Haiti: troops out! Cancel the debt!

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US troops in Haiti

As the magnitude of the disaster in Haiti becomes apparent – perhaps 200,000 dead, the whole of the capital Port-au-Prince devastated as a consequence of the 12 January earthquake, so anti-imperialists have to hold those responsible for this calamity to account. No-one can prevent earthquakes, but states can create conditions where the scale of destruction that follows is limited, and where there is an infrastructure which can support effective relief operations. It is obvious that neither existed in Haiti so that the consequences of the earthquake were all the more horrific. But the primary responsibility for this lies not with the desperately impoverished Haitian state, but with those who caused this impoverishment: imperialism in general, and US imperialism in particular. Haiti is the epitome of a dependent state, its development deliberately obstructed by the US to keep it and its people in subjection.

Haiti was the first independent state in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the only state to be created from a slave rebellion. Yet 21 years after its establishment the ruling elite agreed to pay its French former masters an indemnity equivalent to $21 billion in today’s money to compensate the former tenants. From then on Haiti was held under economic domination first by France and then by the US. In 1914 US Marines seized the Haitian government’s gold deposits at gun point and deposited them in New York’s National City Bank. Following a series of coups the US occupied Haiti in July 1915, using the pretext of preventing disorder. Haiti’s police force was disbanded and replaced by a police force under US officers. The economy and political system were tied to the US. US Marines bloodily repressed peasant resistance. They departed in 1934 but the Banque Nationale remained a subsidiary of the US Export-Import Bank until 1947, the year when the final debt repayment for overthrowing slavery was made to France.

From 1957, Haiti was ruled by the Duvaliers, first father until he died in 1971, and then ‘Baby Doc’. The regime became a byword for US-backed brutality: a counter-insurgency Leopard force was armed and trained by the US. Up to 50,000 Haitians were murdered over a 30-year period until an uprising drove Duvalier junior into exile in 1986. In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected President with 67% of the vote on a programme of social reform; the US-backed candidate got only 14%. Within six months of taking office, Aristide was overthrown by a US-backed military coup; followed by a terror campaign which resulted in 3-5,000 deaths. In 1994 Aristide was allowed to return to complete his presidential term, but only if he agreed to the complete privatisation of the Haitian economy, and lifted all tariffs. Peasant agriculture was subsequently destroyed by imports of heavily-subsidised US-produced rice and sugar. In the 1980s Haiti was self-sufficient in rice; in 2008 it was the third largest importer of US rice (annual subsidy $1 billion), 240,000 tons in all.

Re-elected in 2000, in 2004 Aristide was again deposed by a US-backed coup after he demanded reparations; US forces kidnapped him and took him to the Central African Republic. UN troops were sent in, and have been there ever since. The consequence of continued US domination is that Haiti is the poorest state in the western hemisphere. Over half the population survive on less than a dollar a day, 72% on less than $2, and average annual income is $600. The country ranks 150 out of 177 on the Human Development Index; average life expectancy is a mere 52 years. 250,000 children are handed over by impoverished families into domestic semi-slavery, 50% of the population depend on remittances from the millions who have emigrated to escape the grinding poverty. One percent of the population own 50% of private wealth. 98% of the country’s forests have been destroyed as a result of the agricultural crisis. 60% of Port-au-Prince buildings did not conform to basic regulations, so that when the earthquake struck, they collapsed like packs of cards. Hardest-hit were the shanty-towns surrounding the city.

Haiti has been stripped of its wealth over and over again. When the country entered the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries programme in 2006, its total external debt was $1.337 billion; when it left in June 2009, its debt was $1.884 billion. Former US president Bill Clinton became a UN Special Envoy to Haiti to ensure continuity of US policy. He has tried to turn the north of the country into a tourist playground – shades of Cuba in the 1950s.

The absence of any Haitian infrastructure to deal with natural disasters has been a major factor in the level of casualties. Deforestation means that the hurricanes which hit the island have had an amplified effect. In 2008, hurricanes cost 800 lives and made one million people homeless. The self-same hurricanes killed eight in Cuba. Haiti is not able to deal with such natural disasters: they become social and human catastrophes.

The politics of domination have not changed with the earthquake. The response of US President Obama was to take over the main airport and send troops – 3,500 of them. A hospital ship would take a week longer. Control of the airport is being used to prioritise the arrival of US forces rather than medical aid from other countries. Farcically Obama has recruited two former presidents, Bill Clinton and George W Bush, to help with private fund raising, the former responsible for the 1994 coup against Aristide, the latter for the one ten years later as well as the debacle of Hurricane Katrina that smashed New Orleans in 2005. Obama has promised $100 million in aid – but the best aid he could give would be to cancel the entire Haitian foreign debt. But that is not on the agenda: the US priority is to ensure that there are no political repercussions. Hence it again militarily occupies Haiti. In this it is being helped by a racist media which reports looting, armed gangs, a collapse of law and order, when observers on the ground tell a quite different story.

US imperialism is very aware that Cuba and the ALBA countries will give very significant aid, with no strings attached. When the earthquake struck Cuba already had 350 medical personnel in Haiti who moved into action immediately after the earthquake. They were followed by 70 more, plus Haitian doctors trained in Cuban medical schools. The US cannot offer anything like this sort of support. Cuba has granted the US use of Cuba airspace to evacuate the injured; former US assistant secretary of defence Lawrence Korb said, ‘We should stop and think that our neighbour Cuba has some of the best doctors in the world...We should try to move them there on our flights.’

Haiti’s tragedy is that as an oppressed dependent country it could not create the infrastructure to deal with such a disaster. Fidel Castro pointed out in his recent Reflections, ‘The world population is not only threatened by natural disasters such as that of Haiti, which is just a pallid shadow of what could take place as a result of climate change, which really was the object of ridicule, derision and deception in Copenhagen’ and he later warned that ‘it will be put to the test how long the spirit of cooperation will endure before chauvinism, petty interests and contempt for other nations prevail.’ Cuba’s independence, defended by its socialist principles, has allowed it to create an infrastructure which can deal with natural disaster. Within an hour of the Haiti earthquake, 30,000 people were being evacuated from Baracoa on the east coast of Cuba in case of a tsunami. The response of the US – 3,500 troops, the promise of more occupation – is all that it can offer Haiti in the face of Cuba’s disinterested help. The contrast between imperialism and socialism is stark.

Hands off Haiti!

Troops out!

Cancel Haiti’s debt!