Divvying Up the Spoils of Disaster

Known for its brash approach to public policy, the Heritage Foundation has never shied away from controversial positions. After all, this was the group that within a month of hurricane Katrina called for the suspension of prevailing wage laws and environmental regulations in New Orleans. But the foundation recently softened its rhetoric, after mounting backlash against the insensitivity of its reconstruction plan for Haiti.

Barely a day after several earthquakes laid waste to the Caribbean nation, James M. Roberts, a fellow at the foundation, insisted that a US response offered “opportunities to reshape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy.” He implored the Obama administration to take “bold and decisive” action, mobilizing “civilian and military capabilities for short-term rescue and relief and long-term recovery and reform.” And, of course, he had to remind the administration that the military is particularly needed to “prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea in rickety watercraft to try to enter the US.”

Pundits plotting to capitalize from disaster, while Haitians were clawing through precarious piles of rubble searching for loved ones, seemed a bit ghoulish. And alluding to a long-term military presence in a country once occupied by the US for 19 years is indeed alarming.

Perhaps this is why Roberts revised his original statement on the foundation’s Web site, pulling the terms “reshape” and “opportunities.” The overall push for US supremacy in Haiti, however, remained. The foundation buried the initial post and tacked on a link to donate to the Red Cross.

In speaking to Roberts, it was clear he considered his offense one of timing more so than perspective. “It frankly didn’t occur to me that it was really premature. We didn’t want to offend anyone,” he said. Besides, as he noted, the foundation is not alone in its designs for Haiti. Roberts pointed out that at an American Enterprise Institute meeting in late January, many attendees discussed policy prospects for the country.

Indeed, days after the foundation faux pas, several other talking heads – across the political spectrum – chimed in with similar positions. James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Centre at the Rand Corporation, said, “This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms.” What kind of reforms? Well, Dobson encouraged, “breaking up or at least reorganizing the government-controlled telephone monopoly,” for starters.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs insisted in The Washington Post “Private companies, domestic and international, should be contracted to set up operations.” And in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called for the revival of sweatshops because “it’s a strategy that has worked for other countries, such as Bangladesh, and Haitians in the slums would tell you that their most fervent wish is for jobs. A few dozen major shirt factories could be transformational for Haiti.”

Summing up the overarching goal of these proposals, Roberts said, “We want to emphasize private sector solutions for job creation and long-term sustainable development. There is not going to be one big government solution to this. We favor many small actors in the marketplace.”

But exactly which actors? Should multinational corporations be charged with reconstruction and engineering like they were in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia? Or must Haiti follow New Orleans and privatize state functions like education?

These sorts of neoliberal tenets have become go-to solutions for every disaster – natural or otherwise – in the past few decades, especially in conservative circles. Such free-market strategies, however, tend to deepen economic polarization and stifle government accountability.

To be sure, Haiti has already suffered the consequences of neoliberalism, thanks to more than 20 years of structural adjustment imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Haiti was forced to repeal minimum wage laws and agricultural subsidies, opening the country up to exploitative labor and highly subsidized US imports.

Possibly the most visible effect of these policies was the food riots of 2007 and 2008, where Haitians took to the streets in protest of the soaring prices. At the time, the average Haitian could hardly afford rice, a staple the country once produced in excess. And now they are being asked to once again place their future in the hands of the free market.

Roberts conceded that it’s time for “Congress to look at the really awful, deeply protectionist US policies” on sugar and rice, which have debilitated countries like Haiti. A resurgence of rice production, he offered, could certainly put hundreds of Haitians back to work, as could further expansion of textile manufacturing.

Roberts, who served as US economic counselor to Haiti under the Bush administration, prides himself in having helped ramp up textile production in 2006 and 2007 through the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act, which established preferential trade status. But the plants created under this arrangement are often considered to be sweatshops, where workers are paid less than $2 an hour to make clothes that they probably couldn’t afford to buy.

Still, Roberts – sounding like Nicholas Kristof – maintained, “Having some job is better than having no job.” Perhaps, but meager wages from “some job” will never amount to long-term economic stability. Haitian political expert Robert Fatton Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia, pointed out that at best the textile industry could create 150,000 jobs, in a nation of more than nine million people.

“That kind of initiative is not going to lead to self-sustaining growth. It is going to create an urban enclave of very poorly paid people,” he said. “Now, you may have [textile plants], but it’s certainly not going to be the engine of development.”

Fatton is not against private-sector involvement in reconstruction, but he, like so many others, emphasizes the importance of the Haitian government role in its country’s redevelopment. “You need state institutions that are capable of responding to the needs of the population,” he said. “I’m talking about heath, education and food. That is not going to come from the private sector.”

But Roberts argued that the Haitian government has proven itself incapable of effectively running the country, neglecting the upkeep of basic infrastructure. “If you build more infrastructure,” he said, “what’s going to be the guarantee that it’s going to be maintained?” Corporations, however, are ready and willing to take the charge. “There are major port operators around the world who could go to Haiti and run the port of Port-au-Prince,” Roberts suggested.

But shouldn’t a sovereign nation have the final say in its redevelopment? True, the stability of Haiti’s government is shaky at best, but Western policies have in part stunted its development. Put aside the history of US and French interventions or support for brutal dictators, and just look at how aid is distributed. The majority of foreign aid that is funneled into the country goes to a network of non-governmental organizations, further eroding the power of the government.

“NGOs are okay, but they should not be the main interlocutor of the IMF and the World Bank; the government should be,” Fatton asserted. “The state has been weakened precisely because of the policies adopted by the IMF and World Bank.”

Self-determination, not perpetual dependency, Fatton argued, needs to be a key focus of the reconstruction efforts. To that end, he said, Haitian President Rene Preval must create a more inclusive contingency government to represent the needs of all Haitians. Given Haiti’s contentious political past, that may be a tall order. But some strong Haitian delegation will have to emerge to combat the horde of free-marketeers sharpening their knives to carve out a piece of the country’s industries.

There’s certainly no doubt that the US will continue have a significant sphere of influence in Haiti. The question is whether the Obama administration will learn from its predecessors and change the neoliberal course or continue to ram destructive policy down the throat of the Haitian government. Maybe this time the government will reject such prescriptions, especially as the leftist Latin American contingent positions itself as an alternative resource in the region.

“We don’t want Haiti to be opened up to influence by Cuba and Venezuela, whose leaders have said that they oppose us and our system,” Roberts asserted. Just when you thought the Cold War was over someone has to revive the us-and-them dichotomy. Perhaps it’s befitting. After all, the foundation’s claim to fame was crafting the anti-socialist foreign policy of the eighties that became the Reagan Doctrine. But that platform of toppling populist governments, much like neoliberalism, has proven ineffective in the developing world. Hopefully, the outcry against the pro-corporate stance of the foundation – and other like-minded elements – won’t die down as Haiti actually starts to rebuild.