The first aid aircraft to reach the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, within 14 hours of the devastation, was Venezuelan, with a search and rescue team. Almost immediately afterwards, they drove to a disaster site and pulled out four women alive. And then came the Americans.
Two very different visions of disaster aid and reconstruction are playing out in Haiti. Manuel Medina, a Caracas fire officer who was part of the first Venezuelan team, spoke of his country’s “historical debt” to Haiti. In 1815, President Alexandre Sabes Petion gifted Simon Bolivar hundreds of elite fighters, ships, arms, money and a printing press at a time Venezuela’s liberator was down and out. Now, Haiti and Venezuela have agreed on setting up a Petion-Bolivar Solidarity Brigade to focus on the country’s reconstruction. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, said his country had no intention of occupying Haiti: “our deployment is that of solidarity, not of military force”.
The theme of solidarity extends beyond a pending historical debt. Venezuela, Cuba and other countries of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America) see the Haitian people as protagonists of the reconstruction. The Haitian people are hard-working and honest and we will work together with them in reconstruction, says Maduro. The first Venezuelan rescue team refused bodyguards, and nobody attacked them. They were, however, impeded once while moving concrete slabs from a collapsed sweat shop with hundreds of dead in it. As they dragged bodies out of the rubble, the factory owner interrupted their work demanding that heavy equipment be used to demolish the structure so that it could be built over.
Venezuelan aircraft and Navy ships have been offloading supplies in neighbouring Dominican Republic and driving into Haiti. The food supplies are shifted by Venezuelans and Haitians together. The aid convoys also bring in pick-ups and small vehicles destined for Haitian community organisations. Aid from the people goes straight to the people. The earthquake has prompted spontaneous community organisation in Haiti. While the state sank without a trace, the people were on the feet, burying the dead, organising themselves into camps and handling the little relief that reached them efficiently. The ALBA aid is aimed at them.
More than 400 Haitian medical students in Cuba have gone back to their country to help. Venezuela’s 15,000-odd Haitians, many of them street vendors, have been included in the relief mobilisation. Venezuela is constructing health centres in each of Haiti’s 10 departments. Cuba pitches in with literacy programmes. The two countries have a programme of boosting rice production and creating popular markets. Ships from Caracas are bringing in small vehicles to be given direct to the community organisations. President Hugo Chavez says his country will contribute to setting up community media outlets in Haiti managed by the Haitians.
The Other Approach
On the other side of the divide is an aid and development doctrine self-consciously tied to the strategic interest apron. Hillary Clinton, in a platitudinous speech on January 6, revealed the core of Washington’s thinking:
“… development was once the province of humanitarians, charities, and governments looking to gain allies in global struggles. Today it is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative – as central to advancing American interests and solving global problems as diplomacy and defense.” Development will be the “central pillar” of foreign policy; USAID will be used to “advance global stability, improve our own security, and project our values and leadership in the world”. She mentioned Haiti, “ravaged by poverty and natural disaster”, as a country “where the odds of success are long but the cost of not doing anything is potentially far greater”.
Mrs Clinton’s honesty on that day could not be faulted. She spoke of integrating development, defence and diplomacy, leveraging “the expertise of our diplomats and our military on behalf of development, and vice versa” and aligning “overseas development efforts with our strategic objectives and national interests” so that some time in future the world would applaud “American knowhow, American dollars, American caring, and American values”.
This is not a new thinking and neither is her State Department the sole purveyor of policy. The Pentagon is in the driver’s seat, with President Obama making it the lead agency in the Haiti operations. Among the troops to arrive were the 82nd Airborne Division which was involved in the invasions of the Dominican Republic, Granada and Panama. A day before the earthquake, on January 11, the U.S. military’s Southern Command, rehearsed a disaster scenario in Haiti, involving a hurricane. Some of the communication systems went live two days later linking “non-government organizations with the United States [government and military] and other nations for tracking, coordinating and organizing relief efforts".
International NGOs which do not wish to be sucked into the military orbit and governments considered inimical to U.S. interests will be shut out of the loop in future scenarios. This can achieved relatively simply by the U.S. military taking over key installations like ports and airports, armed checkpoints being set up in the name of security and denying communication space to others. In diplomacy, the United Nations will be bypassed for bilateral deals with weak national governments desperate for help and client states happy to have U.S. troops stave off civilian anger. The presence of armed American soldiers and contractors means that Haiti for now will not have a repeat of the Nicaraguan uprising of 1972 after a devastating earthquake. In the longer term, a residual U.S. military presence will make sure that pesky nay-sayers cannot make too much trouble when privatisation and deep cuts takes hold.
It is not that Venezuela and Cuba do not have strategic interests in Haiti. As with Mrs Clinton, President Chavez has been saying publicly that no revolution is safe in Latin America until the continental bourgeoisie has been defeated. But the doctrines have different consequences for Haiti and everywhere else: military boots on the ground versus hospitals and schools, community organising versus disaster capitalism, privatisation, wage freezes and enormous loans versus public ownership, independence versus servitude.