Double Disaster

Ever since the infamous Monroe Doctrine of 1823 Haiti has had the dubious pleasure of being considered an ‘American interest’ – an honour now shared by the entire planet. Of course the people of Haiti had no say in the matter – they might have thought of themselves as capable of running their own affairs (having been the first slave nation to successfully overthrow their oppressors) – but then as now, Washington knew better.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if my country had just been devastated by some awful catastrophe and I had to rely on a foreign government coming to save me, a government that had quite cheerfully ignored the plight of tens of thousands of its very own citizens when they had been similarly struck down, I’d be fairly worried.

We have had blanket news coverage this week of the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti. Amidst all the usual terrible scenes of human suffering and tragedy one very brief incident is transfixed in my memory. It was of a news conference with some senior US politician who had something to do with the ‘relief’ effort. I forget who he was – it doesn’t matter: if it hadn’t been him it would have been a clone. A reporter asked him why they didn’t just parachute in essential supplies, like food and water, to the desperate survivors who were wandering around the ruined streets of Port-au-Prince quite naturally scavenging anything they could. The politician dismissed the question almost as though some naive child had asked it, and, before quickly moving on answered that if they did that there would be carnage as desperate people fought over whatever was supplied. In other words they’re not supplying immediate relief because that’s in the Haitians’ best interests.

Let’s give that gentleman the benefit of the doubt, and say that he actually believed his own words; so I won’t call it a lie, I’ll simply call it the biggest load of rubbish I’d heard since… I don’t know… the previous night’s ‘news’ maybe.

The only situation where this gentleman might have been correct is if the available aid was so miniscule that it could not possibly have provided significant relief. If that is the case, why is it? I mean, the west is absolutely swimming in ‘humanitarian’ organisations of one kind or another, why are they so poor and disorganised that they can’t respond to a crisis when it actually happens? If that were the case it would mean either that these organisations just don’t have or can’t get stocks of essential food and water; or there is a transport problem i.e. they can’t get it there. I simply don’t believe that is the case. I cannot believe that a professional relief organisation doesn’t have the ways and means to obtain food and water instantly; and as the world’s media have arrived in Port-au-Prince without any difficulty, and the US has had enough time to send half its navy to the scene (together with thousands of ground troops), I’m struggling to see that there might be a transport problem. There must be another reason.

They say a picture tells a thousand words, and another brief clip shown on the BBC this morning was particularly helpful in this respect. It showed the US marines helping the relief effort. Ahhh… This was they how they were doing it: one marine was handing one small bottle of water to one Haitian child. Behind that child was another, and perhaps another child behind that one. All very ordered; all very controlled. You could almost see that image on the recruiting page of the US Marines website beneath a caption reading “Saving Childrens’ Lives in World Disasters.”

There’s no love lost between the people of Haiti and the United States. The US managed the military overthrow of the people’s chosen government under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, just as they’ve done in many other places in the region, and have helped to cruelly oppress a tragic land that Christopher Columbus once described as ‘rich and bountiful’ (just prior to his nation exterminating the quarter of a million of so Arawaks who were living there).

Disaster ‘relief’ is seriously big business where corporate profits and political prestige must be considered long before anything as mundane as helping desperate poor people. With the US ‘leading’ the relief of Haiti, quite apart from feeling even more sympathy for the Haitians than we otherwise would, the single most important thing to understand is that that ‘relief’ effort will be managed not by ordinary caring human beings but by big business – because the US government and big business are one and the same thing; and big business is legally mandated to maximise its profits.

Maximising profits means controlling supply, and making that supply as cheap as possible to produce, and as expensive as possible to buy. From a profit point of view, the idea of just parachuting food and water to desperate people whist proper support systems can be set up is pure madness. Not only does it cost money but it would also mean that desperate people aren’t quite so desperate anymore, and therefore aren’t quite so easy to control. In a country like Haiti, which has every reason to be deeply suspicious of American soldiers, the population needs to be adequately ‘prepared’ to accept the authority of a foreign army. Normally the preparation of suspicious populations requires considerable bombing and armed invasion – but just because nature provides the prerequisite devastation free of charge (if that was in fact the case here), that doesn’t mean you can afford to be more liberal with the supply side of the equation, it simply means the costs are even lower and therefore the profits even more bounteous.

The United Nations is the only organisation that has truly legitimate international authority. The fact that it is being muscled aside in Haiti, with the US marketed as ‘leading’ the relief effort, is of course no surprise. But the fact is that it is the UN and only the UN who should be left alone to co-ordinate the relief effort. That’s the only way we can be reasonably sure the job is being done with minimal ulterior motive, and that the people of Haiti are getting the best support and assistance possible. My heart goes out to the people of Haiti. Not only have they been struck down by a terrible catastrophe, but they are forced to rely on the most ruthless government in existence for their relief.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. Check out John's books: Fiction: The Road to Emily Bay; Non Fiction: The School of Kindness; The People’s Constitution. Read other articles by John.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. revolutionrock77 said on January 19th, 2010 at 1:06pm #

    Thank you for your reflections on US relief efforts in Haiti.
    It made me think about Naomi Klein’s analysis (The Shock Doctrine) of how disaster capitalism operates.

  2. revolutionrock77 said on January 19th, 2010 at 1:07pm #

    Thank you for your reflections on US relief efforts in Haiti.
    They made me think about Naomi Klein’s analysis (The Shock Doctrine) of how disaster capitalism operates.

  3. Deadbeat said on January 19th, 2010 at 9:53pm #

    If you want to know what the real Haitian “Shock Doctrine” is it is the fact that there were over 10,000 aid agencies working in the country. That’s sheer EXPLOITATION. Those agenciies are really an “occupying” force the country cripping the Haitian people ability to build up its public sector capabilities. Essentially its PRIVATIZATION on steriods disguised as “charity” work for those incapable “negros”.

    These agencies find ways to milk it and justify their existence but the workers for these agencies are not living in squalor. This means that the Haitian resources are diverted from the people and end up maintaing the “first world” lifestyles of the aid workers. It’s a real RACIST joke but then again what else can you say of Capitalism.

    Naomi Klein is a marketing ploy — No Logo — No Naomi and that a WHITE woman is using the Haitian tragedy to boost her own ratings and book sales is shameful. But then again isn’t that what all those aid agencies and the Clintons are doing in Haiti.

  4. Gary Corseri said on January 20th, 2010 at 9:07am #

    Thanks, John, for raising these salient points about the Haiti relief effort.

    Other countries send the needed food, medicine, water–and the US sends an aircraft carrier and the marines, air force, army, etc. Obama pledges $100,000,000 in aid to Haiti–a devastated nation of 9 million, while Wall Street kleptomaniacs can each walk away with that much in personal earnings and bonuses! Norway pledged $17,000,000 in aid; on a per capita basis, that’s 60 times what the U.S. has pledged. The European Union as a whole–with about 50% more people than the United States–pledged over four times what we have.

    Ten thousand charities in Haiti? Reminds me of Coleridge’s poem, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water everywhere / And not a drop to drink.”

    There’s much disgusting behavior to condemn: among the “aid” agencies and in our government’s response. Sending Bill Lewinsky Clinton and George “Just Send Cash” Katrina Bush to head up our “relief” efforts shakes salt on Haiti’s wounds.

    Andrews is right. This is what “corporate” relief from a military-industrial empire looks like! Frankly, our neglect, oppression and suppression of Haiti for nearly 2 centuries has been opprobrious.

    But, what to do now? I’ve seen Michelle Obama on T.V. shilling for the Red Cross. I want to help, but I admit to some leeriness about sending my money to any organization once headed by Elizabeth Dole! And don’t they pay their heads something like $350K per year? The best place I’ve heard/read about so far is Partners in Health. They work with Haitians; it’s grassroots stuff, not trickle down. I say, let’s give as much as we can–but give wisely.

    Meantime, observe closely as this tragedy unfolds. We’re bound to see major disasters in the U.S. in this decade. We’ve already seen troops in the streets of New Orleans with shoot-to-kill orders against victims, and people herded like cattle into an ill-equipped astrodome. When the Big One hits California, or New Madrid, or blows up under Yellowstone taking out the West–what then? Add financial collapse and the general stew of ecological catastrophes we’ve been cooking, add terrorism come home to roost and domestic predatory drones to combat it, and it’s clear we’re in for a rocky, roaring decade!