Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti: From Revolution to Disaster

Earlier today I received a message from a Haitian American student wondering what I thought might happen as a result of US intervention to help Haiti survive and recover from a catastrophic earthquake. She’d read something I had written about that beautiful but beleaguered nation and wanted to know what I thought.

“I'm not fond of the idea of U.S. troops occupying my parents’ country ‘for its own good’,” she wrote. “And I know how they exploited the country's unstable politics to further their own business interests in the past.” What’s in store for us? She asked.

My reply wasn’t that enlightening. “What you suspect is certainly possible,” I had to admit. “But not inevitable. And right now the immensity of this tragedy requires a global response, which should and must include the US.” That being the case, she makes a good point. An extended international presence is very likely to produce, along with necessary reconstruction, a long-desired corporate re-colonization. A devil’s bargain – though certainly not the bizarre kind claimed by that demented tele-preacher Pat Robertson.

So, as we send our contributions and watch for signs of hope and progress, let’s also consider carefully the history and nature of the place, and the high price of “humanitarian intervention.”

Here are some of my previous thoughts on the subject, followed by a list of organizations trying to help:

Occupational Hazards
The First US Takeover of Haiti set the Stage for Later Interventions

In July 1915, Haiti's head of state, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, was cornered in the French embassy by rebel forces. The insurgents had widespread popular support. This was no shock, since Sam was known as a rampaging, vindictive thug who had seized the government by force and murdered hundreds of his political enemies before running for cover. When a mob finally found him cowering in an attic, they hacked their president to pieces.

In the previous four years, the island nation had been through seven presidents, most of them killed or removed prematurely. The rural north was under the control of the Cacos, a rebel movement that adopted its name from the cry of a native bird. Although widely portrayed as a group of murderous bandits, the Cacos were essentially nationalists, and were attempting to resist the control of France, the US, and the small minority of mulattos who dominated the economy.

Clearly, a Haiti run by rebels and peasants was not acceptable to the US, which considered the nation an endangered investment property…

Complete Article: Occupational Hazards

Hard Times in Duvalier’s Haiti

As I walked across a hot, treeless airfield from the plane to the ramshackle Duvalier International Terminal building in March 1977, a row of black faces stared down from the second floor balcony. Later, on the cab ride into the city, we passed wave after wave of makeshift houses and thousands of thin, dark Haitians.

The poverty was extreme; starving dogs searching the dirt roads, mothers cradling emaciated babies in their bony arms, young men struggling with huge carts of charcoal. Naked children, lanky teens and hobbled old folks wandered listlessly down the rutted roads. Drivers talked with their horns. Some people dressed in simple “western” clothing, and there were a few modern cars. But the tiny middle class was eclipsed by the pervasive deprivation…

Complete Article: Hard Times

Baby Doc’s Haiti: Low Expectations

After Papa Doc Duvalier’s death in 1971 Haiti attracted some renewed financial interest from the US, France, Germany and Canada. Most of it came in the form of loans, however, so the country’s deficit grew. Projects were launched only to be abandoned. A World Food Program administrator explained it to me this way: “The real problem in any project here is maintenance. After you spend several years developing crops or putting up buildings there’s no grassroots support for keeping it going, no decentralization of effort. When money comes into the country it goes directly to Port-au-Prince.”

He was just as skeptical about tourism. “People on cruises don’t spend much money and don’t stay long,” he said. “Tourism isn’t the way for Haiti to go, the income won’t reach the peasants. It will go to the resort owners.”…

Complete Article: Low Expectations

Poverty and Privilege

At noon we waited for the electricity, watching the bare light bulb for a sign. In the afternoon we drank rum and listened to reggae music. After the lights went out again at five we picked out nodes of brightness – hotels, hospitals, the palace, the “Vive Duvalier President a Vie” neon sign downtown…

Complete Article: Poverty and Privilege

Dirty Tricks in Haiti (2004)
Aristide's removal points to a regional destabilization

The first time US intervened in Haiti, not many people even noticed. Few journalists were on hand in 1915, and most newspapers were ready to accept the official version. According to President Woodrow Wilson, establishing a protectorate was part of a grand effort to halt a "radically evil and corrupting" revolution, support the "slow process of reform," and extend his policy of the "open door to the world."

But that was just the cover story. Actually, Wilson saw the island nation as a geo-strategic pawn in the build up to World War I; specifically, he was worried that Germany might take advantage of the local political turmoil to establish a military base in the hemisphere. He also had other, even stronger economic reasons to seize control of the country...

Complete Story: Dirty Tricks

If you want to help:

International charities are beginning to organize. Here are some of the aid organizations responding to the disaster:

American Jewish World Service
Catholic Relief Services
Direct Relief International
Doctors Without Borders
International Committee of the Red Cross
International Rescue Committee
Mercy Corps
Partners in Health
The Salvation Army
Save the Children
World Food Programme

The American Red Cross and Yele Haiti can accept donations by text message: Text "HAITI" to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross relief for Haiti, or "YELE" to 501501 to donate $5 to the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund. These donations are charged to your cell phone bill.

This list is just a starting point and I can’t vouch for the groups mentioned. But online tools are available for evaluating charities and making donations to NGOs, including and

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