News  Montreal hosts Haiti aid talks

Activists decry militarization, profiteering, and political exclusion

On Monday, Montreal hosted the Ministerial Preparatory Conference on the reconstruction of Haiti. The meeting was attended by high ranking delegates who set out to establish a framework for the delivery of aid and the long-term reconstruction effort.

Assistance has been slow in reaching the people of Haiti, after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the country on January 12. The quake has left roughly 200,000 dead, with hundreds of thousands in need of medical assistance. Earlier this week, the World Food Program estimated that two million Haitians face an immediate risk of malnourishment.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive thanked the delegates for their countries’ assistance in the current crisis, but also emphasized the dire situation in his country.

“Four hundred thousand families…have to be put in emergency housing and we have to provide [them with] medical care,” said Bellerive in French, adding that the coordination of the relief effort faced serious bottlenecks in the days immediately following the earthquake. “People are being assisted in a more satisfactory fashion, [though] not totally satisfactory,” he said.

Too many guns, not enough aid
In addition to the ministerial delegates at the conference, representatives of the Canadian private sector and NGOs were also present. International financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Caribbean Development Bank were included in the day’s discussions, most of which were conducted behind closed doors. The morning’s discussions were devoted to the assessment of humanitarian relief efforts, while later negotiations focused on developing a long-term strategy for Haiti’s reconstruction.

In his opening remarks, Canadian foreign minister Lawrence Cannon acknowledged the close relationship between Haiti and his own country. “Canada’s commitment to Haiti was and is a key aspect of its foreign policy. United by language, culture, and a shared history in the Americas, our countries have a unique bond,” he said.

United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton encouraged the countries present at the conference to see themselves as “partners, not patrons, of Haiti.”

The United States’ relief effort has been roundly criticized, however, for its domination of Port-au-Prince’s only airport, and its prioritization of the U.S. military over aid organizations like Médecins sans frontières, whose flights have been repeatedly turned away.

In the afternoon, a small demonstration organized by Haiti Action Montreal took place outside the International Civil Aviation Organization Building where the conference was held.

For Patrique Volny, who attended the rally, the U.S.’s relief effort has been inappropriate and ineffectual.

“What we need above all, it’s medical care, it’s water, it’s food. These are essential needs. We don’t need an army – 20,000 soldiers, 16,000 soldiers – coming again to break the population’s back,” said Volny. “You can’t…give them a little bottle of water and have tear gas in the other hand. There’s something not working there.”

Yves Engler, author of “Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority,” agreed, saying that the humanitarian relief effort is not at the top of the U.S.’s agenda. “I think it’s been so heavily militarized because there’s a real fear of poor blacks – there’s a very racist element to it,” said Engler.

Elections deferred, president exiled
The earthquake took place in the run-up to an election in Haiti that had been planned for February 28, but several delegates at the conference, as well as Haiti’s minister of culture and communications have stated that the election will likely have to be deferred.

The deferral raises the question of whether Haiti’s most popular party, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas, will be able to participate in elections when they take place.

After his election in 2000, Aristide was overthrown in a February 2004 coup supported by Canada, the U.S., and France. Aristide claims that he was “taken by force by the U.S. military,” that he was kidnapped from the country after his house was surrounded by U.S. and U.S.-backed Haitian security personnel, and that he was “forced to leave to avoid bloodshed.” The Bush administration maintained that Aristide had resigned and left the country willingly.

Last November, the Haitian government, led by current president René Préval, announced that Aristide’s party Fanmi Lavalas, would be excluded from the elections. The government alleged the party had failed to properly submit official documents. Thousands of Haitians rallied in Port-au-Prince following the decision, demanding that Aristide be repatriated and allowed to run in the elections.

“The rules were not respected; the will of the people was not respected; the Haitian constitution, the laws of the country, [and] electoral law were not respected,” said Volny, who is also a member of Fanmi Lavalas Montreal.

“When countries like Canada, for example, [and] the United States say…‘We’re spending money to support democracy in Haiti,’ I think that in the end…that’s pure and simple hypocrisy,” said Volny.

“Since Canada, the U.S. and France overthrew Haiti’s elected government nearly six years ago, there’s been a continued exclusion of the most popular party from the political process,” said Engler. “Haiti’s not going to be rebuilt with the political exclusion of the majority poor of the country.”

Rebuilt on debt, or grants?
Much of the conference focused on the question of debt relief for Haiti.

The IMF recently promised a $100-million interest-free loan to the country, bringing Haiti’s total international debt to roughly $1 billion. The reconstruction of Haiti has been estimated at as much as $10 billion.

Despite these efforts, Carlo Dade, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, remained committed to the idea of extending loans to Haiti. “For productive investments, you have to keep the economic discipline in place,” he said.

Compton Bourne, the President of the Caribbean Development Bank, did not agree with Dade, saying that fiscal responsibility could be achieved through grants – depending on the conditions under which they are made.

“Loans are not necessary for discipline,” said Bourne in a phone interview with The Daily. “Discipline in itself is not a valid reason to increase debt.”

Last summer, Canada cancelled Haiti’s $2.3-million debt as part of the Canada Debt Initiative. The Paris Club, a consortium of international creditor states, has further urged Haiti’s creditors to cancel the country’s remaining debt.

World Bank vice president of Latin America and the Caribbean Pamela Cox said that the issue is not a large concern for her organization at present.

“Haiti right now is in a grace period. Haiti is not paying to the international organizations any amount because they’re either in a grace period, or the service fees are being paid in the [International Development Bank]’s case by a trust fund,” Cox said.

“There is debt through the Paris Club and other creditor nations, and we would call on those nations such as Venezuela to forgive that debt,” Cox said.

Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, argued that complete debt relief is an essential element of any reconstruction effort.

“Haiti, as a nation, is bankrupt at this point. We need to eliminate all debt, to make sure that funding is in the form of grants, not loans. We are hoping for a clear announcement today,” he said.

Fox added, however, that he was skeptical of international financial institutions’ willingness to relieve Haiti’s debt. “We’ve had some positive signals, but when you’re dealing with bankers, I want to see the signature on the document,” he said.

Fertile land for disaster capitalism
The general consensus among conference’s participants was that the private sector would have a massive role to play in Haiti’s redevelopment. Cannon thanked the private sector for contributing to the aid appeal, and stressed that it “will also play an important role in Haiti’s future.”

The protesters, however, had far less faith in the beneficence of the private sector.

“Haiti’s comparative advantage in the world economy is as a place of cheap labour,” said Engler. “Sweatshop zones, that’s why Canadian capital companies like Gildan activewear – the Montreal-based T-shirt-maker – see Haiti as a great place to produce their products, because they can pay people three dollars a day.”

Diego Hausfather of Haiti Action Montreal stated that the West’s presence in Haiti might only serve to undermine the country’s sovereignty.

“We’re worried that this will be a reconstruction like after Hurricane Katrina, like after the 2005 tsunami, where corporate investors took advantage of the situation to push their agenda, to profit off of the destruction, off of the reconstruction,” said Hausfather.

Inside the conference, Dade stressed the private sector’s importance in Haiti’s future economy.

“Cell phone companies are booming in Haiti,” he said. “We’ve seen foreign investment in garment factories, so people are making good in Haiti.”

Haiti’s telephone system, run by Teleco, had been undergoing a process of privatization ever since 2007, resulting in layoffs of two-thirds of its employees. The cement and flour industries have also been privatized under Preval’s presidency.

Aristide has claimed that his refusal to privatize the country’s phone and energy enterprises was a major reason for his U.S.-orchestrated ouster. Since the earthquake, Aristide has demanded that he be allowed back into the country in order to take part in the process of reconstruction.

In the original version of the article, The Daily printed the name Oxfam Canada director as Richard Fox. His first name is Robert. The Daily regrets the error.