Haiti is enduring another not-so-natural disaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
With winds reaching 145 miles an hour, the storm wrecked homes, communities and lives, particularly along Haiti’s southwestern coast. Estimates of the death toll have reached as high as one thousand.
The storm caused havoc along the Florida and Carolina coast in the US, making landfall last weekend. But the death toll will be nowhere near as high as in Haiti, where the violence of the storm was intensified by human-made factors that are many decades old.
The world’s most powerful governments, especially the US, have inflicted suffering on Haitians throughout several centuries and up to the present day — the Obama administration announced, as Matthew was battering the Caribbean, that it would increase the number of Haitian refugees deported from the US during the rest of the year.
The Causes of Devastation
Thousands of homes have been destroyed, and food shortages are already being reported along Tiburon Peninsula in the country’s southwest.
Cholera is all but certain to make another appearance in Haiti. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), “Due to massive flooding and its impact on water and sanitation infrastructure, cholera cases are expected to surge after Hurricane Matthew and through the normal rainy season until the start of 2017.”
But Matthew is only partly to blame for cholera in Haiti. The disease has made a reappearance only since the devastating 2010 earthquake, after almost a century of being effectively eradicated. As Jesse Hagopian wrote on the fifth anniversary of the earthquake:
Prior to October 2010, there had not been a reported incident of cholera in Haiti in nearly a century, according to the UN World Health Organization. An expert panel of epidemiologists and microbiologists appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon concluded UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal imported cholera to Haiti and contaminated the river tributary next to their base through a faulty sanitation system . . .
Since then, cholera has killed 8,500 people and sickened some 800,000 . . . Yet the UN has refused to apologize for its negligent actions that led to spread of cholera in Haiti.
And now, a new round of cholera threatens — and health clinics are reportedly unable to accommodate those who are injured as a result of Hurricane Matthews, much less treat new victims of cholera. So one disaster has led to another.
Over the past ten years, Haiti has been struck by a series of hurricanes. In 2008, Hurricane Gustave killed seventy-seven people. Two years later, the floods and mudslides from Hurricane Tomas took over twenty lives.
Southwestern Haiti is the home to several important Haitian cities, including Chantal, Jérémie, Les Cayes, and Roche-a-Bateau. It is also where the rebellion of former African slaves against the French slave owners began in the eighteenth century.
Among these municipalities, Jérémie was one of the hardest hit in the current disaster. Junot Clerveau, a resident of Jérémie, told Al Jazeera: “We already didn’t have enough food. Now, we have lost our crops. We have lost trees that have given us mangoes and coconuts. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this.”
In its reporting on conditions like Jérémie is experiencing today, the US media often describe Haiti as a country of “chronic poverty and underdevelopment.” But that fails to acknowledge how Haiti’s economic and political crisis was a drawn-out process, caused by colonial dispossession, exploitation, and imperial occupation.
The country that is now Haiti was originally home to the Arawak, a communal society where indigenous people lived through fishing and farming. The arrival of European settler colonialism brought genocide to this group.
On the western third of the island of Hispaniola, ceded to France by the original Spanish conquerors, French colonists set up a barbaric slave system, importing Africans to serve as labor. The slaves rose up at the end of the eighteenth century and overthrew their masters in the only successful slave rebellion in history.
But France was successful in demanding reparations — worth $22 billion in today’s terms — for its loss of “property” before it would provide any loans to the newly independent nation. “As a result,” writes Ashley Smith, “Haiti’s economic development was subject to debt manipulation that kept it in desperate poverty for the next two centuries. Its ruling class and their imperial overseers hoarded what money the economy produced.”
This was not the last foreign intervention into “independent” Haiti. Starting at the end of the 19th century, the rising US empire became Haiti’s main international oppressor. US troops occupied Haiti outright several times in the years to follow — including during the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
The occupation that Haiti suffers under today — the one whose military forces introduced cholera back to Haiti — is being carried out under the banner of the United Nations, with countries other than the US contributing military forces.
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is in its twelfth year, having been established after the US-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The supposed mission of the MINUSTAH occupation is to provide peace and security, but its troops are guilty of further repressing grassroots political movements.
International military intervention has been tied together with the neoliberal agenda promoted by the US empire — and ordinary Haitians have paid a terrible price.
The US government used its influence with the Duvalier family, Haiti’s dictators for most of the second half of the twentieth century, to shape the Haitian economy to be more beneficial to US corporate interests.
This came in the forms of trade agreements that wrecked Haitian agriculture, structural adjustment programs that allowed US multinationals to prey on Haitian workers, and “coercive legislation and policing tactics (anti-picketing rules, for example) to disperse or repress collective forms of opposition to corporate power,” as Marxist economist David Harvey writes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism.
For example, Haiti’s elites, backed by the US, have gone out of their way to ensure that Haiti’s minimum wage remains abysmally low — with Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential candidate leading the way.
State Department documents made available by WikiLeaks reveal that subcontractors for clothing giants like Fruit of the Loom and Levi’s “worked in close concert with the U.S. Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere,” the Haitian Times reported.
How much was too much for the Haitian sweatshop operators and their friends in the US government? The proposal that Corporate America opposed in Haiti would have raised the minimum wage to 62 cents an hour, or $5 a day.
Clinton bears more responsibility for Haiti’s suffering than just her actions during the Obama administration.
The Clinton Foundation, set up after Bill Clinton’s presidency, has been a leading promoter of neoliberal schemes in Haiti, such as the creation of “export processing zones” and luxury tourist hotel developments to take advantage of the low wages that Secretary of State Clinton helped keep in check.
And Bill Clinton’s administration carried out a host of policies to make Haitians’ suffering worse, whether in Haiti itself or in the US, among those who fled the economic and social devastation.
For example, Clinton’s 1996 immigration law stepped up the deportation of Haitians, Central Americans, and others from Latin America who fled to the US to escape US-backed dictators.
As Daniel Denvir writes at Salon: “U.S. immigration policy toward Haiti, long shaped by political fears over flotillas of boat people arriving in Florida, has in the past been criticized as harsh and even racist compared with the welcome mat rolled out for Cubans.”
This dark chapter of deportations and detentions has continued under Barack Obama’s administration. On September 22, the Department of Homeland Secretary released a statement indicating that it would continue “to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis, consistent with the practice for nationals from other nations.”
This is the background to the crisis that follows the latest natural disaster to befall Haiti — and given the evidence that human-made climate change is causing hurricanes to be more frequent and more intense, even that “natural” aspect of this catastrophe has to be questioned.
The need is already desperate. But the record of both governmental and non-governmental bodies in contributing humanitarian aid to Haiti is appalling. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, large sums poured into charities like the Red Cross as ordinary people around the world gave what they could to help.
But the money didn’t get where it was needed. In fact, investigators for ProPublica exposed the Red Cross’s claims to have built 130,000 homes in Haiti after the earthquake — and revealed that the real number was just six.
Now Haiti faces another nightmare, having not recovered from the last one — thanks to the intertwined roles of US imperialism, Haiti’s ruling elites, and international capitalism.