This article was originally published on Counterpunch and is republished with the permission of the authors
The images and accounts of Haiti’s devastation following Hurricane Matthew’s passage on October 4 are gut-wrenching. The death toll is in the many hundreds and continues to rise. Entire villages in the country’s southwest were obliterated. The response of a Haitian government left besieged and without resources by decades of foreign plunder of the country is anemic. The victims’ anguished appeals for help are heart-rending. The United Nations now says there are 1.4 million people in need of assistance, urgent and immediate for half of them. Distressed onlookers around the world want to do something, anything, and fast.
But the greatest danger in the hurricane’s aftermath may not come from the destruction of crops and infrastructure, the inevitable spike in cholera cases, or the sudden homelessness of tens of thousands. It may come from the aircraft carriers, foreign troops, food shipments, and hordes of NGO workers which are now descending on Haiti ostensibly to help the storm’s victims.
This supposed aid may end up undermining local food production, sabotaging pending elections, reinforcing the foreign military intervention in the country, and generally subverting Haiti’s recent moves to regain its sovereignty.
We saw this scenario almost seven years ago, following the 7.0 earthquake that leveled the town of Léogâne and the region around the capital city of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. In the days following the earthquake, the United States deployed 22,000 troops to Haiti without the permission of the national government, took over the Port-au-Prince airport, and militarized the humanitarian response.
“Marines armed as if they were going to war,” exclaimed the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in early 2010. “There is not a shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine, fuel, field hospitals, that is what the United States should send. They are occupying Haiti in an undercover manner.”
(That intervention and much else about U.S. meddling in Haiti have been detailed in a joint publishing project begun in 2011 between Wikileaks and Haiti Liberté weekly newspaper, which partnered with The Nation magazine on many English language articles.)
Today, the U.S. has sent the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and an amphibious transport vessel, the Mesa Verde, with 300 Marines on board, as well as 100 Marines with nine helicopters from Honduras.
Richard Morse, who runs Port-au-Prince’s iconic Oloffson Hotel, returned to Haiti on Oct. 9 and tweeted: “Lots of U.S. military on the plane.”
In contrast, the day after the Hurricane Matthew hit, Venezuela flew in 20 tons of humanitarian aid to Haiti – food, water, blankets, sheets, and medicines. It dispatched two more shipments in the following days, including a ship containing 660 tons of material that includes 450 tons of machinery to remove debris and fix roads and bridges and 90 tons of non-perishable foods and medicines, supplies, tents, blankets, and drinking water. It has also dispatched 300 doctors, many of them Cuban-trained. All this despite very difficult economic conditions in Venezuela as well as a relentless political assault by Washington against the Venezuelan government.
In this latest disaster, “Venezuela was the first to help Haiti,” said the Haitian Ambassador to Caracas, Lesly David.
Cuba, meanwhile, has supplemented its revered 1,200-doctor medical mission to Haiti with 38 personnel from the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Physicians Specialized in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics, which set up field hospitals in Haiti in 2010 as well. As Washington sends soldiers, Venezuela and Cuba send doctors.
In the longer term, it is likely that Washington will seek to use the post-hurricane crisis to bolster its proxy force, the UN Security Council’s MINUSTAH (UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti), which has occupied Haiti in violation of Haitian and international law for 12 years, following the overthrow of Haiti’s elected president on Feb. 29, 2004.
MINUSTAH’s mandate expires on Oct. 15. In the face of Haitian and international outcry and the withdrawal from the force of several key Latin American nations – Argentina, Uruguay and Chile – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recommended on Aug. 31 extending the mandate by only six months, less than the customary one-year renewal. He says a “a strategic assessment of the situation in Haiti” is needed.
However, Ban conditioned this shorter mandate on the hope that “the current electoral calendar will be maintained” so that a “strategic assessment mission would be deployed to Haiti after February 7, 2017,” the date on which a new elected president was to be sworn in.
As a result of Hurricane Matthew, it is now unlikely that an elected president will be inaugurated on that date. Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has postponed indefinitely the elections which were to take place on Oct. 9, involving a re-do of a first-round presidential vote (that of Oct. 25, 2015 was patently fraudulent) and a second round for several Haitian legislature seats.
The CEP is due to announce on Oct. 12 the new electoral schedule. (Leaks suggest they may propose Oct. 30, 2016.) It may prove impossible to hold the postponed votes in time for a February presidential inauguration because tens of thousands of would-be voters on Haiti’s southern peninsula have surely lost their electoral cards while many polling places – mostly schools – will need repairs or complete rebuilding.
The potential absence of an elected president of Haiti in time for the constitutionally-mandated date would surely be used as an excuse for the extension of MINUSTAH’s mandate, despite Haitians being almost unanimously opposed to the troops’ presence. The MINUSTAH, now numbering 5,000 soldiers and police officers, is reviled due to its massacres, murders, rapes, and other crimes against Haitians, but mostly because its Nepalese contingent introduced cholera into Haiti in October 2010.
Nearly 10,000 Haitians have died from cholera and more than one million have been infected. The UN has fiercely resisted any culpability for the cholera disaster.
The disease spreads when cholera-infected sewage mixes with drinking and washing water, a situation which arises more easily when there is massive flooding.
As for the relationship between post-hurricane rebuilding and the upcoming elections, the earthquake’s aftermath is instructive. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton took command of Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction through the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), sidelining the Haitian government and Haitian President René Préval. The resentful Préval became something of a figurehead, with the Clintons and their coterie running the show.
The big powers behind MINUSTAH—the U.S., France and Canada—intervened very aggressively following the 2010 earthquake to install a pliant president. As Préval’s electoral mandate was finishing, his party’s successor candidate, Jude Célestin, finished the first-round presidential vote in November 2010 in second place. But Washington intervened, led by Secretary of State Clinton, and replaced Célestin with the third place finisher, Michel Martelly, a ribald musical performer of the political extreme-right. He went on to win the March 2011 run-off vote.
Could a similar power-play take place in Haiti’s next Haitian election, especially with the likely election in November of Hillary Clinton as the next U.S. president?
Then there is the question of emergency aid—food, water, shelter and medical aid. There is an obvious need for all of this in the immediate term, such as that sent by Venezuela. However, in the past, Washington has used its food aid to crush and debilitate local Haitian food production. Former CARE employee and Haiti-resident researcher Tim Schwartz documented this at length in his 2010 book Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Fraud, Food Aid and Drug Trafficking. He wrote that the role of food aid “was not principally to help people but to promote overseas sales of U.S. agricultural produce. The consequences have been devastating throughout the world.” That aid, he argued, brought ruin to small Haitian farmers.
“Westerners wanting to help shouldn’t assume that there are no resources available to Haitians in country,” writes Haitian Jocelyn McCalla in The Guardian on Oct. 6. “While charitable goods may provide temporary relief, they can hinder recovery in the long run to the extent that they can have a negative impact on the local economy.”
In 2010, most of the humanitarian disaster aid was funneled through international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the result was disastrous. Even the Clintons’ own daughter, Chelsea, was “profoundly disturbed” by what she saw on the ground. She wrote in a declassified email in early 2010 that the “incompetence is mind numbing.” that “Haitians want to help themselves and want the international community to help them help themselves,” and that “there is NO accountability in the UN system or international humanitarian system (including for/ among INGOs).”
The current Haitian government, headed by interim President Jocelerme Privert, is trying to take control of the disaster relief efforts and funds. Following the earthquake, only some one per cent of aid funds went to Haitian authorities. This time, the president’ office has reinforced the Permanent National Office for Risk and Disaster Relief(SNGRD) through which all national and international disaster relief should be channeled and coordinated. What will be Washington’s response to this initiative?
The U.S. was angered earlier this year when the Privert government resisted its pressure not to form an independent verification commission to investigate the fraud-plagued Aug. 9 and Oct. 25, 2015 elections. Anger became outrage when Privert’s CEP respected the verification commission’s recommendation to redo the 2015 presidential first-round, and Washington and the European Union said they would withhold all financial support. Commendably, cash-strapped Haiti was undeterred and has managed to fund the elections by itself.
Exact human toll of Matthew is unclear
Haitian government leadership of the relief efforts should begin with its being able to establish the death toll. Different figures are being issued by the Haitian government and foreign media over how many people have died from Hurricane Matthew. As of this writing, international media is saying that more than 900 people perished, while the Haitian government’s Civil Protection Directorate (DPC) gives an official nationwide count of 372 dead, four missing, 246 injured, and 175,509 persons housed in 224 temporary shelters.
Writing on Oct. 8, Haitian journalist Dady Chery has reported, “Once the United States military and journalists began to assess the hurricane’s damage by some counting system of their own invention, the number of Haitian casualties skyrocketed, and there were no longer any reports of how the dead met their fates.
“Indeed, the number of the Haitian dead from Hurricane Matthew has doubled approximately every 12 hours since Tuesday [Oct. 4] morning and is now estimated to be 800.”
The higher “casualty counts should be examined carefully and with great skepticism,” Chery continues. “For one, there no longer appears to be a distinction between the missing and the dead. For example, the children from a collapsed orphanage are presumed to have died, but no evidence of their deaths has been offered.”
“It is in the interest of the occupying powers to pressure Haiti to exaggerate the human and material costs of the hurricane,” Chery concludes.
Washington will likely use this latest Haitian crisis to further its own economic and political agenda and to bully and undercut President Privert, who has shown some temerity and independence since his interim appointment by redoing the 2015 presidential election in the face of fierce opposition from Washington, Ottawa, and Paris. After their experience of the last six years, the Haitian people are justified in being wary of foreigners bearing gifts but whose policies have always undermined Haiti’s democracy and sovereignty.
Roger Annis of the Canada Haiti Action Network told the Globe & Mail daily on Oct. 9: “If people are concerned about the long-term sovereignty and capacity of the country of Haiti to develop its own resources, I would recommend against the large charities, which in my view just perpetuate the conditions of poverty and of political instability that cause the country to be so vulnerable in the first place,”
International aid by whatever agency able to deliver is being welcomed by the victims of Hurricane Matthew and their national government. But the lesson of the 2010 earthquake is that aid and reconstruction must be directed by Haitians and for Haitians. Otherwise, this latest disaster will only aggravate the long disaster of big-power intervention into the country. That, not inevitable storms and seismic events, is the largest obstacle facing Haiti in its struggle for development and sovereignty.
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Kim Ives is an editor of the weekly print newspaper Haiti Liberté, where this piece was first published. The newspaper is published in French and Kreyol with a weekly English-language page in Brooklyn and distributed throughout Haiti.