Six months ago a devastating earthquake killed more than 230,000 Haitians. About 100,000 homes were completely destroyed, alongside a thousand schools and many other buildings. The scenes of devastation filled TV screens around the world.
Half a year later the picture is eerily familiar. Destroyed during the earthquake the presidential palace remains rubble and a symbol of the vast destruction. Port-au-Prince is still covered in debris. About 1.3 million people live in 1,200 makeshift tent camps in and around the capital.
According to one estimate, less than 5% of the earthquake debris has been removed. Of course, with 20 million cubic meters of rubble in Port-Au-Prince alone, removing the debris is a massive challenge. If a thousand trucks were working daily it would take three to five years to remove all this material. Yet, there are fewer than 300 trucks hauling debris.
The technical obstacles to reconstruction are immense. But the political roadblocks are larger.
Immediately after the quake $10 billion in international aid was pledged. As of June 30 only 10 percent of the $2.5 promised for 2010 had been delivered. A lot of it has been held up in political wrangling. The international community – led by the US, France and Canada – demanded the Haitian parliament pass an 18-month long state of emergency law that effectively gave up government control over the reconstruction. Holding up the money was a pressure tactic designed to ensure international control of the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, authorized to spend billions.
These maneuvers were met by protest and widespread hostility in Haiti, which forced the international community to back off a little. Initially, a majority of seats on the Commission were to represent foreign governments and international financial institutions. That’s been reduced to half of the 26-member committee, but the money is still to be managed by the World Bank and other international institutions. Former US President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive co-chair the reconstruction commission, which met for the first time on June 17.
The strong-arm tactics by the Western powers to determine the make-up of the Commission signify a continuation of longstanding policy to undermine the Haitian state’s credibility and capacity. For two decades Washington and its allies have deliberately weakened Haiti’s government.
Citing neo-liberal theories they demanded the privatization of a number of state-owned companies and the reduction of tariffs on agricultural products. This devastated domestic food production and spurred an exodus from the countryside to the cities, which exacerbated the destruction and death toll of the earthquake.
Washington also destabilized governments that put the interests of the poor over foreign corporations. On February 29, 2004, the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown by the US, France and Canada. This ushered in a terrible wave of political repression and the ongoing UN occupation.
Since that time Aristide has been in forced exile in South Africa and his Fanmi Lavalas party has been barred from participating in elections. (They are again being blocked from elections taking place on November 28.)
All this has lead to a situation in which there is no institution in Haiti with the credibility or capacity to undertake reconstruction. President Rene Preval’s government has lost the support of the country’s poor majority because of its subservience to Washington and the local elite. Preval recently defended the move to ban Fanmi Lavalas, still the most popular party in the country.
The 10,000-member UN “peacekeeping” force is widely disliked. In the two years after the 2004 coup, UN troops regularly provided support for the Haitian police’s violent assaults on poor communities and peaceful demonstrations demanding the return of the elected government. UN forces also participated directly in a violent political pacification campaign, launching repeated anti “gang” assaults on poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The two most horrific raids took place on January 6, 2005 and December 22, 2006, which together left some 35 innocent civilians dead and dozens wounded in the densely populated slum of Cité Soleil (a bastion of support for Aristide). In April 2008 UN troops once again demonstrated that their primary purpose in the country was to defend the massive economic divide in the country. During riots over the rising cost of food they put down protests by killing a handful of demonstrators.
Foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are widely discredited for contributing to a two-decade long process that has undermined Haitian governmental capacity. Sometimes dubbed the “republic of NGOs”, in Haiti these organizations have a great deal of influence and are promoted as agents of relief. In some circumstances, they are. But, how would we like it if all our schools and social services were run by private foreign charities?
In Port au Prince graffiti criticizing NGOs states: “Down with NGOs”. Two weeks ago Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre complained that “NGOs continue to humiliate and discriminate [against] the poor and respected Haitian citizens by assuming they are all dangerous, violent, or savage people, and they do not know anything, even how to put a tent up while ignoring the strength and courage of these people.”
Over the past two months there have been a series of major demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere. Demonstrators have called for Aristide’s return to Haiti and an end to the exclusion of his Fanmi Lavalas party. Of course protesters are also angry about the slow pace of reconstruction and the 6-year old foreign occupation.
What should be the response of people who want to help?
First, any serious reconstruction must build the Haitian government’s capacity to provide housing, education, healthcare and other social services. Aid must be directed away from neoliberal adjustment, sweatshop exploitation and non-governmental charity, and towards investment in Haiti’s government and public institutions.
Second, massive investment must be made in Haiti’s countryside, where farming has been effectively destroyed. Haitians are poverty-stricken partly because foreign aid policies favour sweatshop labour over agriculture. For example, the U.S. dumps rice on the Haitian market. Thirty years ago, Haiti produced 90 percent of its own rice; today it’s less than 10 per cent.
Third, Fanmi Lavalas should be allowed to participate in elections and Aristide to return from exile.
Only when Haitians are allowed to run their own affairs will real reconstruction begin.
Yves Engler is the co-author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority. His most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. For more information, go to his website, yvesengler.com