Haitian tragedy compounded by long, ugly history of exploitation
Peter Hallward is professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex University in England and author o f Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment
Irish Times - Fri, Jan 15, 2010
OPINION: The international community is as much to blame for the misery as the act of nature that caused the earthquake
ANY LARGE city in the world would have suffered extensive damage from an earthquake on the scale of the one that ravaged Haiti’s capital city on Tuesday afternoon, but it’s no accident that so much of Port-au-Prince now looks like a war zone. Much of the devastation wreaked by this latest and most calamitous disaster to befall Haiti is best understood as another thoroughly man-made outcome of a long and ugly historical sequence.
The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of May 7th, 1842, may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, most recently in 2004 and 2008; the storms of September 2008 killed more than a thousand people and destroyed thousands of homes.
The full scale of the destruction resulting from this latest earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable. What is already all too clear, however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment.
Haiti is routinely described as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”. This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression. The noble “international community” which is currently scrambling to send its “humanitarian aid” to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce.
Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.
Aristide’s own government (elected by some 75 per cent of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering with resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.
Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, about 75 per cent of the population “lives on less than $2 per day, and 56 per cent – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day”.
Decades of neoliberal “adjustment” and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future. It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today.
Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti’s agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums.
Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately substandard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places is itself no more “natural” or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.
As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: “Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake-resistant houses.”
If we are serious about helping, we need to stop trying to control Haiti’s government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we’ve already done. – (Guardian service)
© 2010 The Irish Times