The Haiti Earthquake: View Below the Surface

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which has a population of about one million, has been completely devastated and dismantled by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that ravaged the metropolis on January 12, 2010. Currently, over 110,000 people are confirmed dead and over 609,000 more are displaced from their homes.

In the immediate wake of this crisis, the world seemed to be focused on what the response of the United States was going to be. With the memory of Hurricane Katrina on the minds of many watching, most were hopeful that this wouldn’t simply be a repeat on foreign soil. However, Cynthia McKinney, Munich American Peace Committee Peace Prize recipient, has pointed out, the “military first” response to “restore order” is far too similar to the deployment of the National Guard, along with Blackwater mercenaries, in New Orleans who were supposedly needed to stop looters and keep the peace. Meanwhile FEMA’s aid of food, water, medicine and shelter was slow to come, if it came at all. Over 10,000 U.S. Marines are in Haiti now, controlling the airspace at the Port-au-Prince airport while expelling all media from that site.

Thankfully for the Haitian people, Haiti isn’t anywhere near as arrogant as the United States in accepting relief and over 400 Cuban doctors are on the ground helping to save lives, a sharp contrast to 2005 when Cuba, boasting one of the best hurricane relief teams in the world, was denied the opportunity to help save lives in New Orleans.

Aside from the regrettable similarities in U.S. response to a crisis in poor, black New Orleans and Haiti, what is untold, and probably most important, is the story that won’t be shown on TV about this disaster. Until that Tuesday afternoon, Haiti was an afterthought in the minds of most Americans, but the newfound media attention has forced the public to come face to face with this tragedy and simultaneously encourages us to accept this horrifying humanitarian situation as the mere byproduct of a natural disaster befalling the “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.” But how did this country end up with this title? Though Pat Robertson asserts with confidence that enslaved Africans in colonial Haiti made a Satanic contract in order to be emancipated from their French colonizers (since human will and self-determination are completely out of the question), the fact of the matter is that the poverty and debt that exacerbated the effects of the earthquake are completely man-made, and nearly all of it is due to foreign exploitation. If Robertson actually meant the International Monetary Fund when he was referring to the “devil,” his statements would almost be accurate.

So how does a country that was once the most profitable colony in the entire world, end up with 75 percent of its population living on less than two dollars per day and 56 percent living on less than $1 per day? A large part of the answer is agricultural and economic exploitation. Haiti declared independence in 1804 after expelling the French during a truly revolutionary war and the United States, fearing the influence on its own slave population from a neighboring nation of self-freed slaves, refused to recognize Haiti until 1862 and placed an economic embargo on the island nation in 1806. Compounding that blow, France demanded reparations be paid in exchange for recognition in 1825. It would take a hundred years to pay. A Good Neighbor Policy, A Truman Doctrine and three U.S. military occupations later, the U.S.-backed, brutal father and son dictators, the Duvaliers, reaped the benefits of corporate interests while simultaneously exploiting the poor in Haiti from 1957 until 1986 when Jean-Claude “Baby” Duvalier was overthrown.

The simplest mechanism of exploitation to explain in Haiti is the subsidizing of rice, imported from the U.S. and sold at lower prices than the local crops, subsequently pushing local farmers out of business and forcing them into the overcrowded urban slums in Port-au-Prince to find work at low-paying manufacturing jobs for various U.S. and multi-national companies. The collapsing of these shantytowns in the earthquake has led to vast displacement, injury and death. These factors will go completely ignored in CNN or Fox coverage of the crisis.

Even less people are aware of the situation described in Randall Robinson’s An Unbroken Agony, where the twice-democratically elected President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forcibly removed from power on two separate occasions by intervening U.S. and French governments in 1991 and 2004 after he ran on a platform of economic reform with higher wages for workers and demanded the reparations paid to France be returned to Haiti. Clearly the factors of economic exploitation contributing to the calamity of this natural disaster are by no means natural themselves. With this in mind, it is important to contribute to the rebuilding of Haiti, but don’t let it stop at a simple donation to the Red Cross. We must advocate for a fair economic and foreign policy toward Haiti so that this can’t happen again.

Russell Curry is a fourth-year biology major. He can be reached at rcurry@uci.edu.