Haiti earthquake disaster: US imposes occupation

On January 19, one week after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, Agence France Presse reported that hundreds of Haitians looked stunned as several helicopters landed 100 US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division in the grounds of the Presidential Palace. “I haven’t seen them distributing food downtown, where the people urgently need water, food and medicine”, said Wilson Guillaume, a 25-year-old student. “This looks more like an occupation.”

Al Jazeera journalist, Sebastian Walker, described similar scenes on January 17: “Most Haitians here have seen little humanitarian aid so far. What they have seen is guns, and lots of them. Armored personnel carriers cruise the streets. UN soldiers aren’t here to help pull people out of the rubble; they’re here, they say, to enforce the law.” From the Port-au-Prince airport Walker reported: “Beyond the well guarded perimeter, there’s something else going on. Here, the United States has taken control. It looks more like the Green Zone in Baghdad than a center for aid distribution.”

The quake, which produced at least 30 aftershocks, has killed more than 110,000 people according to the Haitian Interior Ministry, injured some 200,000 people and left more than 600,000 homeless. Haitian officials estimate that the final death toll could reach 200,000.

Immediately after the earthquake struck, US President Barack Obama declared: “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.” But Obama’s pledge is increasingly being exposed as window dressing for another US occupation of Haiti.

Pentagon takeover

The Pentagon has taken control of Haiti’s main airport and seaport and has begun to deploy 12,000 US troops to bolster the 9000 Brazilian-led UN troops already occupying the country. Half of the soldiers will police Port-au-Prince, and the remainder will be deployed on military vessels surrounding the island, preventing Haitian refugees from fleeing to the US coastline.

Haiti’s former defence minister, Patrick Elie, told Al Jazeera, “The choice of what lands and what doesn’t land should … be determined by the Haitians. So, otherwise, it’s a takeover. And what might happen is that the need[s] of Haitians are not taken into account, but only either the way a foreign country defines the need of Haiti or tr[ies] to push its own agenda.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez echoed Elie’s claim that Haiti’s sovereignty was being violated. On the January 17 edition of his popular weekly TV show Alo Presidente, Chavez said: “It seems that the United States is militarily occupying Haiti, taking advantage of the tragedy. Six thousand soldiers have arrived. Thousands of men are disembarking in Haiti as if it were a war”. Haiti “needs doctors, tents, rescue teams and machinery … Now, who said soldiers, rifles and machine guns are necessary?”

Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Liniera also expressed opposition to U.S. troops controlling the devastated country, calling for food and other economic resources, not soldiers with weapons. “I’m afraid that Haiti could become a U.S. base”, he told Associated Press on January 19. “Our demand is the withdrawal of U.S. troops who are not engaged in any support or rescue work”, he added.

AP reported that as of January 20, Washington had sent more than 11,200 military personnel, 265 government medical personnel, five navy ships, as well as five Coast Guard cutters and seven cargo planes “to assist in aid delivery, support and evacuations”. The US has donated $130 million according to the US Agency for International Aid, and delivered 40 tonnes of supplies. However, on January 20, eight days after the earthquake struck, many residents of Port-au-Prince were reporting that aid was not reaching them. People sleeping in one of the largest and most easily accessed of the many temporary refugee camps in central Port-au-Prince told writer Tim Schwartz, “no relief has arrived; it is all being delivered on other side of town, by the US embassy”.

The same day, Telesur’s Reed Lindsay reported that Carrefour, an impoverished south-western Port-au-Prince suburb close to the earthquake’s epicentre, still hadn’t received any food or medical help. The BBC reported from the eastern side of Port-au-Prince, “Their houses are destroyed, they have no running water, food prices have doubled, and they haven’t seen a single government official or foreign aid worker since the earthquake struck.”

The US Air Force’s takeover of the airport at Port-au-Prince on January 13 has received strong criticism from aid organisations. On January 17, the UN World Food Program’s air logistics officer, Jarry Emmanuel, told the New York Times that most of the 200 flights going in and out of the airport each day were still being reserved for the US military. “Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed”.

Francoise Saulnier, head of Doctors Without Borders’ legal department, told Reuters on January 20, “Urgent and vital attention to the people has been delayed [for] military logistics… It’s just apocalyptic at the moment with people in a very, very bad and deteriorating condition,” she added.

The US-based medical aid group Partners in Health has also reported that much needed medical supplies are not getting through. On January 20, Partners in Health’s Dr. Evan Lyon, based at the Port-au-Prince General Hospital, told the US-based Democracy Now! TV/radio program, that the hospital still hadn’t received the supplies and medicines needed to treat many hundreds of dying patients. “In terms of aid relief the response has been incredibly slow”, said Lyon. “There are teams of surgeons that have been sent to places that were, quote, ‘more secure,’ that have 10 or 20 doctors and ten patients. We have a thousand people on this campus who are triaged and ready for surgery, but we only have four working operating rooms, without anaesthesia and without pain medications.”

US navy and coastguard vessels have encircled Haiti’s Caribbean coastline to prevent Haitians refugees from the disaster entering US waters. Every day, a US Air Force cargo plane specially equipped with radio transmitters flies for five hours over the devastated country, broadcasting news and a recorded message from Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador in Washington. According to a transcript released by the Pentagon, Joseph says: “If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case …[The US Navy and Coast Guard ] will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

A State Department spokesperson, Noel Clay, said the US had not suspended its visa requirements for Haitians trying to flee the disaster, even though the Department of Homeland Security has temporarily halted the deportations of Haitians already in the US deemed to be illegal immigrants. “We urge Haitians in Haiti not to put their lives at additional risk by embarking on a dangerous sea voyage”, Clay told the New York Times, seemingly oblivious to the dangers faced by Haitians remaining in the devastated capital.

Venezuela, Cuba send doctors

The US military response stands in stark contrast with the emergency response of the revolutionary socialist governments of Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuela was the first country to send aid after the disaster struck, with an experienced team of doctors, search and rescue experts as well as food, water, medical supplies and rescue equipment arriving in Port-au-Prince on the morning of January 13. However, Chavez told Alo Presidente viewers, on January 24, efforts by Venezuela to get food, fuel and other supplies to the Haitians have since been stymied by the US. “Venezuela’s humanitarian shipment had to be sent by sea and land through the Dominican Republic because our ships can’t dock at any Haitian port because those that are [in working condition] have been taken by the Yankees”, said Chavez.

The Venezuelanalysis news website reported on January 20 that Venezuela had sent 616 tonnes of food aid and 116 tonnes of equipment, including water purification systems, electrical generators and heavy equipment for moving rubble. Venezuela, the largest oil exporter in South America, is also sending free fuel to Haiti to operate power plants and public transportation.

“We are coordinating with the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, who put the terminal of the refinery of his country at our service”, Chavez announced on Alo Presidente. Chavez said that on January 17 a tanker with 225,000 barrels (worth approximately US$18 million) of diesel fuel and gasoline departed from Venezuela. “The Venezuelan people will donate all the fuel the Haitian people need”, pledged Chavez. On January 20, Chavez announced that another five ships loaded with food and medical supplies had departed for Haiti the previous day. “We have sent one or two Venezuelan soldiers to support and protect the safety of everyone there, but not to militarily occupy them as the US intends to do.”

On January 26, Chavez announced the cancellation of Haiti’s debt with Venezuela, amounting to $295 million, about one-third of total foreign debt, according to the IMF.

The Venezuela-Cuba initiated Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our Americas (ALBA), which also includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominica, Antigua and Barbados, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, has also sent two ships to Haiti carrying 4761 tonnes of food aid, according to Venezuelanaylsis.

Foreign ministers of the ALBA countries met in Caracas on January 24 to discuss how to help rebuild Haiti, including the rebuilding of hospitals, waterworks as well as projects to boost farm, food and fishing production. ALBA “is already in Haiti, but now we’re going to make a specific strategic plan for the short- and medium-term”, Chavez said.

Cuba, which has had doctors working on the ground in Haiti for a decade, has had 334 doctors and paramedics working in 227 of the country’s 337 districts since the earthquake hit. In the first week of the disaster, Cuban doctors in the Haitian capital assisted more than 13,418 patients and carried out 1078 surgical operations, more than 550 of them considered major surgery, according to the Cuban Granma daily. Since January 12, 400 Haitian doctors, trained free of charge in Cuba, have returned home to assist with relief efforts, along with an additional 150 Cuban doctors.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and is still recovering from the devastating effects of a hurricane that killed more than 700 people in 2008. Seventy percent of Haitians lives on less than two dollars per day, and half of the country’s 8.5 million people are unemployed.

Haiti won its independence from French colonialism in 1804, becoming the first colony in the Americas, after the United States, to do so. During Haiti’s struggle for independence, which was also a struggle against racial slavery, US president George Washington and then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson supported France out of fear that an independent black-ruled Haiti would inspire uprisings among the US slave population.

The first US invasion of Haiti took place in 1915, followed by a direct military occupation from 1915 to 1934. During the occupation, the gold reserves of the Haitian National Bank were transferred to US-owned Citibank and US agribusiness came to dominate Haiti’s plantation economy. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the US Navy, drafted a constitution for Haiti, which allowed foreigners to own land.

From the mid-1950s, US domination of the Haitian economy continued under the brutally repressive dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Papa Doc created the infamous terror squads known as the Tonton Macoutes. During the Duvaliers’ reign, some 50,000 people were killed by the Tontons. In 1986, “Baby Doc” Duvalier was overthrown in a popular uprising. While Duvalier fled into exile with $900 million in foreign bank accounts, the country was left with a $750 million debt.

From the mid-1980s, US policy toward Haiti sought to reorganise the Haitian economy to meet the needs of foreign capital. The US Agency of International Development was instrumental in shifting Haitian agriculture away from grain production, paving the way for dependence on food imports. Ruined Haitian farmers flocked to the cities in search of a livelihood, swelling the slums of Port-au-Prince and other urban centres. While US food producers profited from increased exports to Haitian markets, foreign corporations benefited from the super-exploitation of cheap labour arriving from the countryside.

In December 1991, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a liberation theologist and leader of the mass movement that overthrew Duvalier, was elected president. Popular among Haiti’s poor, Aristide and his Lavalas party attempted to introduce mass education, health care, and development of local agriculture. But his pro-poor, reform agenda was cut short by a US-orchestrated coup, which removed him after only nine months in office. In October 1994, Aristide returned to Haiti to complete his term in office, under a deal negotiated with the Clinton administration. Aristide’s return was contingent on him being ‘willing’ to accept IMF loans that stipulated neoliberal reforms and an abandonment of the modest reform agenda he had previously championed. His successor, Renee Preval, has continued to impose a neoliberal agenda in exchange for IMF loans.

In 2000, Aristide was re-elected in a landslide election and carried out a pledge to disband the Haitian army, and establish a civilian police force. In 2003, Aristide began campaigning for France to pay Haiti $21 billion as repayment for the unjust reparations extracted from Haiti under an 1825 agreement. Washington, with the collusion of the governments of France and Canada, once again orchestrated the overthrow of Aristide in 2004. Haiti has been under a UN authorised occupation ever since.

The current occupation of Haiti by US military forces is not a “humanitarian mission”. Its purpose is the same as these previous US occupations of Haiti — to secure the country as a compliant neo-colony for US investment. Two hundred years since Haiti’s first anti-colonial revolution, the US rulers continue to fear a mass movement emerging among Haiti’s impoverished masses demanding genuine independence.