far. "Actually," Clinton told Frei, "when you think about people who have lost everything except what they're carrying on their backs, who not only haven't eaten but probably haven't slept in four days, and when the sun goes down it's totally dark and they spend all night long tripping over bodies living and dead, well, I think they've behaved quite well [...]. They are astonishing people. How can they be so calm in the face of such enormous loss of life and loved ones, and all the physical damage?" 26
Reporters able to tell the difference between occasional and highly localized incidents of foraging, and a full-scale "descent into anarchy" made much the same point all week, as did dozens of indignant Haitian correspondents. On Jan. On January 17, for instance, Ciné Institute Director David Belle tried to counter international misrepresentation. "I have been told that much US media coverage paints Haiti as a tinderbox ready to explode. I'm told that lead stories in major media are of looting, violence, and chaos. There could be nothing further from the truth. I have travelled the entire city daily since my arrival. The extent of the damage is absolutely staggering [but...] NOT ONCE have we witnessed a single act of aggression or violence [...]. A crippled city of two million awaits help, medicine, food, and water. Most haven't received any. Haiti can be proud of its survivors. Their dignity and decency in the face of this tragedy is itself staggering." 27
But it seems that to some, dignity and decency are no substitute for security. No amount of weapons will ever suffice to reassure those "fortunate few," whose fortunes isolate them from the people they exploit. As far as the vast majority of people are concerned, "security is not the issue," explains Haiti Liberté 's Kim Ives.
"We see throughout Haiti the population organizing themselves into popular committees to clean up, to pull out the bodies from the rubble, to build refugee camps, to set up their security for the refugee camps. This is a population that is self-sufficient, and it has been self-sufficient for many years." 28
While the people who have lost what little Had they have done their best to cope and regroup, the soldiers sent to "restore order" treat them as potential combatants. "It's just the same way they reacted after Katrina," concludes Ives. "The victims are what's scary. They're black people who, you know, had the only successful slave revolution in history. What could be more threatening?"
"According to everyone I spoke with in the center of the city," Schwarz wrote on January 21, "the violence and gang stuff is pure BS."
The relentless obsession with security, agrees Andy Kershaw, is clear proof of the fact that most foreign soldiers and NGO workers "haven't a clue about the country and its people." 29 True to form, within hours of the earthquake most of the panicked staff in the US Embassy had already been evacuated, and at least one prominent foreign contractor in the garment sector (the Canadian firm Gildan Activewear) announced that it would be shifting production to alternative sewing facilities in neighboring countries. 30
The price to be paid for such priorities will not be evenly distributed. Up in the higher, wealthier, and mostly undamaged parts of Pétionville everyone already knows that it's the local residents "who through their government connections, trading companies, and interconnected family businesses" will once again pocket the lion's share of international aid and reconstruction money. 31
To help keep less well-connected families where they belong, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has taken "unprecedented" emergency measures to secure the homeland this past weekend. Operation "Vigilant Sentry" will make use of the large naval flotilla the US government has assembled around Port-au-Prince.
"As well as providing emergency supplies and medical aid," notes The Daily Telegraph , "the USS Carl Vinson, along with a ring of other Navy and Coast Guard vessels, is acting as a deterrent to Haitians who might be driven to make the 681-mile sea crossing to Miami."
While Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade offered "voluntary repatriation to any Haitian that wants to return to [the land of] their origin," American officials confirmed that they would continue to apply their long-standing (and illegal) policy with respect to all Haitian refugees and asylum seekers—to intercept and repatriate them automatically, regardless of the circumstances. 32
Ever since the quake struck, the U.S. Air Force has taken the additional precaution of flying a radio-transmitting cargo plane for five hours a day over large parts of the country, so as to broadcast a recorded message from Haiti's ambassador in Washington. "Do not rush on boats to leave the country," the message says. "If you think you will reach the United States and all the doors will be wide open to you, that's not at all the case. They will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from."
Not even life-threatening injuries are enough to entitlement to a welcome Haitians in the United States. When the dean of medicine at the University of Miami arrived to help set up a field hospital by the airport in Port-au-Prince, he was outraged to find that most seriously injured people in the city were being denied visas to be transferred to Florida for surgery and treatment. As of January 19, the State Department had authorized a total of 23 exceptions to its restrictive immigrant and refugee policies.
"It's beyond insane," O'Neill complained. "It's bureaucracy at its worst." 33
This is the fourth time the United States has invaded Haiti since 1915. Although each invasion has taken a different form and responded to a different pretext, all four have been expressly designed to restore "stability" and "security" to the island. In the wake of the earthquake, thousands more foreign security personnel are already on their way, to guard the teams of foreign reconstruction and privatization consultants who in the coming months are likely to usurp what remains of Haitian sovereignty.
Perhaps some of these guards and consultants will help their elite customers Achieve another long-cherished dream: the restoration of the Haitian Army. And perhaps then, for a short while at least, the inexhaustible source of "instability" in Haiti—the ever-nagging threat of popular political participation and empowerment—may be securely buried in the rubble of its history.
End Notes available here.
Peter Hallward is a Canadian political philosopher. He is currently a professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University ( http://www.web.mdx.ac.uk/crmep/STAFF/PeterHallward.htm ). He is the author of Damning the Flood.