Haiti, “Classquakes,” and American Empire

The earthquake catastrophe in Haiti is being portrayed on the national and local evening news as a natural disaster that has elicited a virtuous humanitarian response from the inherently noble and benevolent United States.


It’s about bad geologic (and cosmic, as in “acts of God”) forces versus good Uncle Sam, that fine democratic friend of the poor and downtrodden around the world.


“This is an opportunity,” the editors of The New York Times arrogantly proclaim today, “for President Obama to demonstrate how the United States shoulders its responsibilities and mobilizes other countries to do their part” (NYT, January 14, 2010, A28).


But Haiti’s agony and the role of the U.S. is much more complicated than the childish morality play being broadcast on the Telescreens.


Earthquakes are natural developments, but vulnerability to them is richly anthropogenic (“man made”) and is not spread evenly across the fractured and intersecting global landscapes of race, class, and empire. As Mike Davis pointed out in his 2006 book Planet of Slums, a chilling expose of the atrocious living (and dying) conditions that US.-led neoliberal capitalism has imposed on the ever more mega-urbanized poor of the global South: ”Even more than landslides and floods, earthquakes make precise audits of the urban housing crisis…seismic destruction usually maps with uncanny accuracy to poor-quality brick, mud, or concrete residential housing…Seismic hazard is the fine print in the devil’s bargain of informal housing…”


The “relaxation” of regulations on housing planning and construction combines with the concentration of much of the South’s urban population “on or near active tectonic plate margins” to put millions in peril.


“Seismic risk is so unevenly distributed in most cities,” Davis learned, that one leading “hazard geographer” (Kenneth Hewitt) coined the phrase “classquake” to describe 20th century earthquakes’ “biased pattern of destruction,” which fell mainly on “slums, tenement districts, [and] poor rural villages.”


Davis’ (and Hewitt’s) analysis clearly applies to the current Haitian tragedy, vastly magnified by the desperately impoverished and informal, unregulated housing conditions of masses of marginalized people in and around the sprawling slums of Port au Prince.  In that city’s most notorious slum, Cite-Soliel, David noted, population densities are “comparable to cattle feedlots” crowding more residents per acre into low-rise housing than there were in famous congested tenement districts such as the Lower East Side in the 1900s or in contemporary highrise cores such as central Tokyo and Manhattan.” [1]


Haiti’s crushing poverty has long made it something of the Western hemisphere’s Bangladesh – a symbol of almost total wretchedness. Like Bangladesh, however, Haiti awed its European “discoverers” with vast natural wealth and ease of life.


The Europeans put a brutal end to that ease, turning Haiti into a killing ground and then a viciously exploited slave colony that served for many years as leading source of France’s wealth. When the slaves rebelled and overthrew their colonial masters to set up and independent black republic in the early 19th century, they were shunned and embargoed by the great slave-owners’ republic to their north (that glorious beacon of freedom the United States) and were forced to make a huge reverse-reparations payment to their former masters.


Things didn’t get much better in the 20th century, thanks in no small part to the U.S. and its supposed great liberal-humanitarian president Woodrow Wilson. In his conservative campaign book The Audacity of Hope (New York, 2006), a monument to historical whitewashing, the future liberal war president Barack Obama praised Wilson for seeing that "it was in America’s interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples [emphasis added] and provide the world  a legal framework that could help avoid future conflicts" [2].


Not really. The Wilson administration showed “how the United States shoulder[ed] its responsibilities” and expressed its racism when it undertook a brutal U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1915. As Noam Chomsky wrote, "Wilson‘s troops murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery and demolished the constitutional system in Haiti."  These actions followed in accord with Wilson Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s belief that "the African races are devoid of any capacity for political organization" and possessed "an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature."


A major food crisis that broke out in Haiti in early 2008 could be “trace[d]back directly to Woodrow Wilson’s invasion of Haiti, which was murderous and brutal and destructive. Among Wilson’s many crimes,” Chomsky noted last year, “was to dissolve the Haitian parliament at gunpoint, because it refused to pass what was called progressive legislation, which would allow US businesses to take over Haitian lands. Wilson’s marines then ran a free election, in which the legislation was passed by 99.9 percent of the vote. That’s of the five percent of the population permitted to vote.” [3]


Formal U.S. colonial occupation ended in 1934 but there followed decades of subordination to bloody, U.S.-sponsored dictators, the most notorious of whom (“Papa Doc” and his buffoonish successor “Baby Doc” Duvalier, protected by the “Tonton Macoute” death squad until his forced departure in 1986) ruled with American support for more than 30 years. U.S. “economic assistance” and “bilateral” trade plans were structured and worked to undermine domestic industry and agriculture. Haitians were instructed to import basic goods from the U.S. in the name of “comparative advantage.” They were systematically stripped of their ability to feed themselves and to fund basic government services. Haitian rice growers were crushed by government-subsidized U.S. farm exports.  The nation’s predominantly female and captive labor force was funneled into slave-like conditions in mainly U.S.-owned export-oriented assembly plants and sweatshops.  Millions of Haitians were consigned to permanent structural unemployment, the drug trade, scavenging, and other hallmark activities of the informal proletariat of the world system’s sprawling shantytown periphery. Claming that they were making Haiti into “the Taiwan of the Caribbean,” U.S “development” officials were actually consigning the nation to its status as one of the world’s most deeply and stubbornly impoverished states. 


The hyper-concentration of poor Haitians in seismically hyper-vulnerable subs-standard housing in and around Port au-Prince, it is worth noting, is a direct outcome of U.S. trade policies that undermined Haitian small farmers, sending rural residents into and around the capital city.


A reformist priest named Jan Baptiste Aristide threatened Washington’s vicious neoliberal regime when he won Haiti’s first free election in 1990. Aristide came to office with strong support from the poor majority. His hostility to U.S.-imposed misery led Washington to move to undermine his regime from the outset. Aristide was removed in a U.S.-supported coup in 1991 but returned amidst popular upheaval in 1994. The Clinton White House initially backed the coup regime even more strongly than did George Bush I. Thanks to its rhetoric about “democracy” at home and abroad, the militantly corporate-neoliberal NAFTA-promoting Clinton administration felt compelled to pretend that they backed Aristide’s return to power in 1994.  The Clinton Pentagon and State Department delayed that return for two years and made it clear that Aristide’s restoration to nominal power depended upon him promising not to help the poor by offering any further challenges to Washington’s “free market” economics.  “By 1994,” Chomsky explained last year, “Clinton decided that the population was sufficiently intimidated, and he sent US forces to restore the elected president – that’s now called a humanitarian intervention – but on very strict conditions, namely that the president had to accept a very harsh neoliberal regime, in particular, no protection for the economy.” [4]


In February 2004, the U.S. and France – Haiti’s traditional sadistic masters – joined hands (along with Canada) across their supposed great cultural divide to support another military coup.  This U.S.-directed putsch exported Aristide to Central Africa. As William Blum explains in his book Rogue State (Common Courage, 2005):


“On February 28, 2004, American military and diplomatic personnel arrived at the home of President Jean-Baptiste Aristide to inform him that his private American security agents must either leave immediately or return to the United States or fight and die; that the remaining 25 percent of the American security agents hired by the Haitian government, who were to arrive he next day, had been blocked by the United States from coming; that foreign and Haitian rebels were nearby, heavily armed, and ready to kill thousands of people in a bloodbath.  Aristide was pressure to sign a ‘letter of resignation’ before he was flown into exile by the United States.”


“And then the US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the sincerest voice he could muster, told the world that Aristide ‘was not kidnapped.  We did not force him onto the airplane.  He went onto the airplane willingly.  And that’s the truth.’”


“…Aristide was on record, by word and deed, repeatedly, as not being a great lover of globalization or capitalism.  This was not the kind of man the imperial mafia wanted in charge of the assembly plant of the Western Hemisphere.” [5]


Under the Woodrow Wilson-fan Barack Obama, as under George Bush II, Washington has banned Aristide from revisiting region.  Obama sided with the corrupt Haitian elite by refusing to act against the shutting out of Aristide’s popular party (Family Lavalas) from Haitian elections in the spring of 2009. [6]


Washington has responded to the heavily racial-ized imperial “classquake” with Pentagon military “assessments” while China, Venezuela, and Cuba have acted promptly with direct humanitarian assistance and human solidarity.  Look for the imperial masters to seek “disaster capitalist” (Naomi Klein) opportunities in the terrible tragedy in Haiti, which has been suffering the shocks and aftershocks of world capitalist empire since the end of the 15th century.


In the meantime, the geniuses in charge of my local newspaper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen (a Gannett organ) wrote the following 30-font headline on Haiti today: "PANIC, LOOTING, TRIAGE." There were shades of the infamous Katrina “looting” coverage as the story under the headline offered the following description of "LOOTING": "people were seen carrying food from collapsed buildings." Later in the article, a Gannett reporter refers to Haiti as an "often dysfunctional country." Well, yes, the government and people of Haiti have faced some difficulties working well in light of their longstanding U.S.-imposed status as the Western Hemisphere’s Bangladesh – a desperately impoverished country that has been systematically oppressed and exploited by the world’s only Superpower, located just 90 miles to its North…a country that is plagued with no small amount of "dysfunction" related to its own "unelected dictatorship of money”[7].


Here are some links to donate for assistance to Haiti:

* https://secure.oxfamamerica.org/site/Donation2?df_id=3560&3560.donation=form1

* http://www.heartlandalliance.org/whoweare/news/articles/heartland-alliance-emergency.html

* www.unicefusa.org

* www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/article.cfm?id=4147&cat=field-news&source=ADR1001E1D02&gclid=COe3nJm8op8CFQ4MDQodmDNgWA


Iowa City, IA

Thursday, January 14, 2010, 12 PM



Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is an author and activist in Iowa City, IA.




1. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2006), 126.


2. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 283.


3. See Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994], 44; Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues [Boston, MA: South End, 1993], 202-203).


4. Noam Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” Speech to the Riverside Church, New York City (June 12, 2009), transcript available at www.democracynow.org/2009/7/3/noam_chomsky_on _crisis_and_hope


5. William Blum, Rogue State (Common Courage, 2005), 219.


6. Jeb Sprague, “FANMI: Family Lavalas Banned,” HaitiAnalysis.com (April 20, 2009), read at http://www.haitianalysis.com/2009/4/20/haiti-fanmi-lavalas-banned-voter-apprehension-widespread; Ansel Herz, “US Development Plants for Haiti Ignore Most Haitians, “ HaitAnalysis.com (May 4, 2009), read at http://www.haitianalysis.com/2009/5/4/us-development-plans-for-haiti-ignore-most-haitians; Glen Ford, “Giving Honduras the Haiti Treatment,” Black Agenda Report (June 30, 2009), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=content/giving-honduras-haiti-treatment;

Kim Ives, “Haiti’s Non-Election,” Black Agenda Report (June 30, 2009); Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope,” 4. 


7. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.

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