Commentary | Haiti: Past, Present, Future

On Tuesday, January 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the Republic of Haiti. Two-hundred thousand people are estimated dead; three million Haitians are directly affected by the disaster; 1.5 million are now homeless. The international community’s quick response is commendable. But there is a remarkable historical amnesia in their rhetoric and most of the media’s coverage. There is little or no acknowledgement that Western powers have actively contributed to Haiti’s vulnerability to this kind of large-scale destruction.

History lesson
Haiti’s history has had a direct impact on the scale of desolation caused by the earthquake. Yet this history is missing from most discussion of the current crisis.

Haiti’s infrastructure was ruined during a long and bloody war for independence from France in 1804. The former colonizer saddled the country with an enormous debt – reparations for the land and bodies of the formerly enslaved Haitian citizens. Haiti paid France back between 1825 and 1947. To help cover these costs, the new republic borrowed enormous sums from American and European banks, sending its finances into spiralling, endless debt.

Since 1915 – when the United States invaded, fearing for American business interests in the country – the U.S., France, and Canada have interfered with impunity with Haiti’s internal affairs – from backing the dictatorship of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier for decades, to deposing president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

From 1957-1986, the country was ruled by the Duvaliers, who enjoyed the support of the U.S. government, which feared the spread of communism. The autocrats ate up money from international aid agencies (80 per cent of aid was embezzled) and garnered further debts for personal projects. Forty-five per cent of what Haiti owed last year had been accrued by the Duvalier regime.

Economic interference
Since the eighties, the United States and international financial institutions have been pressuring successive Haitian governments to privatize industry, decrease social program funding, and lower tariffs that protect local agriculture – crippling the nation’s economy. This economic interference has led to overpopulation in urban centres – the places hit hardest by last week’s earthquake.

In the nineties, Aristide, the first democratically elected president, was overthrown in a coup d’état. Sanctions put in place by the international community during the coup destroyed Haiti’s economy: for three years, no imports were allowed into the country except for humanitarian aid.

In 1994, the United States put Aristide back into power, but his successor, the current president of Haiti René Préval, followed the advice of Western powers and gutted state infrastructure and privatized many key government industries – including the Haitian telecom Teleco, underfunded by Préval’s administration, then sold a week before the quake. Without a strong national telecommunications line, millions of Haitians were left at the mercy of unreliable cellphone carriers.

These decades of debt accumulation and “structural adjustment” have left Haiti a desperately poor nation singularly unable to respond in times of national crisis. Western powers can’t be blamed for the earthquake; but the fault for the total lack of a national response system, the fault for the unmitigated destruction, lies squarely at their feet.

What must be done
Now the same nations that ruined this country’s infrastructure are taking control of Haiti. There are 15,000 American troops and 1,000 Canadians currently on the ground. The Americans control the airport – for days, aid flights were redirected to allow more soldiers to land. Though the outpouring from the international community has been rapid, allowing more soldiers and not more aid in – especially given the urgent need for medical supplies and food – is reprehensible. Twenty thousand Haitians are dying a day because they can’t get needed surgeries. Now is not the time for more troops.

Haitians fleeing the disaster zone should be allowed into Canada. Immigration regulations must be loosened so refugees can get temporary visas and apply for more permanent status once in Canada. People are dying: this is no time for bureaucracy.

If Haiti is ever going to emerge from the destitution brought by centuries of abuse from Western powers, the country’s $641-million debt must be cancelled. Much of it was accumulated under previous, undemocratic governments; the rest, through loans from the same global financial institutions guilty of debilitating the country’s infrastructure. As reconstruction begins, we must lift the burden of systemic indebtedness to the West. The country needs a fresh start.

The West and its financial institutions need to wake up. As decades of neo-colonial exploitation have left the Global South largely without appropriate emergency response capabilities, it’s clear that more natural disasters of this kind will happen again. Our policies should favour investment in social programs, stable communications, and medical institutions in the Global South to prepare for this eventuality.

What you can do
Pressure your governments toward debt cancellation. But don’t be mistaken – though long-term planning is necessary, help is needed on the ground now. Donate whatever you can. Visit The Daily,s website and follow the link to donate to the Red Cross. AUS will be collecting money at the Roddick Gates today between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The funds will go to Oxfam-Québec. The Human Rights Working Group and the Law Students’ Association are also collecting funds for Oxfam and Doctors without Borders at Chancellor Day Hall. All funds donated to Oxfam-Québec will be matched by the federal government. You can also give to Partners in Health, an organization providing free health care and other services to Haiti’s poorest, at pih.org.