Haiti: Disaster: Capitalism

A briefer audio version of this was broadcast on the Old Mole Variety Hour January 18, 2010.

The Well-read Red has been reading up on Haiti. As many in the progressive press have noted, last week's earthquake was a natural disaster made much more disastrous by the political and economic context in which it occurred.

Of course, Pat Robertson and David Brooks are wrong to suggest that Haiti's suffering is the result of a pact with the devil, or of a lack of paternalism. It is instead the result of hundreds of years of exploitation.

Asked to suggest background reading on the situation in Haiti, the Haitian-American novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat starts her list with “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James:

A groudbreaking account of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 that examines that leadership of the rebel commander Toussaint L’Ouverture. Other slave uprisings in the Americas ended in defeat; James looks into why the slave rebellion in Haiti was victorious.

After the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789, the rebellion begun by enslaved Africans in the French Carribean colony of San Domingo in 1791 claimed similar enlightenment values of liberty, democracy, and equality. But they also similarly failed to establish the economic conditions to make that political vision actual.

The title of James's book refers to the Jacobins, the most radical element within the French Revolution who, like the former slaves who created Haiti, propagated. . . "extreme democracy and absolute equality." The term "Jacobin" had taken on authoritarian connotations because the French Jacobin leadership stopped listening to the workers and commoners and shut down their radical organizations -- much as the Black Jacobins in power tried to appease white elites and lost touch with the Haitian workers. In short, the Haitian and French Revolutions failed to go as far as they could because the new rulers destroyed, in the interest of capital and empire, the original conceptions of democracy that the self-activity of workers had made possible.

Although Haiti became the only nation to gain its independence as the result of a successful slave rebellion, it has been plagued ever since by pressure of capitalist interests and western powers. Defending their new nation, Haitians had to fight off British and Spanish as well as French troops, but despite those conflicts, managed to provide crucial aid to Simon Bolivar in his campaigns for the independence of Latin American colonies from Spain.

In the 1820s, the French put a military blockade around Haiti to force them to pay reparations for their own freedom, to recompense French owners for the slaves that were freed— this kept the nation in debt well into the twentieth century.

In 1910, a consortium of the U.S. State Department and National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) bought the Banque National d'Haïti--Haiti's only commercial bank and its national treasury.

Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy the country in order to keep tabs on "our" investment. From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines imposed harsh military occupation, murdered Haitian patriots and diverted 40 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs. Ambitious Haitians were shunted into the puppet military, setting the stage for a half-century of U.S.-backed military dictatorship.

In 1957, the CIA installed President-for-Life François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered tens of thousands of Haitians and drove more into exile. Upon Papa Doc's death in 1971, the torch passed to his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Castro's Cuba, Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International. Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash in predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.

In the 1980s, masses of Haitians rose up to drive the Duvaliers from power--later, they elected reformer Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be president on a platform of land reform, aid to peasants, reforestation, investment in infrastructure for the people, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers.

The U.S. in turn backed a coup that drove Aristide from power in 1991. Eventually, the elected president was restored to office in 1994 when Bill Clinton sent U.S. troops to the island--but on the condition that he implement the U.S. neoliberal plan--which Haitians called the "plan of death."

Aristide resisted parts of the U.S. program for Haiti, but implemented other provisions, undermining his hoped-for reforms. Eventually, though, the U.S. grew impatient with Aristide's failure to obey completely, especially when he demanded that France repay the reparations they had extracted from Haiti after its independence.

The U.S. imposed an economic embargo that strangled the country, driving peasants and workers even deeper into poverty. In 2004, Washington collaborated with Haiti's ruling elite to back death squads that toppled the government, kidnapped and deported Aristide. The United Nations sent troops to occupy the country, and a puppet government was installed to continue Washington's neoliberal plans, dismantling the mild reforms Aristide had managed to implement, and accelerating the impoverishment and degradation of the country's infrastructure.

The occupiers have done nothing to address the poverty, wrecked infrastructure and massive deforestation that have exacerbated the effects of a series of natural disasters--severe hurricanes in 2004 and 2008, and now the Port-au-Prince earthquake.

Indeed as Peter Hallward notes in the UK Guardian, the same storms that killed nearly a thousand people in Haiti in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people there. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal "reform," and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster.

US elites with both the Bush and now the Obama administrations have used social and natural crises to continue and expand the U.S.'s neoliberal economic plans. In close collaboration with the new UN Special Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, Obama has continued to push for an economic program familiar to much of the rest of the Caribbean--tourism, textile sweatshops, and weakening of state control of the economy through privatization and deregulation.

As Naomi Klein reported last week, the Heritage Foundation quickly noted that the earthquake provides "opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s . . . economy as well as to improve the image of the United States in the region.”

Under Obama, the U.S. has granted Haiti partial debt relief, but the country still pays huge sums to the Inter-American Development Bank. On Thursday, the International Monetary Fund announced another 100 million dollar loan to Haiti, with the usual structural restrictions, including a freeze on public sector wages. Minimum wage in Haiti was raised last year to a little less than five US dollars per day.

The Obama administration has provided Haitian immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, forestalling at least for the next six months the planned deportation of about 30,000 people. The US has also promised one hundred million dollars in aid relief. But as Anthony DiMaggio reports in counterpunch, that aid needs to be put into comparative and historical perspective. It is less than a quarter of the funds the Bush administration allocated to disaster relief for the December 2004 Asian Tsunami, less than the US gives to many other nations, less in percent of GDP than many other nations are giving to Haiti, and less than a Powerball payout last month in Kentucky.

Anyway, our aid has begin with the landing of military troops. As one World Food Program official said, “Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed [people]." And as also happened after Hurricaine Katrina, disaster survivors who manage to find food in collapsed stores are being described as "looters" whose actions threaten property.

Non Governmental Organizations don't always have a better record of offering genuinely helpful aid. As Tracy Kidder noted in a New York Times Op-Ed, "There are many projects that seem designed to serve not impoverished Haitians but the interests of the people administering the projects." But grassroots organizations like Partners in Health or Mercy Corps, as noted on Friday's KBOO Evening News can put your donations to good use, and Mark Schuller at commondreams has provided more information on how to contribute most usefully to aid in Haiti. 

But as Richard Kim has noted in the Nation, it's time to stop talking about charity and start talking about justice--about recovery, responsibility and fairness.

Haiti's vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor--by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank. What the world should be pondering is: What is Haiti owed?



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