Thursday, 14 January 2010

HAITI's SOCIAL PROBLEMS IN CONTEXT

Touissat L'Overture, nationalist republican revolutionary leader,
of the first slave island (Haiti) to be freed from european colonialism

US debt policies left Haiti vulnerable to catastrophe


Alison Kilkenny
True Slant

The same message is resonating from all corners of the
Internet: Poor Haiti. That little, miserable island just
can’t catch a break, can it? Yes, thousands are feared
dead, and the pictures coming in from Haiti are
heartbreaking, but no one can be blamed for an earthquake.

And sure, Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern
hemisphere (more than half the population of 9 million
lives on less than $.50 cents a day,) which explains the
construction of those flimsy houses that collapsed like
card houses during the quake (Haiti’s ambassador calls the
country’s infrastructure “among the world’s worst.”)

But this is just rotten luck, or God’s work! Surely, this
is one of those things we can write off as “unlucky,” or
“Shit happens.”

KT McFarland asks, what will become of those impoverished,
feeble blacks Haitians when America can’t “ride to the
rescue” anymore? I mean, really, when are these poor
countries going to get their acts together?

In news story after news story, there are reports of
Haiti’s “flimsy” shacks with no mention of why Haitians
live in such extreme poverty. The impression one is left
with is that these people are just inherently poor savages
who don’t know how to construct decent homes for themselves
(see these numerous examples of the “flimsy” line). The
language almost implies Haitians deserved to be crushed
during the quake. That’s what they get for living in such
squalid conditions!

The media is missing a valuable opportunity to explain why
Haiti is so poor. Once again, Americans are receiving a
hefty dose of miseducation. They are learning that Haiti is
simply a poor country where bad things happen all the time.
In reality, the country has a rich, fascinating story, but
unfortunately its history is also dominated by western
exploitation.

Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish
slavery (though Napoleon later reinstated it.) Meanwhile,
the western world scorned the tiny island. Thomas
Jefferson, that famous slave owner and champion of liberty,
warned Haiti had created a bad example during its
revolution, and argued it was necessary to “confine the
plague to the island.”

Haiti was not born poor, but rather saddled with debt,
first by the French and now by the United States. When the
slaves fought for their independence in 1804, and won, the
French punished them by demanding payment for damages (the
equivalent of $21.7 billion in today’s dollars, or
forty-four times Haiti’s current yearly budget, according
to journalist Eduardo Galeano). Even as they began to pay
that debt, France was the only country to recognize the
newly independent Haiti, the country that transformed from
a slave colony to an invisible, autonomous society. Yet,
Haiti was never really free. No indebted country is ever
free as debt takes the place of shackles.

The United States began its occupation of Haiti in 1915
when Woodrow Wilson sent 330 U.S. Marines to
Port-au-Prince. The reason for the invasion, according to
the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral William Deville Bundy,
was to “protect American and foreign” interests. Of course,
the public was told the purpose of the mission was to
“re-establish peace and order.” Sound familiar? Galeano
writes:

"The occupying army suspended the salary of the Haitian
president until he agreed to sign off on the liquidation of
the Bank of the Nation, which became a branch of City Bank
of New York. The president and other blacks were barred
entry into the private hotels, restaurants, and clubs of
the foreign occupying power. The occupiers didn’t dare
reestablish slavery, but they did impose forced labor for
the building of public works. And they killed a lot of
people. It wasn’t easy to quell the fires of resistance.

"The guerrilla chief, Charlemagne Peralte, was exhibited in
the public square, crucified on a door to teach the people
a lesson."

And those were the acts of Marines, the civilized people.

When the occupiers left in 1934, they left behind a
National Guard that they had created, and the ruler
François Duvalier, who Galeano compared to such tyrants as
Trujillo and Somoza. Duvalier was responsible for the
deaths of around 30,000 people and the exile of thousands
more. In 1971, Duvalier died and his son became ruler. In
1986, the son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was overthrown in a
popular uprising.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the rebel priest, and enemy of the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund, became
president in 1991. He only lasted a few months before
"the U.S. government helped to oust him, brought him to the
United States, subjected him to Washington’s treatment, and
then sent him back a few years later, in the arms of
Marines, to resume his post. Then once again, in 2004, the
U.S. helped to remove him from power, and yet again there
was killing. And yet again the Marines came back, as they
always seem to, like the flu."

Worse than the destruction of ongoing occupation, however,
was the “help” Haiti received from The World Bank (the pet
project of the United States,) and IMF. Haiti obeyed all
orders from its financial overlords. It slashed tariffs and
subsidies, and other protectionist policies, and yet its
credit was frozen. The majority, rice farmers, became
beggars. Now, Haiti imports rice from the United States
since national production has practically been outlawed.

Back in 2003, Marie Clarke, National Coordinator of the
Jubilee USA Network, wrote

"Creditors are denying Haiti new loans and desperately
needed humanitarian aid. They claim that this is because
the current government cannot service its debt. Because
debt payments must be made in the form of foreign capital
and Haiti has only two weeks’ reserve in their central
bank, it cannot service its debt. Jubilee USA and Jubilee
Haiti argue that the debt is illegitimate and should not be
serviced at all. Forty percent of Haiti’s current debt was
accrued by the dictator Duvalier. According to
international law, this debt is odious as it was a debt
incurred in the name of the people but has not served the
interest of the people. The people of Haiti have been
handed a bill for their oppression."

Because Haitians were saddled with the debt of a dictator
installed by the west, they are kept in perpetual poverty.

The dangers of this forced poverty policy were extremely
clear. Clarke wrote in 2004:

"Haiti’s loans from the 1994 reconstruction aid package will
come due this year, doubling the country’s debt service
payments. Before entering into new loan agreements, the
best way that the donor community can start to assist in
Haiti’s development is to release desperately needed
resources by canceling Haiti’s odious debts. The pending
loans are odious debt in the making. There are no
guarantees that these funds will benefit the Haitian
people. Creditors should heed the example of Iraq; they can
not expect the Haitian people to repay these loans in the
future."

And in 2009, $1.2 billion (2/3 of Haiti’s overall debt) was
cancelled, which some saw as cause for celebration, but
others realized the debt cancellation could only partly
begin to right the wrongs of the past. Now that a large
portion of the debt was gone, how could Haiti hope to begin
to rebuild its economy and infrastructure? Instead of
focusing on national production, the Haiti government seems
determined to focus on the export sector. Haiti, like the
west, is being told the cure to all her woes is the free
market:

"[A] few months ago UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and
British economist Paul Collier made yet another proposal
for international aid to fund garment assembly production
in new Free Trade Zones.

"Indeed, Corinne Delechat, IMF mission chief for Haiti,
commenting on the debt cancellation, told Reuters that
Haiti is a ‘land of opportunity if you’re an entrepreneur
and an investor,” adding, “It is a golden moment for Haiti
to start investing in export capacity, particularly in
textiles."

So therein lies the answer to why Haiti is so poor, and why
so many citizens laid huddled in those paper shacks that
immediately collapsed during the quake.

The media doesn’t like to focus on the details of Haiti as
a rule. It pretty much ignored the 2008 floods from
Hurricane Hanna that killed at least 537 people, and the
ongoing food shortages. That could be because we have a
superficial, shallow media that finds such suffering
boring, or it could be because examining Haiti’s plights
forces the US to uncomfortably self-examine its policies
and history. Or maybe it’s because Haiti disturbs Americans
at an almost subconscious level: horrific environmental
disasters, food shortages, civil unrest. It’s a little like
looking into a mirror that shows the future.

As for positive policy changes that could benefit Haiti and
the US, I like Juan Cole’s idea of asking Goldman Sachs,
Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase CEOs to donate some of
their $47 million in combined bonuses to Haiti.

"The US government only puts in about $200 million a year
into aid to Haiti. Although Americans tell pollsters that
they think we give away too much in foreign aid, it is only
about $22 billion, much less as a percentage of our
national income than most advanced countries. A third of it
goes to Israel and Egypt.

"Instead of Congress having to borrow money to increase the
aid budget to help Haiti, or raise taxes, why don’t the
nice folks on Wall Street do the right thing? Just give 10
percent of their bonuses to Haiti. It might help change the
public perception of them."

When pigs fly, right? In the meantime, you’re nice people,
so give what you can to the people of Haiti.

No comments: