Haiti experts are warning that unless the international community comes up with new, more imaginative and more inclusive approaches to reconstruction and development in the earthquake-ravaged nation, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country can look forward to more of the same.
They see the suffering and deprivation caused by the earthquake as a human and physical disaster. But they also see it as an opportunity to change the way aid is allocated, managed and distributed so that it results in progress that works for all the people, not simply the country’s elites. The goal, they say, is better-built roads and buildings, sound education, infrastructure and public health and justice systems. They believe that this goal demands an approach to development planning that calls for the active participation of the Haitian people.
“Without it,” says Robert Maguire, a professor at Trinity College in Washington, DC, and head of the Haiti working group at the US Institute of Peace, “We will simply see another lost generation – with hundreds of millions of donor dollars being directed to projects that perpetuate the status quo and enrich those business, government and military elites who have been personally profiting from international donor generosity for many generations.”
One of the more experienced Haiti experts, Maguire added, “Haiti is a lot more than a free-enterprise-zone filled with low-wage textile workers.”
And Bill Quigley, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a Katrina survivor who has been active in human rights in Haiti for years with the Institute for Justice, puts the challenge this way: “The current crisis is an opportunity for people in the US to own up to our country’s history of dominating Haiti and to make a truly just response.”
The story of Haiti and international efforts to influence it is complicated by history, politics, greed, corruption, waste and race.
Here’s how that history is seen by Quigley: He contends that the US owes Haiti billions of dollars. He bases this assessment on Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” – “If you break it, you own it.”
Quigley said, “The US has worked to break Haiti for over 200 years. The US has used Haiti like a plantation. The US helped bleed the country economically since it freed itself, repeatedly invaded the country militarily, supported dictators who abused the people, used the country as a dumping ground for our own economic advantage, ruined their roads and agriculture, and toppled popularly elected officials. The US has even used Haiti like the old plantation owner and slipped over there repeatedly for sexual recreation.”
Quigley recalled that, in 1804, when Haiti achieved its freedom from France in the world’s first successful slave revolution, the United States refused to recognize the country.
He wrote, “The US continued to refuse recognition to Haiti for 60 more years. Why? Because the US continued to enslave millions of its own citizens and feared recognizing Haiti would encourage slave revolution in the US.”
Following the slave revolution in 1804, “Haiti was the subject of a crippling economic embargo by France and the US. US sanctions lasted until 1863. France ultimately used its military power to force Haiti to pay reparations for the slaves who were freed,” Quigley said.
“The reparations were 150 million francs. (France sold the entire Louisiana territory to the US for 80 million francs!) Haiti was forced to borrow money from banks in France and the US to pay reparations to France. A major loan from the US to pay off the French was finally paid off in 1947. The current value of the money Haiti was forced to pay to French and US banks? Over $20 Billion – with a big B.
Racial politics have always played a significant role in Haiti. Generally, largess from the international community has gone to the light-skinned, French-speaking, Haitian elites in government, business and the military. Corruption among these elites was legend.
Little aid actually got to the darker-skinned, Creole-speaking “common people” of the country – and the elites built no school systems, no public health systems, no infrastructure for these common people.
In fact, at one point in its storied history, Haiti was divided into separate sections for lighter and darker-skin citizens. In 1806, Haiti consisted of a black-controlled north and a mulatto-ruled south. That was a mere five years after a former black slave, Toussaint Louverture, became a guerrilla leader and overthrew French rule, abolished slavery and proclaimed himself governor-general of an autonomous government. For decades afterward, Haiti was crippled by reparations it was forced to pay to former slave owners.
Quigley recalled, “The US occupied and ruled Haiti by force from 1915 to 1934. President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to invade in 1915. Revolts by Haitians were put down by US military – killing over 2000 in one skirmish alone. For the next nineteen years, the US controlled customs in Haiti, collected taxes, and ran many governmental institutions. How many billions were siphoned off by the US during these 19 years?”
Then, he said, from 1957 to 1986, “Haiti was forced to live under US backed dictators ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. The US supported these dictators economically and militarily because they did what the US wanted and were politically “anti-communist” – now translatable as against human rights for their people.”
Quigley charged that Duvalier “stole millions from Haiti and ran up hundreds of millions in debt that Haiti still owes. Ten thousand Haitians lost their lives. Estimates say that Haiti owes $1.3 billion in external debt and that 40 percent of that debt was run up by the US-backed Duvaliers.”
He said, “Thirty years ago Haiti imported no rice. Today Haiti imports nearly all its rice. Though Haiti was the sugar growing capital of the Caribbean, it now imports sugar as well. Why? The US and the US dominated world financial institutions – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – forced Haiti to open its markets to the world. Then the US dumped millions of tons of US subsidized rice and sugar into Haiti – undercutting their farmers and ruining Haitian agriculture. By ruining Haitian agriculture, the US has forced Haiti into becoming the third largest world market for US rice. Good for US farmers, bad for Haiti.”
Quigley noted that, in 2002, during the George W. Bush administration, “the US stopped hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Haiti which were to be used for, among other public projects like education, roads. These are the same roads that relief teams are having so much trouble navigating now!”
And, two years later, he said, “the US again destroyed democracy in Haiti when they supported the coup against Haiti’s elected President Aristide.”
In the area of economic development, Quigley noted, “US based corporations have for years been teaming up with Haitian elite to run sweatshops teeming with tens of thousands of Haitians who earn less than $2 a day.
“The Haitian people have resisted the economic and military power of the US and others ever since their independence. Like all of us, Haitians made their own mistakes as well. But US power has forced Haitians to pay great prices – deaths, debt and abuse.
“It is time for the people of the US to join with Haitians and reverse the course of US-Haitian relations.”
Robert Maguire of the US Institute of Peace said, “At times, American policy makers have watched Haiti with deep concern over the impact of developments there on the US. Certainly this was the case in the aftermath of Haiti’s independence in 1804, when American leaders, particularly in its plantation South, feared that the Caribbean country’s ‘virus of freedom’ would spread to the slave plantations in the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia. Other times, American engagement in Haiti has evolved far beyond observation to direct intervention, most notably during the 19-year US military occupation of 1915 to 1934.”
Veteran journalist Greg Palast also takes a dark look at Haiti’s history – including the performance of the international aid community in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. “Send in the Marines,” he wrote. “That’s America’s response. That’s what we’re good at. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson finally showed up after three days. With what? It was dramatically deployed – without any emergency relief supplies. It has sidewinder missiles and 19 helicopters.”
But, he said, “don’t worry, the International Search and Rescue Team, fully equipped and self-sufficient for up to seven days in the field, deployed immediately with ten metric tons of tools and equipment, three tons of water, tents, advanced communication equipment and water purifying capability. They’re from Iceland.”
Gates wouldn’t send in food and water because, he said, there was no “structure … to provide security.” For Gates, appointed by Bush and allowed to hang around by Obama, it’s security first. That was his lesson from Hurricane Katrina. Blackwater before drinking water,” he said.
Palast asked, “How did Haiti end up so economically weakened, with infrastructure, from hospitals to water systems, busted or non-existent – there are two fire stations in the entire nation – and infrastructure so frail that the nation was simply waiting for ‘nature’ to finish it off? “
For Palast, the blame lies as much with Haiti’s corruption and the donor community’s acquiescence as with the earthquake.
“Don’t blame Mother Nature for all this death and destruction. That dishonor goes to Papa Doc and Baby Doc, the Duvalier dictatorship, which looted the nation for 28 years. Papa and his Baby put an estimated 80 percent of world aid into their own pockets – with the complicity of the US government happy to have the Duvaliers and their voodoo militia, Tonton Macoutes, as allies in the Cold War. (The war was easily won: the Duvaliers’ death squads murdered as many as 60,000 opponents of the regime),” he said.
“What Papa and Baby didn’t run off with, the IMF finished off through its ‘austerity’ plans. An austerity plan is a form of voodoo orchestrated by economists zomby-fied by an irrational belief that cutting government services will somehow help a nation prosper,” he said.
In 1991, he recalled, “five years after the murderous Baby fled, Haitians elected a priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who resisted the IMF’s austerity diktats. Within months, the military, to the applause of Papa George HW Bush, deposed him.”
History repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” he said. “The farce was George W. Bush. In 2004, after the priest Aristide was re-elected President, he was kidnapped and removed again, to the applause of Baby Bush.”
Against that background, what is being proposed and who is proposing it?
Ideas are arising from many quarters.
In an editorial (Monday, February 01), The New York Times proposed four principles to guide the reconstruction phase of international aid. Aid programs, it said, should promote self-sufficiency, open up the countryside, rebuild and maintain infrastructure, and tap the Diaspora.
It noted that Haiti has considerable economic advantages, like low labor costs and a law that grants its goods preferential access to the United States market. Extending that law and encouraging investments in industries like garment making and tourism could swiftly create tens of thousands of jobs. Rebuilding and modernizing agriculture to grow staples and export products like coffee and mangoes would mean food, cash and employment. Dispersing the population beyond overbuilt, overburdened cities, like the now-shattered capital, is a good idea now cloaked in urgency.
It concluded, “It will take a lot of money, creativity, and vigilance and sustained commitment to rebuild Haiti – from Haitians and from the world. There are smart people thinking about how to do it. And that is a start.”
Haiti may be suffering from shortages of many things, but recommendations are not one of them. Among them is the suggestion that Haiti should be temporarily taken over by an international organization, which would govern it and oversee its rebuilding. Countered by the belief that years of failed, foreign-imposed aid projects underscore that this time Haitians need to develop and implement their own plans. Followed by calls for a joint Haitian-international reconstruction agency to administer a kind of Haitian Marshall Plan.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected to announce shortly that former President Bill Clinton will take on an expanded role in coordinating United Nations efforts to resurrect Haiti.
Another idea has come from former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Appearing on MSNBC last week, he suggested that the United Nations should establish a temporary “protectorate” over Haiti during the reconstruction period. During that time, the UN would be in complete charge and Haiti ‘s government would, in effect, have little influence over events. The former Jimmy Carter lieutenant acknowledged that such an effort would need to be crafted and explained very carefully so that no one confuses it with colonialism.
It is unclear how Brzezinski’s idea would square with an objective hailed by almost everyone – making the aid effort more inclusive.
But for any of these ideas to come to fruition, most experts agree that a sea change will be necessary among all the stakeholders – Haitian, US and international.
For example, Haiti must avoid the debacle of 2008 when lack of access to clean water posed devastating health consequences and constituted a clear violation of Haitians’ right to water according to both domestic and international legal obligations.
That revelation was contained in a report from the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), Partners In Health (PIH), the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center (RFK Center) and Zanmi Lasante. The release of the report, “Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti,” came just months after public outrage over rising food prices led to a full-blown political crisis in Haiti.
One of the report’s main findings was of an undeniable link between the international community’s political interference and the intolerably poor state of potable water in Haiti. Using documents obtained by the RFK Center through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the US Treasury Department, the report exposes the US government’s role in blocking the disbursal of millions of dollars in loans that would have had life-saving consequences for the Haitian people. The loans, which the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved in 1998 for urgently needed water and sanitation projects in Haiti, were derailed in 2001 by politically-motivated, behind-the-scenes interventions on behalf of the United States and other members of the international community.
The director of one of the groups, Monika Kalra Varma, director of the RFK Center for Human Rights, told Truthout, “Over the years, help for Haiti has been shaped by ideological politics and broken promises.”
She charged, “Generally the international community has made pledges to Haiti and not fulfilled them. Donor states have human rights obligations in Haiti as well – they must do no harm. When states pledge funds to Haiti which the Haitian people and government rely on in figuring out how to meet the needs of its people, particularly when you’re talking about monetary pledges to strengthen water, education, and health systems and that money doesn’t come in, the donors have violated their human rights obligations.”
Journalist and historian Eric Michael Johnson, writing in The Huffington Post, noted, “Haiti has a historically unhealthy dependence on foreign commerce and finance, from the colonial days of the sugar trade to the current assistance provided by developed countries.”
“Now the same politicians and financial elites that helped create this mess are proposing an even larger program following the same mode,” he said.
Johnson wrote that, “since 2004 Haitian exports to the United States increased by 32 percent while, during the same period, the Haitian minimum wage declined by 36 percent. “
Yet another approach is being suggested by two old Haiti hands, Robert Muggah and Maguire. Muggah, based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, is a principal of the SecDev Group and is currently advising multilateral and bilateral organizations on Haiti’s recovery. As noted earlier, Maguire is on the faculty of Trinity Washington University and chairs the Haiti Working Group at the US Institute of Peace. Writing in The Los Angeles Times on January 31, Maguire and Muggah suggested that a 700,000-strong Haitian national civic service corps “would harness untapped labor rapidly and instill national pride and confidence.”
“Haiti will need big ideas to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake this month. The reported death toll has topped 150,000, and the reconstruction needs are incalculable. How about starting with a 700,000-strong national civic service corps made up of Haitian youth? There are many reasons why such an entity makes a lot of sense,” they wrote.
They added, “Haiti is a young country. An estimated 70 percent of the population is under 30; the 15-to-29 segment alone makes up 50 percent of the population. Demographers have long cautioned how excessively youthful populations can potentially exacerbate underdevelopment and accentuate political instability. Although Haiti registers among the lowest levels of education in the Western Hemisphere, Haitian youth are a wellspring of creativity, talent and potential. You don’t need to be a community-development specialist to know that they are stifled by a lack of meaningful opportunities.”
Fortunately, they said, “Haiti has an enabling environment to set up a civic service corps. Article 52 of the Haitian Constitution commits citizens to national service, though it has never been activated. What is more, there are many Haitian and international organizations mobilized and ready to help the government get this going.”
They believe a civic service corps “would get the young and able out of the tent cities in and around Port-au-Prince and into work. They could start with the once-iconic center of the capital, but also could begin planting trees, working the fields and providing services in Haiti’s countryside. At a minimum, this would reverse generations of unfair stigmatizing of the youth there.”
This plan, they said, “would also harness untapped labor rapidly. Before the January 12 earthquake, 50 percent of youth in their 20s were out of work. Putting them in service toward rebuilding the capital and outlying areas would be a first step to restoring their and their country’s pride and dignity.”
The Kennedy Center’s Kalra Varma noted that multilateral aid has frequently been marked by stop-start-stop politics, with aid stopping when Haiti elects a leader not favored by donors. She cited the refusal of the IDB to release funds earmarked for water projects, which would have benefited the poor. “The IDB is controlled by its largest donor, the US and the US did not like Haiti’s government of the day,” she said.
She added, “All too often, aid has been slow to arrive, uncoordinated, and planned with no input from the people most affected – that legacy must and can end today. We have an opportunity to break with the past and ensure that assistance is given in a way that strengthens Haitians’ fundamental rights to food, water, and health. The Haitian people deserve no less.”
The other groups include the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), Partners In Health/Zanmi Lasante and TransAfrica Forum.
Loune Viaud, director of strategic planning and operations at Zanmi Lasante, a health organization, cautioned, “The only way to avoid escalation of this crisis is for international aid to take a long-term view and strive to rebuild a stronger Haiti-one that includes a government that can ensure the basic human rights of all Haitians and a nation that is empowered to demand those rights.”
The groups cited past relief efforts in Haiti that were uncoordinated, unpredictable and lacked community participation, often leading to increased suffering. They called on the international community to seize on this opportunity to advance human rights and sustainability in the ravaged country.
“The magnitude of the catastrophe is not entirely a result of natural disaster but rather, a history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment of the Haitian people through a series of misguided polices,” said Brian Concannon Jr., director of IJDH. “Lack of donor accountability and continued aid volatility will only guarantee even greater suffering.”
In an editorial prepared for distribution, Varma and Kerry Kennedy, wrote, ” As international aid begins to pour into Haiti, we have a brief moment to break with past mistakes and bring real change to Haiti.” US and international aid efforts “could be characterized, at best, as unsustainable and, at worst, deliberately harmful,” they wrote. Kerry Kennedy is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.
The editorial continued, “In 2000, the US and the Inter-American Development Bank approved millions of dollars of what would have been lifesaving loans for improvements to water, health, education, and road infrastructure, only to later withhold these funds because they opposed then President Aristide. While the loans were eventually released, the communities where the very first water projects were to be financed still lack access, ten years later, to reliably clean drinking water, contributing to countless deaths due to waterborne illness.”
It added, “In 2004, the international community pledged $1 billion to support Haiti. The RFK Center, along with the health organization Zanmi Lasante and the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, tried to track the fulfillment of those pledges, but never received clear and consistent answers from donor states on the status of the aid. With no transparency or coordinating body to turn to, the Haitian people had no hope of knowing if that money ever got to Haiti, much less where it was directed and how it could be used to improve their communities. Haitian government sources later confirmed that most of the pledges had never been fulfilled.”
The future of Haiti is a huge question mark. An even larger question is whether the US and the international community will set aside ancient prejudices that historically have stood in the way of imaginative and inclusive approaches to Haitian reconstruction and development – and will do so again unless there is a dramatic change of mindset, strategy and tactics.