Haiti's unnatural disaster

The 150,000 Haitian people estimated (as I write) to have died in the earthquake were, in a sense, victims of a natural disaster. Look beyond the immediate horror to a little of the country's recent history, however, and it quickly becomes plain that most of their deaths could in fact be classified as manslaughter through negligence.
Haiti has been the victim of repeated colonialist crimes, but I don't want to go back any further than the 1970s and '80s. These were the years of the Duvalier dictatorships, when the Haitian state, one of the world's most brutal, was given over US$900 million in loans from foreign banks, governments and international institutions. In 1970, Haiti’s total debt had been US$40 million. Seventeen years later, after the removal from office of the second of the Duvaliers, the dictator known as 'Baby Doc', the country’s debt had reached US$800 million.
While the violent criminals who ran the Haitian state were being showered with money, the US was also imposing 'free market' policies which have served to impoverish further a country which has long been the western hemisphere's poorest.  The US imposed the Caribbean Basin Initiative in 1979, a system of free trade designed to benefit American firms active in the region, which included 450 of the Fortune 500, an annually revised list of the country's biggest corporations. 

Because no attempt was made to develop the indigenous economy in the interests of its people, removing barriers to Haitian imports into the US enabled American manufacturers of a range of goods to relocate to the low wage capitalist paradise. In Haiti, labour protection legislation and environmental regulation were non-existent and trade unionists likely to measure their life expectancy in days or hours.

Things were to grow much worse.

Haiti had recently been self-sufficient in rice, the staple diet of its people. In 1995, under pressure from the IMF and US, tariffs on imported rice were reduced to 3 cents in the dollar, less than  a tenth of their previous level. By 1999, rice imports had risen by a factor of thirty over 1985 levels and the livelihoods of 50,000 rice-farming families had been destroyed. These were, in many cases, the people we have seen on our televisions trapped under the rubble of the slums of Port-au-Prince, where they were forced to move in search of work.
The European Community's approach was for a long time less one-sided than that of the US, though Haiti itself gained little from trade agreements marginally fairer than the Caribbean Basin Initiative. The early part of this century, however, has seen a major shift to a system of EU Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) which demand a degree of trade liberalization beyond even the requirements of the World trade Organisation.

Alongside these economic developments we have seen the progressive elected President Aristide twice removed from power by the US, and his former comrade, current President René Préval, having his hands tied by that same power.

Indifference and exploitation on the part of foreign powers, aided by indigenous corruption and inadequate state revenues mean that nothing has been done to develop and enforce building regulations designed to minimise death and destruction. Without substantial foreign aid and a transformation of policy on the part of donor countries, Haiti is finished, a grim precursor perhaps of what will happen to much of the world as the century progresses.

Aid should be linked to conditions which will preserve and improve people's lives, not ruin their livelihoods. Rich countries could use public-public partnerships to send experts who work for public sector bodies to advise on how to build for earthquake and hurricane, and stay on to make sure their advice is followed. Instead of enforcing privatisation, aid should be directed at promoting the public sector, eliminating corruption, and strengthening Haiti's political institutions, economic infrastructure, and human services. The immediate aim must be to keep people alive, the longer-term aim to enable them to make a living in dignified and productive occupations.

More than half of Haiti's debt was cancelled last year.  The rest, amounting to almost $900 million, is made up of moneys borrowed since 2004 from the Inter-American Development Bank, Venezuela and Taiwan. This debt must now be cancelled as well.

The US could aid in a very simple way by offering permanent resident status to the 30,000 Haitian citizens who were due to be deported and whose deportation has been suspended due to the earthquake. Their remittances are a vital source of income to families in Haiti. With other wealthy countries, it could offer Haitian migrants education and training so that they could return home equipped to contribute to the reconstruction of their country. Carried out in a planned and systematic way, this could represent a highly effective form of aid, complementing the public-public partnerships which should be at the heart of reconstruction. NGOs should be welcome to help, of course, but they must be subject to full transparency in the way they use their money, and to the democratic control of the Haitian people. 

The tens of thousands who have died and will continue to die in Haiti must not be allowed to become yesterday's news story.

This appalling event had its roots deep inside the Earth, but it had other roots too, roots which tapped deep into the sickness of a global system of exploitation responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every day, even on days when neither earthquake nor hurricane strikes.

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine. He would like to thank Patrick Clairzier, a Haitian who teaches at the American Graduate School in Paris, for providing some of the details used in this article, which first appeared in theMorning Star