Haiti: US military occupation worsens suffering, blocks aid

January 23, 2010

Right-wing columnist David Brooks began his January 15 New York Times piece by reminding his readers that when, in October 1989, the San Francisco Bay Area was hit by an earthquake similar in magnitude to the one that devastated Haiti on January 12, the death toll was 63.

The death toll in Haiti is estimated to be 200,000 and is still rising.

Brooks used crude racism to blame "a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences [including] the influence of the voodoo religion".

Most media coverage of Haiti's latest tragedy lacks Brooks' crudeness, but the same assumptions dominate. This racist narrative is being used as a smokescreen, behind which the US is cynically using the earthquake to increase its military, political and economic control of Haiti. (Actively hampering relief efforts in the process.)

US President Barack Obama immediately responded to the tragedy with trademark lofty rhetoric, declaring: "I have directed my administration to respond with a swift, coordinated, and aggressive effort to save lives.

"The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble, and to deliver the humanitarian relief — the food, water and medicine — that Haitians will need in the coming days."

Unfortunately, he lied.

The US response was swift, coordinated and certainly aggressive. However, it was not aimed at saving lives.

A week and a half after the earthquake, most Haitians in the capital, Port-Au-Prince, were still without food, water and medical supplies. Aid agencies, meanwhile, have complained that the US military takeover of the main airport blocked the arrival of badly needed supplies.

Haitians have been digging their compatriots out of the rubble with their bare hands or makeshift implements — without heavy lifting equipment. Western rescue teams have concentrated their efforts on tourists and expatriates.

Outside the capital, conditions are even worse.

The main US response has been the dispatch of a naval flotilla and almost 13,000 soldiers.

"I haven't seen them distributing food downtown, where the people urgently need water, food and medicine", Wilson Guillaume, a 25-year-old student, was quoted as saying in Cuban newspaper Granma on January 19.

"This looks more like an occupation."

The article reported injured Haitians shouting "Go home!" and "Don't occupy us!" at the US soldiers.

A United Nations military force has been occupying Haiti since 2004, when the US sent marines to support a coup against the democratic government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In response to the earthquake, the UN announced it would add 2000 soldiers and 1500 police to the 9000-strong force already there.

"We don't need military aid. What we need is food and shelter", a young Haitian yelled at UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his January 17 photo-opportunity in the stricken city, the Tehran Times reported the following day.

Since 2004, Haiti has been a virtual colony of the self-styled "international community", with the UN supervising the government and with more NGOs per head of population than any other country.

It is true that the dismal state of Haiti's infrastructure before the earthquake has hampered relief and rescue efforts. However, this is not, as Western politicians and media often claim, a "Haitian failure". It is a failing of the "international community".

The first relief flight to arrive in Port-Au-Prince following the earthquake was from Venezuela. It contained aid, doctors and search and rescue teams.

It arrived on January 13, as did a medical team from Cuba. There were already more than 300 Cuban medical workers working in Haiti, providing free health care to the poor.

Three other planes have come from Venezuela.

However, since the country's airport was taken over by the US military, the high volume of military traffic has prevented many aid flights from landing. Five planes belonging to Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have been turned back by the US forces.

On January 16, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated her government's compassion by flying in to Haiti for a press conference, the airport was closed to other flights for three hours, further disrupting the arrival of aid.

However, an even bigger problem is that upon arrival, most aid and aid workers have not left the airport.

The reason an alleged threat to security posed by marauding gangs of Haitian looters — also the pretext for the US military occupation.

Times Online said on January 17 that "many aid workers are reported to have orders not to venture out without armed guards … [T]he Haitian people seem to scare aid workers more than Somali warlords, Darfuri Janjawid or Afghan Taleban.

"Frightened Dutch aid workers abandoned a mission without reaching the collapsed building where people were trapped, and frightened doctors have left their patients unattended."

Most media coverage has fuelled this hysteria. However, some journalists, as well as others including MSF aid workers and Cuban doctors, who have braved the streets have reported that, far from mob violence and looting, Haitian survivors are displaying remarkable resilience and social solidarity.

Eyewitness David Wilson wrote in a January 18 MRZine article: "The only force we saw rescuing survivors … was, as a fellow guest at the Hotel Oloffson remarked, 'young men with crowbars'.

"Every few blocks as we walked downtown from the hotel we found young men carefully clearing rubble from collapsed buildings or trying to remove blocks of cement where they thought there were survivors …

"In contrast to the police, most people we saw that morning were already hard at work. Some were carrying the injured, in wheelbarrows, on planks, on doors, on stretchers made from sheets. Other people were removing rubble from the middle of the street ...

"Everywhere we walked we were on the lookout for any sign of looting. For the record: we didn't see any."

Inter Press Service reported on January 15: "In the absence of any visible relief effort in the city, the help came from small groups of Haitians working together. Citizens turned into aid workers and rescuers.

"Lone doctors roamed the streets, offering assistance

"In the day following the quake, there was no widespread violence. Guns, knives and theft weren't seen on the streets, lined only with family after family carrying their belongings.

"They voiced their anger and frustration with sad songs that echoed throughout the night, not their fists."

Others reported that, on the rare occasions food aid was distributed, far from rioting (as US defence secretary Robert Gates predicted they would), people formed orderly lines and made sure that children and the weak were prioritised.

While the US responded to the earthquake with armed troops the International Monetary Fund showed its compassion with a $100 million loan, with conditions. This brings Haiti's IMF debt to $265 million.

[Haitian solidarity activists have issued an open letter demanding "relief, not militarisation" and are calling for people around the world to add their names. The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, a grassroots aid organisation that has been working on the ground with Haitian organisations since 2004, is organising relief in the aftermath of the earthquake. Donate to it at here.]

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