Haiti: How to Turn Disaster into Catastrophe

Arun Gupta Jan 29, 2010


Since 1950, Port-au-Prince’s population has exploded from 144,000 to about 2.5 million. While the wealthy capital-area suburb of Petionville was largely spared, with few homes destroyed, poor people packed in shoddy housing, bore the brunt of the death and destruction. The underdevelopment of Haiti is the underlying cause. Bipartisan U.S. policy for decades (and that of plaint Haitian regimes) has been to displace the rural poor to the capital where they can serve as an extremely lowwage labor force. For one, the destruction of Haiti’s rice farmers, who were unable to compete with U.S. agribusiness, forced many peasants off the land.

But one of the little-known stories is that of the Haiti’s Creole pig. A well-adapted animal that was literally many rural families’ “piggy bank,” because it was a low-maintenance livestock that provided a source of surplus nutrition and income, was wiped in the 1980s under heavy U.S. pressure, which feared an outbreak of African swine fever. It was replaced with U.S. breeds that required clean water, special feed, medicine and roofed pigpens. Unable to afford the American breeds, dubbed “four-footed princes,” many peasants saw their income plummet, leading to a drop in rural school enrollment of 30 percent and deforestation, as peasants cut down mango trees (which were used mainly for pig feed) to use as charcoal.

For many years, peasants have been lured to the capital, where thousands have been employed sewing baseballs, Disney merchandise and garments, usually earning less than $3 a day. This was policy under both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who are now in charge of the effort to help Haiti “rebuild.”

While the earthquake was undoubtedly a natural disaster, how it was experienced and how the relief is being organized is defined by the same political and economic structures that doomed the poor to die on a massive scale.

By day nine, the U.S. Southern Command said it had delivered 700,000 meals, but the World Food Program (WFP) said at least 2 million people required “food assistance,” meaning more than 50 million meals were needed in that time frame. According to the New York Times, WFP flights carrying food, medicine and water were delayed for three days because they “had been diverted so that the United States could land troops and equipment and lift Americans and other foreigners to safety.” By Jan. 23 the U.N. agency said it had reached only 313,000 people with food aid. It probably didn’t help that in one instance the WFP stopped distributing food after recipients became frustrated after they were told to fill out forms.


After “considerable internal debate,” Royal Caribbean International docked a 4,370-passenger cruise ship at its $55 million private beach in Labadee, Haiti, about 60 miles from the capital, just three days after the earthquake. While one passenger wrote online, “I just can’t see myself sunning on the beach [while] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets,” the company defended its actions by pointing to the 60 cases of food and water it donated. Then again, one “Voyager-Class” ship carries more than 200,000 pounds of food for a seven-day cruise and can generate 540,000 gallons of fresh water a day. Once in the fenced-in playground, passengers are free to enjoy such activities as a water park, zip line and a ride onboard an “alpine roller coaster” built into the mountainside (for only $35).


Doctors Without Borders said in the first week five of its cargo flights carrying 85 tons of medical and relief supplies had been turned away from the main airport, which was under U.S. military control. One spokesperson for the aid group said the lack of medical equipment had forced doctors at one hospital “to buy a saw in the market” to perform amputations. According to the Times (U.K.) “Aid officials in Haiti … were enraged when the airport was closed on Saturday [Jan. 16]” so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could visit.



Calling desperate survivors queueing for food “animals,” U.N. troops sprayed crowds with pepper spray after many tried to scramble for insufficient food supplies in the capital exactly two weeks after the earthquake. The previous day, other U.N. troops shot rubber bullets into a crowd of people also attempting to access food aid. Some Haitians were highly critical of the distribution, contending that if it were coordinated through churches with community groups providing security there would be far less chaos.


On Jan. 21, Democracy Now! found that large supplies of bottled water were unloaded at the Port-au-Prince airport and then delivered directly to the U.S. Embassy. The next day the BBC reported that of 350 makeshift camps accommodating around 472,000 people, only six had access to water.


Cuban doctors were among the first to provide aid in Port-au-Prince because Cuba had 344 doctors and health professionals in Haiti, providing care in every major region. By Jan. 22, they had treated more than 20,095 patients and performed 1,954 surgeries.



While Western governments, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank ponder whether to cancel Haiti’s external debt of $1.05 billion, Venezuela has already forgiven Haiti’s debt of $295 million. Last year, $1.2 billion in debt was forgiven, but Haiti was still paying out millions every month. And now, the IMF is considering a $100 million loan instead of a grant, which will saddle Haiti with yet more debt.


Of 132 people pulled from the rubble by international search-and-rescue teams, at least 35 came from the posh Hotel Montana, favored by spies, diplomats and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Seven teams scoured the site, some arriving within 24 hours. Florida’s Lynn University even hired private search-and-rescue teams to find missing students and professors. According to the Washington Post, some rescue workers said, “The U.S. and other governments have focused more attention on those missing at the hotel than on Haitian survivors.”


During the first week of operations, the Times (U.K.) reported that 40 percent of incoming flights to the main airport were military. Both Brazil and France lodged official protests with Washington for prioritizing military flights over aid, with one French cabinet minister saying the U.S. role should be about “helping Haiti, not occupying Haiti.” Within two weeks 15,400 U.S. troops were in Haiti or offshore on ships.



Aid deliveries may have been sparse and chaotic, but the U.S. Air Force managed to deploy one of its “high-end, high-flying spy drones, the RQ-4 Global Hawk” to Haiti within 48 hours of the disaster. The Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation also claimed (and later denied) that it was flying at least one unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Haiti and was using its “fleet of 747’s” and helicopters to ferry in supplies for unnamed clients.


The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were dispatched with haste to Haiti, setting up a field hospital and deploying search-and-rescue units. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the effort as “in the best tradition of the Jewish people; this is the true covenant of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” adding, “this was an expression of our Jewish heritage and the Jewish ethic of helping one’s fellow man.” Others were not so moist-eyed. According to Richard Silverstein, Yoel Donchin, a doctor who served as part of Israel’s disaster relief efforts (and was subsequently barred after his comments became public), wrote that the IDF is generally more concerned with sending TV crews, spokespeople, photographers and high-tech medical equipment that looks good on television than delivering far more important supplies like sewage pipes, grave-digging equipment and portable toilets.

For more information, please see the following articles in this issue of The Indypendent:

“Same Old Interests Have Plan for ‘New Haiti'” by Isabel MacDonald

“Remittances to Haiti Fill Funding Fractures” by Jaisal Noor

“Haiti in Aftershock” by Nicholas Powers

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