American forces have secured the airport in Port-au-Prince and thousands of Marines are on their way to Haiti, along with warships. Not for the first time in history either, which will help to explain why this week’s earthquake has had such a devastating impact on the impoverished country.
The United States has taken a hostile attitude to Haiti more or less since it declared independence from France in 1804, following a slave revolt. Haiti was occupied by US forces from 1915 to 1934. After World War I, angered by a US-instigated law requiring forced labour, as many as 40,000 Haitians rebelled. More than 3,000 Haitians were killed by American forces.
After World War II, Washington supported the notorious dictator Duvalier. When he was overthrown, the CIA helped depose elected politicians, including the popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was removed in 1991 and then again in 2004 after he got too close to Cuba and Venezuela. Several thousand people were killed in the internationally-sponsored coup which was bitterly resented by Haitians. In place of Aristide, the Haitians were sent a US-UN “stabilisation and pacification” force to secure the country for corporate-led globalisation.
In 1996, under pressure from President Clinton, who sent troops to restore Aristide to power in 1994, Haiti agreed to the draconian conditions set by International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It called for suppressing wages, reducing tariffs, and selling off state-owned enterprises. The small amount for the countryside was designated for promoting export crops such as coffee and mangoes. The Haitian government also agreed to abolish tariffs on US imports, which resulted in the dumping of cheap US foodstuffs on the Haitian market.
Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, has explained how many of the earthquake victims came to live in shantytowns perched on hillsides. “The reason why the people got to the hillsides where they were most vulnerable to the earthquakes perched on the hillsides [is] they were pushed out of there by policies 30 years ago, when it was decided by the international experts that Haiti’s economic salvation lay in assembly manufacture plants. And in order to advance that, it was decided that Haiti needed to have a captive labour force in the cities. So a whole bunch of aid policies, trade policies and political policies were implemented, designed to move people from the countryside to places like Martissant and the hills — hillsides that we’ve seen in those photos.”
In July 2003, Haiti was forced to use more than 90% of its foreign reserves to service loans from foreign banks, requiring Aristide’s government to end fuel subsidies and slash spending on health and education programmes. This prompted Aristide to demand that France repay to Haiti “compensation” made after securing its independence. Six months later, France supported the coup against Aristide.
So it is no surprise that Haiti’s infrastructure has barely developed, explaining the slow to non-existent reaction by local authorities in the wake of the earthquake, as well as the large number of deaths of people living in makeshift dwellings on deforested hillsides. Instead, Haiti has been overwhelmed by aid agencies and NGOs of different sorts who come and go. No wonder Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and that large sections of the population have emigrated.
The country may have won independence more than 200 years ago, but Haiti has been robbed of its self-determination and its ability to meet the needs of its own people. No one can prevent earthquakes – but the swift despatch of US troops is a reminder that the power responsible for the extent of the disaster is human and headquartered in Washington, home of the American government, the IMF and the World Bank.