I returned from Haiti just a couple of days before a powerful earthquake rocked the country on Jan. 12. I was in Haiti as part of a solidarity delegation to document human rights abuses by the United Nations Stabilization Mission and to observe preparations for February’s legislative elections. We met with social movement activists who continue to fight in the face of overwhelming odds to rebuild their country.
Many people have observed that the Haitian earthquake was more a political disaster than a natural one. The similarly powerful 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California killed 63 people, while the death toll in Haiti appears as if it may soar over 100,000. Our experiences in the country confirmed that the solution to Haiti’s problems is political in nature.
Two hundred some years ago Haiti was the richest colony in the world, but today it is the poorest and most unequal country in the Americas. A successful slave revolt in 1804 defeated the French planter class, but the only other independent country in the Americas, the United States, refused to welcome a black republic because of the powerful example it set for marginalized and oppressed people everywhere. The French demanded a 150 million franc payment from the Haitians for losing their prized pearl of the Antilles. Haiti agreed, strangling any possibility for development, and sacrificing its future so as not to be seen as an international pariah.
In Haiti, we heard from grass-roots activists who complained that large international aid agencies collect funds for administrative salaries, vehicles, and office support, but little of this money filters down to the people who need it the most. Dumping cheap rice on the country has destroyed the local agricultural economy. Haiti has a desperate short-term need for assistance, but this aid should be funneled through groups like Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, which have a track record and distribution networks in place to make proper use of the aid. Community Action on Latin America will hold a fundraiser for emergency medical aid to Haiti at the Cardinal, 418 E. Wilson St., at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
The longer-term solution, however, is political. Already conservative pundits are proclaiming that the earthquake is an opportunity to remake the country along neoliberal lines. But the extraction of natural resources, creation of low-wage jobs, and privatization of government functions are factors that have left Haiti incapable of responding to a natural disaster.
Haiti has never recovered from the ostracization it faced from the French and United States governments at independence, and ongoing international policies appear to be designed to sink the country deeper into debt. The U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, and the earthquake seems to provide a convenient excuse for the United States once again to land military troops and reassert its imperial control over the country.
In 2004 the French, United States, and Canadian governments removed popular leftist President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who promised to shift resources to the most marginalized sectors of society. They have insisted that the current government ban his Fanmi Lavalas, the largest political party in Haiti, from participating in electoral contests.
The solution to Haiti’s problems is to allow the country to develop its own economy and political system without constant outside intervention. Otherwise, Haiti’s next natural calamity will be worse than this one, and the country will continue to sink deeper into poverty, inequality, and social exclusion.
Marc Becker of Madison is president of Community Action on Latin America.