The horrific earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, on Tuesday has apparently destroyed large parts of the city and will result in tens of thousands of deaths: the Haitian Prime Minister is already saying at least 100,000 have died. As communications were restored, the world started to respond: the US, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, China, Mexico and Venezuela all pledged immediate support in terms of personnel, cash and supplies, while the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations and the World Bank have all released money to be used for emergency relief.
No one should doubt the extent of Haiti's need in the face of the worst earthquake to rock the country in 200 years. But the reality is that the need has been present in Haiti for decades. The response of the global community to the calamity is necessary: but Haitians have been living in a calamity for years. More to the point, some of the very countries that are rushing to the aid of the country are the ones that are responsible for the systemic calamity that Haitians have had to endure. The hypocrisy in evidence over the Haitian earthquake is breathtaking: the countries and their corporations that have mired Haiti in poverty must now be seen to be 'doing something' because a global media event demands a response. They rush in, having created the very conditions that enabled the earthquake to be so deadly.
Haiti, the first country to overthrow colonial slavery and achieve independence, is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Two-thirds of its population of 10 million live on less than US$2 a day, and two-thirds of the population still live and work in the countryside. Yet Haiti is a prime example of the fact that poverty is not a naturally-occurring phenomena: it is created, and has been created in Haiti.
Between 1957 and 1986 Haiti was brutally ruled by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc". Their private militia, the Tontons Macoutes, killed tens of thousands as the country lived in fear. As was common during this period, the United States, which had occupied the country between 1915 and 1934, turned a blind eye to the terror in its backyard, as the Duvaliers were fiercely anti-communist. But there was more to the support of the US than just political ideology: there was also an economic interest at stake, because during the reign of the Duvaliers Haiti set up two tax-free export-processing zones in Port-au-Prince, with, at their peak, 180 factories assembling light manufactures for US transnationals exporting into the US market. So Haiti had a classic 'dual' economy: a small enclave of a manufacturing sector owned and operated by US capital that generated dollars for the Haitian elite, surrounded by a vast agrarian hinterland; beyond the small number of jobs that were generated in the export-processing zone, the linkages between the enclave and the hinterland were minimal. This economic structure became the modern foundation of the extreme inequality that has characterized Haiti since independence and which continues to do so: within the French-speaking minority that constitutes Haiti's ruling class, 1 per cent of the population own nearly half the country's wealth even as the Creole-speaking black majority remains impoverished.
The political instability that has rocked Haiti since the overthrow of the Duvaliers in a military coup in 1986 has its origins in this profound inequality. A vibrant civil society fought it; it was from civil society that Lavalas, a popular movement for social change, emerged, and their candidate, the Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected President in 1990. Yet when Aristide's government started proposing radical reforms that challenged the interests of Haiti's dominant class, the military intervened again in support of the status quo. It was only a US-led intervention that forced a return to constitutional government in 1994, and that intervention came with a price: the restored government of Aristide had to implement an IMF-led structural adjustment program. Radical reform was overthrown, along with the military, by the US intervention. Aristide was de-fanged--he now lives in exile in South Africa--and the former radicals that had confronted the Duvaliers and the military starting scrambling for the crumbs of elected office as the boundaries between political parties and urban gangs faded and the state became increasingly dysfunctional.
One aspect of the structural adjustment program was particularly pernicious: the country had to dramatically reduce import tariffs on rice, the staple food of Haitians. To an uninformed outsider, this might seem sensible--why not import rice that was cheaper than Haitian rice? But the impact of this reform for the bulk of the Haitian population, who were peasant farmers, was nothing short of catastrophic. Even in the late 1980s Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, which meant that Haitian peasants could make a rudimentary living selling their surpluses for urban consumption. Cheap imports undermined Haitian rice farming, and hence peasant livelihoods, and now 2 out of every 3 spoonfuls of rice that are eaten in Haiti are imported.
The wanton destruction of Haitian farming massively contributed to the deforestation that plagues the country and, through the latter's impact on flooding, severely aggravates the destructive impact of the tropical storms that periodically sweep Hispaniola. It forced hundreds of thousands to leave the land to search for non-existant jobs in the cities: a lucky few were able to migrate to the US or Canada, but most ended up unemployed and living in squalid shanties such as Cite Soleil, in wooden or tin shacks, with no running water, no sewage systems, and no electricity. Cite Soleil, the outcome of an economic policy foisted on the country by outsiders, was at the epicenter of the destruction on Tuesday.
Cheap rice imports sustained the perverse inequalities of wealth, power and privilege that define Haiti's ruined political economy. Where did those rice imports come from? The United States. From which countries did the rice trading companies originate? The United States. Structural adjustment may have been a disaster for Haiti's agrarian economy, but, as I argue at length in a chapter in my forthcoming book Hungry for Change? Farmers, Agrarian Questions and the Global Food Crisis, it was a boon for Louisana's rice farmers and trading companies.
That the United States and other advanced capitalist countries, which propped up the Duvaliers in return for cheap manufactures and then not only neutered radical reform but indeed destroyed the livelihoods of Haiti's peasantry, should now express dismay at the destruction of Port-au-Prince compounds the depth of the tragedy on Tuesday: to the social wreckage wrought by decades of foreign tutelage and about which we did very little there now lies physical wreckage, to which we will respond.
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