Before the quake: The roots of Haiti’s destruction

While earthquakes are acts of nature, extreme vulnerability to earthquakes is manmade,

Tracy Kidder wrote in The New York Times, referring to last week’s cataclysmic quake in Haiti.  Kidder, who has written about the work of the legendary Dr. Paul Farmer in rural Haiti, explains in his article what many others have also voiced about the recent tragedy:  That the damage wrought in Haiti last week is only a more dramatic and pronounced shake up of long-term systemic fault lines and fissures that have kept people vulnerable and impoverished for years.

Kidder traces the problem even further back than the nation’s inception, explaining Haiti’s history of colonization, slavery, and debt.  Under French rule, the colony practiced outright importation of African slaves, who famously revolted and emancipated themselves in 1804 (long before American slaves were emancipated).  And ever since, Kidder writes,

Haitians have been punished … for claiming their freedom: by the French who, in the 1820s, demanded and received payment from the Haitians for the slave colony, impoverishing the country for years to come; by an often brutal American occupation from 1915 to 1934; by indigenous misrule that the American government aided and abetted. (In more recent years American administrations fell into a pattern of promoting and then undermining Haitian constitutional democracy.)

Indeed, in The Guardian, Peter Hallward calls the international treatment of Haiti “the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.”

Haitians were forced to pay “reparations” to the French, their colonizers and slave-holders, for investments lost in its former slave colony.  Haiti has since suffered numerous blockades and coups (including those sponsored by the U.S.), in addition to dealing with disease, poverty, and — yes, still — slavery.

The collective debt that Haitian slave descendants have been saddled with since claiming their “freedom” has mired the nation in policies and structural adjustment plans that have largely damaged Haiti’s rural economy (as in much of the global South) and triggered waves of migrants to the cities seeking work (as in much of the global South).  All the while, the country struggles to pay its debt to the world as cheap foreign food flows in, annihilating its Haitian competition (as in much of the global South).

This, in a country whose impoverished population is known to feed their children dirt cakes mixed with vegetable shortening to soothe hunger pangs when there are no other options.

Hallward writes,

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 sub-standard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more “natural” or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.

(image: U.S. Air Force)

Hundreds of thousands living in desperately sub-standard housing.  Often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines.  Enter the earthquake.

In his January 14 New York Times column David Brooks puts the disaster in perspective:

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.

Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!:

[Those who live in the slums] got there because they or their parents or grandparents were pushed out of Haiti’s countryside, where most Haitians used to live. And they were pushed out of there by policies thirty years ago, when it was decided by the international experts that Haiti’s economic salvation lay in assembly manufacture plants. And in order to advance that, it was decided that Haiti needed to have a captive labor force in the cities. So a whole bunch of aid policies, trade policies and political policies were implemented, designed to move people from the countryside to places like Martissant and the hills …

(Click here for Goodman and Quigley’s full conversation)

With millions of dollars of aid and international attention focused on Haiti, then, what should happen next?

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,warns of the global trend of manipulating such disasters to implement even worse policies that would economically oppress Haitians further.  She issued a “disaster capitalism alert” on her website asking the public to “stop them [those who would take advantage of the crisis to rush in and implement exploitative economic policies] before they shock again.”

Quigley, on, suggests ten things the U.S. can and should do for Haiti now:

One. Allow all Haitians in the US to work. The number one source of money for poor people in Haiti is the money sent from family and workers in the US back home. Haitians will continue to help themselves if given a chance. Haitians in the US will continue to help when the world community moves on to other problems.

Two. Do not allow US military in Haiti to point their guns at Haitians. Hungry Haitians are not the enemy. Decisions have already been made which will militarize the humanitarian relief – but do not allow the victims to be cast as criminals. Do not demonize the people.

Three. Give Haiti grants as help, not loans. Haiti does not need any more debt. Make sure that the relief given helps Haiti rebuild its public sector so the country can provide its own citizens with basic public services.

Four. Prioritize humanitarian aid to help women, children and the elderly. They are always moved to the back of the line. If they are moved to the back of the line, start at the back.

Five. President Obama can enact Temporary Protected Status for Haitians with the stroke of a pen. Do it. The US has already done it for El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sudan and Somalia. President Obama should do it on Martin Luther King Day.

Six. Respect Human Rights from Day One. The UN has enacted Guiding Principles for Internally Displaced People. Make them required reading for every official and non-governmental person and organization. Non governmental organizations like charities and international aid groups are extremely powerful in Haiti – they too must respect the human dignity and human rights of all people.

Seven. Apologize to the Haitian people everywhere for Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh.

Eight. Release all Haitians in US jails who are not accused of any crimes. Thirty thousand people are facing deportations. No one will be deported to Haiti for years to come. Release them on Martin Luther King day.

Nine. Require that all the non-governmental organizations which raise money in the US be transparent about what they raise, where the money goes, and insist that they be legally accountable to the people of Haiti.

Ten. Treat all Haitians as we ourselves would want to be treated.

(image: Paul Goodman)

For more information about how Haiti’s current child slaves have been affected by the earthquake, check out’s End Human Trafficking blog.

(header image: U.S. Air Force)

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