Haiti: Solidarity needed, not charity

March 6, 2010

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund is a San Francisco-based grassroots organisation founded in 2004. It is working with Haitian organisations to provide relief in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake.

Marilyn Langlois, a HERF board member, spoke with Green Left Weekly's Amanda Zivcic on the situation. For more information on the HERF, or to donate, visit . A longer version of this interview can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, .

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How was the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund formed, and how connected is the HERF to ordinary people in Haiti?

The HERF was formed shortly after the February 29, 2004, coup de'tat [that overthrew elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide from the pro-poor Lavalas movement] as an offshoot of our partner organisation, the Haiti Action Committee.

The HAC does political advocacy and consciousness raising about Haiti and has long-term relationships with several grassroots leaders in the Lavalas movement, which represents the vast majority of Haiti's population.

In the 2004 coup, Aristide was kidnapped by US marines and the Lavalas government was dismantled with support from the US, France and Canada. This ushered in a period of severe repression, during which our partners called on us for emergency support.

In the coup's aftermath, material assistance was urgently needed by many of our partners, who became political prisoners, or were forced into hiding or exile by the coup government supported by the US and then the United Nations.

All Lavalas members employed by the Aristide government lost their jobs and many social programs, including a major adult literacy program, were terminated.

HERF was created as a fundraising organisation to provide support to numerous schools, women's groups and agricultural collectives to help meet the needs of people suffering under the coup government and UN occupation.

HERF was called on for support during the major hurricanes that hit Haiti in late 2004 and 2008. The damage caused was tragic, unnecessary and frustrating, because under the Aristide government from 2000 to February 2004, an extensive disaster preparedness system following the Cuban model had been put into place.

But after the coup, that whole system was dismantled.

Six years of UN military occupation did nothing to re-establish an effective disaster preparedness system.

The US military has controlled the Port au Prince airport and aid distribution since the earthquake, only allowing a relatively small amount [of aid] to actually reach the people who need it most.

Huge stockpiles of food and supplies remain under guard at the airport.

For this reason, HERF has been sending funds directly to our partners on the ground so that they can buy basic supplies for people living in many camps who have organised themselves to share what little they have as effectively as possible.

HERF has also facilitated bringing in some medical teams and supplies to work alongside Haitian doctors in makeshift clinics.

HERF is funding a mobile schools project of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy in Port au Prince that hires Haitian youth from the communities to go to different camps and teach younger children.

What is the situation facing Haitian people?

People are traumatised and struggling to survive. They are doing so by and large peacefully, with much sharing and community building — despite indications to the contrary in the corporate media, which consistently fails to portray Haitian people with the respect and dignity they deserve.

The trauma is taking a toll. We have had requests for therapists to travel there. Haitian therapists are overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of people needing assistance.

The conditions continue to be deplorable, and will only get worse as the rains come.

What do the Haitian people feel needs to be done in the short and long term?

For the short term, massive amounts of food, water and supplies, including tents, need to be made widely available to all neighbourhoods and camps and Haitians must be allowed to distribute this among themselves.

Given the amount of money donated worldwide to major NGOs and relief agencies (in the billions of dollars), there should be no problem filling these short-term needs.

The vast majority of aid is either not getting to the people at all, or is being distributed in a way that is demeaning and disempowering.

Haitians continue to call for Aristide's immediate return. Aristide has the trust of the people and with his skills as administrator and psychologist, he could do a great deal to help guide the nation through the recovery and rebuilding process.

To date, the Haitian government, clearly under the thumb of the US State Department, has declined to issue him a passport. He remains exiled in South Africa.

Haitians call for an end to all military occupation. There has been massive resistance to the past six years of UN occupation, with lethal consequences.

On numerous occasions, blue-helmet-clad "peacekeepers" invaded poor neighbourhoods populated by vocal demonstrators in pre-dawn hours, killing unarmed men, women and children with impunity.

In the long term, Haitians want to re-establish their democracy and determine the rebuilding process themselves. Lavalas must be allowed to participate in elections again.

The party was banned from parliamentary elections last year, sparking a very successful election boycott in which only 3-10% of voters went to the polls in two successive polls.

Haitians want to control their own natural resources and agriculture. They wish to put an end to policies imposed by the wealthy elites in collusion with the US and other powers that rob the Haitian people of what is rightly theirs.

It has been estimated that France owes Haiti about US$21 billion — the equivalent of the obscene reparations Haiti was forced to pay to France from 1825-1946 to "compensate" for the losses of the former French slaveholders' after the Haitian revolution.

With $21 billion and a robust democracy, Haitians could do wonders.

What is the role of the US in Haiti?

The US has had varying degrees of control over Haiti's affairs. It refused to recognise the new republic in 1804 for fear that US slaves might be inspired by the example of a successful slave revolt, through to the outright US occupation of Haiti by marines from 1915-1934, the US support for the brutal 1956-'86 Duvalier dictatorships, and the US support for the two coups against Aristide in 1991 and 2004.

What is particularly shocking is that the US's immediate response to one of the worst humanitarian disasters ever was an entirely military one, concerned with control and containment.

Many Haitians told us how bizarre it was to see throngs of armed soldiers patrolling areas where sick, injured and hungry people peacefully tried to do what they could for each other.

US corporations clearly have their eyes on the large untapped reserves of a variety of minerals in Haiti — including gold, oil and natural gas.

A further indication that the US intends to maintain significant control of Haiti is the fact that it has recently constructed a huge new US embassy just outside Port au Prince. This is the fifth-largest US embassy in the world in a country with 8 million people.

What is the role of NGOs?

Most big NGOs in Haiti are not really meeting the needs of the people. They tend to be well connected with big business and the US/UN occupiers. They have a carefully crafted image of doing a few projects here and there, as long as the recipients of their largesse don't get political and call for the return of Aristide and Haitian democracy.

In the case of the Red Cross, we have heard reports that it has only earmarked about 20% of the vast sums donated for earthquake relief in Haiti to that purpose, while the rest is being held for other things.

Of the larger NGOs, two exceptions from those carrying out questionable practices that I am aware of — groups actually getting aid to people and supporting their needs as much as possible — are Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders.

Immediately after the quake, a Doctors Without Borders airplane carrying a medical field hospital was denied landing at the Port au Prince airport five times by the US military.

What is the state of Haiti's economic development and what role has the US had in this?

The Haitian people have not been allowed to fully control their own economic development. Haitian popular movements have tried reversing this course many times, most recently and powerfully with the rise of the Lavalas movement.

Under Aristide, trade unions were strengthened, the minimum wage raised and heavy pressure to privatise state-owned utilities was resisted. Aristide implemented a massive adult literacy program, expanded public education and built a medical school for the poor.

The US has done much to undermine equitable economic development, including dumping US-subsidised rice on the Haitian market, putting Haitian rice farmers out of business, operating sweatshops to assemble goods sold duty-free in the US and denying payment of development loans granted to Haiti for entirely bogus reasons.

What is the impact of Haitian history, with Haiti being created by the world's only successful slave revolt?

Haiti's history has played a huge role in its political and social development.

The enslaved people of France's most lucrative colony, Saint Domingue, had the audacity to do something no one thought they were capable of doing in an era of European "white supremacy". They rose up and freed themselves, defeating three major European armies.

This shocked and dismayed the powers-that-be of the day, and Haitians have been punished for it ever since.

Haitian revolutionaries stood up and challenged an entrenched and deeply racist social structure that viewed the dark skinned as people to be exploited. It is a structure designed to protect the wealth of a few, at the expense of our common humanity.

HERF stands shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers in Haiti in insisting that the resources of the Earth be shared equitably and that all people have a place at the table in deciding their future.

To this end, we engage in solidarity, not charity.

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