Earthquake Strikes Haiti; Imperialism is a Disaster
Also available as a ready-to-print PDF
On Tuesday, January 12th, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the country of Haiti, its epicenter a mere fifteen miles from the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. By that Thursday, 80,000 people were already buried in mass-graves and 200,000 people were estimated to have perished. In the wake of the tremor, international aid has rushed to the small Caribbean country. The news of the massive earthquake and its human toll has overshadowed a larger crisis in Haiti: crushing poverty, widespread malnutrition and imperialist super-exploitation.
A history of imperialism
Haiti became the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after Black slaves rose up against their owners and then the French between 1791 and 1804. Quickly after defeating France, however, they were straddled with debt. Their former colonial masters demanded 130 million francs (later lowered to 90 million) in indemnity for the Haitian war of liberation. The newly consolidated Haitian government had no such funds and resorted to borrowing the first 30 million from the Bank of France at exorbitant interest rates. It would not be until after World War II that Haiti fully repaid debt accrued from its war of independence.
During the Haitian Revolution, US President Thomas Jefferson initial offered military aid to the French, but backed out at the last minute. After Haiti attained independence, Jefferson signed a legislative bill barring trade between the two countries. The United States, a country with its own substantial Black-slave population, refused to recognize the new, Black republic for six decades in an attempt to stifle it.
Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, has also suffered the most imperialist meddling. Between 1849 and 1919 US troops were sent to the country 24 times to “protect American (sic) lives and property.” Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the US supported ‘Papa’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier as strong-men puppets in country. This ended after much conflict in 1990 when a reformer, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected to the presidency.
In 1991, Aristide was overthrown by a U.S.-backed military coup. As part of a compromise deal to return to power three years later, Aristide made a slew of concessions, including wholesale, IMF-sponsored structural adjustments and the occupation of the country by U.N. ‘peacekeepers.’ Aristide began appealing to the international community regarding the plight of Haiti and Third World. Aristide was again ousted in 2004, Haiti’s bicentennial.
Throughout this process, imperialism has tightened its squeeze on the Haitian masses. Prior to the 1970’s and 80’s, Haiti was a moderately self-sufficient, agrarian society. Then, the IMF forced the Haitian state to cut tariffs on US imports of rice and other food commodities. Because US farms are heavily subsidized, a flood of cheap agricultural imports drove the Haitian masses off the land and into the slums. Another major blow to Haitians came when international agencies persuaded the Haitian government that a pig acclimated to the island needed to be killed off and replaced. The native pig, which served as a hedge against starvation, needed little water or food, whilst the breed imported from Iowa needed clean water, shelter and feed daily, something the majority of Haitians couldn’t provide even for themselves. Thus, Haitians were deprived of their two traditional, staple foods and left at the whim of international food prices. Western-demanded privatizations have also swept Haiti in recent years, closing of country’s only flour mill and cement factory and furthering the Haitian masses’ dependence on an unfair, uncaring market. Despite so-called ‘aid,’ foreign debt has crippled the Haitian economy. In 2003, for example, Haiti paid $57 million dollars to service foreign loans while receiving $39 million from aid programs.
An ongoing disaster in Haiti
During the Summer of 2008, it was reported that Haitians in the slums of Port-au-Prince began widely eating sun-baked mud pies. Food riots occurred the same year. An estimated three-quarters of the country lives on less than $2 a day. Over half the country subsists on less than a dollar a day.
Cite Soleil, the shanty town adjacent to Port-au-Prince, is home to 2-300,000 residents and is one of the largest slums in the Western Hemisphere. The residents, often the children of former farmers, are said to sleep in shifts for lack of space. Basic education is a privilege; illiteracy is on the rise. There is no welfare or economic safety-net in Haiti. Life expectancy in the country is around 52. Very little modern infrastructure exists.
The Haitian masses are trapped in their miserable condition. Their border with the Dominican Republic is closed and the surrounding waters are patrolled by the US Coast Guard. Haitians caught on the water or ‘illegally’ inside the US are forced back into the squalid conditions of their home country. Even after the quake, US military airplanes have broadcast a message over Haiti, telling residents to not flee the country. This stands in stark contrast to Cubans, who are deemed ‘political refugees’ and given free residency status once inside the US.
Most Haitians were unaware the possibility of a quake even existed. In 2008 however, Patrick Charles of Havana’s Geological Institute reported, “conditions are ripe for major seismic activity in Port-au-Prince. The inhabitants of the Haitian capital need to prepare themselves for an event which will inevitably occur….” “Thank God that science has provided instruments that help predict these type of events and show how we have arrived at these conclusions,” he added.
Unfortunately, social conditions prevailed over science’s ability to predict and mitigate the human devastation caused by natural occurrences. The earthquake struck Haiti’s capital city just before 5 pm, rocking the imperialist-ravaged country at the peak of daily activity.
The response from the West
Predictably, the response from the West, especially Amerikans, has been disgusting.
Pat Robertson, a right-wing, Amerikan religious leader, said on his television show, the 700 Club, that the earthquake, along with Haiti’s poverty, was a punishment from god. According to Robertson, Haiti’s 18th-century rebels “signed a pact with the devil” in order to get free from the French. Racist to the extreme, Robertson has a daily television audience of 1 million viewers.
Within the more mainstream of Amerikan society, the response has been similar but toned-down. ‘Why were so many Haitians killed? Can’t they build proper buildings? Now we have to help them, again? They really owe us now!’ Most Amerikans expressed a viewpoint which blames the victim; views them as ‘backwards’; offers ‘aid’ as part of the responsibility carried by ‘advanced’ countries; and expects ‘gratitude,’ i.e. unchallenged political and economic control of their country, in return. Amerikan broadcasters played into the view that Haitians are incapable of being anything besides poor and miserable. Associated Press, in one early story, quoted a man who was “wielding a broken wooden plank with nails to protect his bottle of rum.” Western media has sensationalized so-called looting while extolling the roll of the US military in the quake’s aftermath. Youth in “lawless” Haiti are said to be at risk of “sex trade, slavery and murder.” Reports tell of difficultly getting food to hungry Haitians due to civil disorder, as if such is somehow exceptional in a deeply impoverished, densely-populated city after a major earthquake. All of this paints a picture of Haitians as violent imbeciles whose misery is their own fault. This racist narrative ignores the two-centuries-long unnatural disaster that has crippled Haiti’s self-reliance, including Haiti’s institutions’ ability to respond.
US take-over and imperialist penetration
By January 24th, 20,000 US troops arrived to ‘save’ Haiti. As part of the first act of the relief effort, the US military seized the airport in Port-au-Prince, one of the few in the country. Thereafter, the US has controlled all air-traffic in and out of the capital.
Thus far the US has assumed a de facto governing role in Haiti, with the Dept. of Defense, the State Dept., and USAID taking the lead. Of the 20,000 US troops in Haiti, over half are stationed off the coast, a virtual blockade meant to prevent Haitians from taking to the waters in an expected wave of migration.
Some commentators have called it an occupation. Some have condemned the security-style tactics, such as shooting live rounds into the air and pointing M16s at crowds. Others have noted the impediment to relief efforts the massive troop presence is causing. Journalists and Haiti-advocate, Kim Ives, explained:
“Watching the scene in front of the General Hospital yesterday said it all. Here were people who were going in and out of the hospital bringing food to their loved ones in there or needing to go to the hospital, and there were a bunch of Marine[s]—of US 82nd Airborne soldiers in front yelling in English at this crowd. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were creating more chaos rather than diminishing it. It was a comedy, if it weren’t so tragic.”
One thing that can’t be missed is the near-hegemonic role the US has played in the so-called relief and recovery effort. Despite the good intentions of some individuals, intervention in Haiti is part of a larger strategy for imperialism.
One influential group, the right-wing Heritage Foundation, noted early-on how the crisis could be used to further Amerikan interests. “In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the US response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to reshape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region,” it stated in a draft report.
Thus far imperialism has rushed in and already pulled off a number of PR stunts.
First, Obama granted temporary amnesty to Haitians scheduled for deportation from the US, after it was demanded by advocacy groups. Likewise, it was reported early on, perhaps erroneously, that the US-controlled IMF demanded wage freezes and rises in electricity prices as part of an emergency 100 million dollar loan package. Later, the IMF came out with a statement, declaring that the $100 million loan would be interest and condition-free. Managing director of the fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, went even further by saying, “the most important thing is that the IMF is now working with all donors to try to delete all the Haitian debt, including our new loan. If we succeed–and I’m sure we will succeed–even this loan will turn out to be finally a grant, because all the debt will have been deleted.”
The IMF’s statement should be seen for what it is: imperialist doublespeak. While imperialism, especially Amerikan imperialism, is promising to help Haiti, the real intention is to help itself.
Under the imperialist system, ‘aid’ is almost exclusively used as a political weapon. Aid packages and loans often come with strings, such as the freezing of wages and rises in prices for public services, among other things. When Washington’s edicts are not followed, aid money to poor countries is withheld and instead given to opposition groups, as was the case in Haiti after Aristide was reelected in 2000. Additionally, ‘aid’ rarely makes it to those it is professed to serve. 84% of US aid money to the Third World returns to the US economy in the form of contracts, wages, consulting fees and payments for goods. Of the remaining 16%, an unknown amount is pocketed by the recipient country’s goonish puppet-elite.
Recently, the United Snakes has been touting investment in Haiti. Twice in 2009, Bill Clinton, acting on behalf of the UN, made high-profile visits to Haiti. In one trip, Clinton gave 150 investors a tour of potential investment sites in the country. Prior to this, Clinton visited with UN General Secretary, Ban-Ki Mon, who said during a press conference the country must do more to attract investment. However, this investment is of a narrow type, as illustrated by a post-earthquake opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen:
“[Regarding ‘rebuilding’ and ‘development’ plans,] [t]he Haitian government has singled out tourism, “export processing zones” (EPZs) and agriculture as sectors that hold promise and should be supported. But donors seem to be placing the bulk of their faith in EPZs, or expanding the textile industry.”
Facing a ‘financial crisis,’ US imperialism likely sees the Haitian earthquake as an opportunity to ratchet up and expand exploitation in the country. Food sustainability and commercial agriculture for Haitians is not profitable for imperialism and will not be promoted as part of imperialist ‘development’ schemes.
Impetus will be given to legal ‘reforms,’ new building construction and infrastructure development. However, such will not be geared to the benefit of the people of Haiti, but rather those who control the Haitian economy: imperialists and a small comprador class. Infrastructure and ‘development’ will expand imperialism’s exploitation of the country and perhaps convert the country’s north shore into a resort destination for the exclusive use of Western vacationers. For the bulk of Haiti’s population though, conditions will not change. Though a few new sweatshop jobs may come to the country, most Haitians will continue to rely on small-scale agriculture, the informal sector and remittances from abroad for daily survival.
Recent resistance in Haiti
Since the mid-90’s, resistance to continual imperialist meddling and economic strangulation amongst Haitians has coalesced under former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas [Avalanche Family] party.
While president of Haiti, Aristide used Fanmi Lavalas and other independent institutions to provide services to and render support from the poor, especially where the Haitian state’s hands were tied by US-sponsored trade agreements. Chief among Aristide’s plans for Haiti was a more democratic productive and distributive method within the grassroots and informal sector, those areas which imperialism and the Haitian state had the least control over.
Though Aristide was supported by the masses of Haiti, he never prepared them to struggle against inevitable imperialist suppression. His politics and program were heavily tinged with liberalism: an inability to make and follow through with clear distinctions. In a very real sense, he wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to be both a legitimate statesman within the imperialist system as well as someone leading progressive social change within Haiti. This, in addition to his pacifist tendencies, left himself and his supporters vulnerable to attacks.
Aristide’s liberalism was perhaps best expressed as he looked for allies in Haiti’s struggle against imposed poverty. Rather than building alliances on the basis of clear common interest, i.e. with those countries also struggling under IMF-imposed debt and unfair trade deals, Aristide spent a considerable amount of time appealing to rich countries. Rather than championing and joining in solidarity with those being attacked and threatened by the imperialism globally, he formed a government-in-exile inside the US after his first ouster. In Eyes of the Heart, a short book published in 2000, he made a moral case against modern globalization; attempting to expose the plight of Haitians to Western audiences in a non-threatening way.
The logical result of Aristide’s misguided politics came in 2004, an election year. The US-funded opposition made allegations of fraud and labeled Aristide a dictator. They staged acts of civil unrest and launched a rebellion which threatened to violently overtake the capital, prompting the US to “restore democracy,” i.e. kidnap Aristide and fly him to Africa as part of a coup d’etat. Since Aristide’s ouster, Fanmi Lavalas has been banned from running in elections, branded “violent, pro-Aristide gangs” and subject to repression. The small gains Haitians made during Aristide’s short stints as president have been reversed. For all his internationally-directed appeals, they went unheard and ignored in the West. When he was overthrown a second time by the US, there was no outcry from the Western “masses.”
What is revealed here is that the struggle for Third World liberation is a political-military one. In this regard, Aristide’s strategy failed the Haitian masses, leaving them to languish under the jackboot of imperialism.
It also reveals the saliency of class in today’s world. The illusionary ‘morality’ of the First World is not reliable in any effective sense. Any ‘progressive movement’ within Amerika is overstated, largely for propaganda purposes. Generally, First Worlders are exploiter enemies of the Third World masses.
One thing should be clear: the disaster that’s befallen Haiti is not natural. It is the result of an economic system, a class system which actively benefits a minority of humanity at the expense of the majority.
There are two ideas at the core of this. First, Haitians are far from alone in their plight. They are one small part of the exploited masses of the world. Second, it will take more than reforms or even revolution in a single country to relieve its people of the capitalist-imperialist threat eternally. It will take a global revolution- an uprising of the exploited Third World masses against imperialism, its agents and supporters- to end this system forever.
The idea that a cataclysmic, global revolution will be unleashed upon the world is millenarian. Because of this, the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement (RAIM) supports various forces actively opposing imperialism throughout the Third World. We support a united front against imperialism, i.e. unity between forces resisting imperialism in individual countries.
Revolutionaries push for widespread social transformation. While it is important to accept and support reforms when they are on the table, revolutionaries must also defend reforms from attacks and organize to transform society on a more widespread basis. Society must be revolutionized on all levels, including the adoption of a foreign policy based on revolutionary internationalism and not narrow state interests. Revolutionaries the world over must make clear distinctions and have a clear strategy; not cloud up the picture with liberalism, uninhibited moralism and unwarranted reverence for the First World. Above all, revolutionaries are anti-imperialists and see their own struggle as global in scope.
Which way from here
The lack of a revolutionary or popular democratic movement in Haiti places it in great disadvantage vis-a-vis imperialist penetration and restructuring in the aftermath of the recent earthquake. As it looks, the living conditions in Haiti will be hellish for some time.
However, from this ongoing disaster, Haitians and the global masses have the opportunity to learn from and reject the errors of Haiti’s most recent struggles. As revolutionaries, we also have an obligation to study and learn from what is happening in the world, presenting our findings with utmost clarity to the Third World masses and those who might be their allies. In the First World, we have an obligation to agitate for and meaningfully support the united front, using our own bourgeois privilege when expedient. In the Third World, revolutionaries must incorporate these lessons into their struggle, so as to not repeat the same mistakes.
While doctors and food may help in this time of emergency, they are hardly long-term solutions to the problems inherent in capitalist-imperialism. The best form of relief for Haiti would be a global, anti-imperialist movement. Unlike the US-dominated ‘recovery’ effort, a successful, class-conscious movement on the part of exploited Haitians and the Third World masses is the only thing capable of truly saving Haiti.
Aristide, Jean-Bertrand. Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization. 2000. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME.