In the wake of the earthquake that has killed almost 200,000 people in Haiti, the foreign ministers of several countries calling themselves the “Friends of Haiti” met on Jan. 25 in Montreal to discuss plans for “building a new Haiti.”
Participants, who included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, representatives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, came to what Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon referred to as a “road map towards Haiti’s reconstruction and development.”
In his opening remarks at the ministerial conference on Haiti, Cannon stated, “We also have with us today some members from the private sector who have given generously to the humanitarian appeal but will also play an important role in Haiti’s future.” Singling out several publicly owned sectors of the Haitian economy, he added that “They [members from the private sector] will be accompanying and supporting us in rebuilding the national infrastructure of ports, roads and power generation and in re-establishing essential services from electricity to banking and communications.”
Apparently no participant felt the need to mention that under pressure from Western governments and international financial institutions, Haitian President René Préval (who has scarcely been seen in public since the earthquake) privatized public enterprises such as a cement company and flour mill during the nineties and announced plans in 2007 to sell off Téléco, the state-owned telephone company.
So it was probably no coincidence that James Dobbins, former special envoy to Haiti under President Bill Clinton and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAN D Corporation, wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms” including “breaking up or at least reorganizing the government-controlled telephone monopoly The same goes with the Education Ministry, the electric company, the Health Ministry and the courts.”
The day after the earthquake, before the bodies were even cold, one financial analyst offered his hot stock picks. In an article entitled “An Opportunity to Heal Haiti” published on TheStreet.com, Scott Rothbort spoke of “opportunity in misfortune,” explaining, “Here are some companies that could potentially benefit: General Electric (GE), Caterpillar (CAT), Deere (DE), Fluor (FLR), Jacobs Engineering (JEC).” Not wanting to be left out, mercenary companies are setting their sights on Haiti, too.
The Montreal conference did not go unopposed: The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which includes Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia, held a counter- conference and several Haiti solidarity organizations demonstrated outside the Friends of Haiti meeting, expressing skepticism that the conference would work to further the interests of ordinary Haitians.
One group protesting the conference, Haiti Action Montreal, warned: “There is a danger that these major powers will try to exploit the earthquake to further narrow pro-corporate ends, if reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina and in Asia following the tsunami are any indication.”
As Naomi Klein has observed, the Heritage Foundation’s initial response to the earthquake followed the pattern she documented in her book The Shock Doctrine, by which proponents of neoliberalism seek to impose an agenda of privatization in times of crisis.
Less than 24 hours after the earthquake, the Heritage Foundation issued a release recommending that, “In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.”
When I asked World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean Pamela Cox to elaborate on what kind of private sector role was being envisioned for Haiti’s future, she said, “You’d have to talk to the private sector … in the sense that they’re the ones who would be putting their money in so they’d have the decision. What we want to hear from them is what kinds of things they need, so that they can come back.” Cox cited “one proposal” she’d heard for investment in the “garment manufacturing industry” — a sector that has long been associated with sweatshop labor practices in Haiti.
For anyone familiar with Haiti’s experience of this sweatshop-based, pro-corporate development model over the years, the roadmap the banks and Friends are charting for the “new Haiti” is not in the least bit new. And, for the Haitian people, who have always paid the price for these failed policies, it is nothing less than disastrous.
A version of this article appeared on TheNation.com.
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