Haiti: ALBA offers direct aid, US promotes neocolonialism

“Business is bustling at the lavish boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs that have reopened in the breezy hills above the [Haitian] capital [of Port-au-Prince], while thousands of homeless and hungry people camp in the streets around them, sometimes literally on their doorstep”, the March 27 New York Times reported. “The rich people sometimes need to step over us to get inside”, Judith Pierre, a maid, told the Times.

While Haitian businesspeople, Western foreign aid workers and diplomats frequent the bars and restaurants in the capital’s affluent hilltop suburbs, down below a sea of misery prevails. Before the Caribbean nation was devastated by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake on January 12, almost 80% of Haitians lived on less than US$2 a day. The earthquake killed more than 200,000 people, caused the equivalent of more than $14 billion in damage and left a million homeless. Five months later, hundreds of thousands still reside in tent cities throughout Port-au-Prince.

According to a recent draft summary of the Haitian government’s damage and needs assessment, the country will need $11.5 billion to rebuild. On March 31, 136 countries, as well as multilateral lending institutions and charities, met at the UN headquarters in New York, ostensibly to raise funds for Haiti’s reconstruction. Co-sponsored by the US State Department and the UN, the conference received pledges of $9.9 billion over the next five years, including an unknown amount already pledged. To date, Haiti has received only $23 million in cash of more than $1.35 billion pledged. Of the $5.3 billion pledged in aid to be provided over the next two years, Washington has pledged only $1.15 billion, less than the $1.7 billion pledged by the European Union and the $1.3 billion pledged by the revolutionary socialist government of Venezuela. The US pledge is a tiny fraction of the $89 billion cost, according to US Treasury estimates, of the Obama administration’s Wall Street bailout.

‘Aid, not loans’

Venezuela’s pledge forms part of a $2.42 billion aid pledge from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), initiated in 2004 by Cuba and Venezuela, and which now also includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Caribbean island states of Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda. Addressing the UN conference on behalf of ALBA, Venezuelan vice minister of foreign relations, Francisco Cardenas, called for Haiti’s foreign debt to be forgiven and advocated direct aid and services, not loans, to Haiti. Venezuela has already forgiven the total debt of $295 million owed it by Haiti.

Cardenas urged richer nations to “consider the quality and the proportion of the donation in relation to the size of the economy of the donating country”. He denounced the influence of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the UN’s Haiti reconstruction fund, arguing that the policies of these institutions had contributed to the past impoverishment of Haiti. “The World Bank and the IMF”, said Cardenas, “should come and say, ‘We will forgive all of Haiti’s debt’, but instead, they come and say that they that there will be more funds so that [Haiti] may become more in debt.”

Cardenas announced that half of the ALBA countries’ $2.42 billion pledge would be given as direct aid to Haiti, while the other half would be provided in services to Haiti’s devastated housing, infrastructure, waste management, energy, education, health care and agricultural systems. Venezuela has to date sent Haiti hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food, 225,000 barrels of fuel, thousands of tents, water purification systems and heavy equipment to remove rubble, according to an April 1 Venezuela Analysis report. Since 2007, Venezuela has worked with Cuba to build houses, free health clinics and provide electricity generators for Haiti.

Ongoing Cuban assistance

Cuba will manage ALBA’s contributions to Haiti’s health care system, which will include the construction of more than 100 public health care clinics. The clinics will provide primary care, emergency rooms, midwifery, vaccinations, physical therapy and rehabilitation, public health education and other services, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, announced on March 31.

Cuban doctors have been working in Haiti for over a decade. In 1998, when Haiti was struck by Hurricane Georges (resulting in 230 deaths and 167,000 people made homeless), Cuba agreed to maintain hundreds of doctors working wherever the Haitian government determined. In addition, Cuba provided scholarships to Haitians to study at the newly opened Latin American Medical School (ELAM) in Havana, provided that they would later return to Haiti to take the place of Cuban doctors treating those in need. The first class of Haitian medical students, all from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, began studying at ELAM in May 1999.

Over the last 10 years, Cuba has trained 550 Haitian doctors and is currently training a further 567. More than 6000 Cuban medical personnel have worked in Haiti since 1998. Cuban doctors in Haiti have given more than 14.6 million consultations, carried out 207,000 surgical operations, including 45,000 vision restoration operations, attended 103,000 births and taught literacy to 165,000 Haitians, according to the US NGO Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (Medicc). A 2007 study by the Pan American Health Organization indicates that Cuban medical cooperation with Haiti has achieved major improvements in health. Between 1999 and 2007, infant mortality and child (under age 5) mortality declined by more than half. Maternal mortality declined by 46% and life expectancy increased from 54 to 61 years.

Within 24 hours of the January 12 earthquake, 344 Cuban doctors and paramedics working in 227 of Haiti’s 337 districts completed 1000 emergency surgeries, turning their living quarters into clinics. Cuban doctors were running the country’s only medical centres, including five Cuba-built comprehensive diagnostic centres and another five under construction. Their ophthalmology centre became a field hospital, treating 605 patients within 12 hours following the earthquake.

Cuba soon became responsible for some 1500 medical personnel in Haiti, including: 350 members of the Henry Reeve emergency response medical brigade (established after Hurricane Katrina); 546 graduates of ELAM from various countries (including the US); 184 fifth and sixth year Haitian ELAM students; and a team of Venezuelan medical personnel. The Cuban-led medical brigade has worked throughout Haiti in 20 hospitals and 20 rehabilitation centres and has vaccinated 400,000 people. Three times the size of the US medical contingent, the Cuban-led brigade has treated 261 times more patients, according to a March 8 article in Medicc Review. “We send doctors, not soldiers”, observed Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, in the January 26 edition of Cuba’s daily Granma.

Attempted takeover

The ALBA countries’ response to Haiti’s crisis stands in stark contrast with that of the US government, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has accused of attempting a military takeover of Haiti. “We have doubts about the military expenditure that is being made on Haiti”, Venezuela’s Cardenas told the UN donors conference on March 31, adding: “The spending is gigantic, and [consumes] a lot of money that could go towards hospitals.”

The Obama administration responded to the earthquake by dispatching 15 naval vessels to prevent Haitian refugees entering US waters. At its height, Washington deployed 22,000 military personnel in or around Haiti, including 7000 ground troops. After seizing control of the Port-au-Prince airport, the US military blocked desperately needed food, water and medical supplies and personnel from getting into the city so that it could deploy its troops. Utilising the tragedy to tighten its grip on the country, Washington’s aim was to suppress any anti-government unrest arising from the disaster. The current Haitian government is the result of a 2004 US-backed coup.

In contrast, Venezuela stationed only 90 soldiers in Haiti to assist more than 500 relief workers, including medics, disaster prevention experts, rescue workers and fire fighters. Venezuela and ALBA have channelled their aid directly through the Haitian government, rather than through the UN’s “cluster” system, resulting in criticism from the international corporate media.

The UN conference served as a forum for Washington and its imperialist allies, particularly Canada and France, to re-assert their neo-colonial domination over Haiti. Flanked by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton, the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, Haitian President Rene Preval, announced the formation of an interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission to oversee the distribution of reconstruction funds. The commission is to be co-chaired by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. The board of the commission will have representatives from the US, Canada, Brazil, France, Venezuela and the European Union, along with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the United Nations, ensuring that Haiti and revolutionary Venezuela’s input into the direction of spending will be hamstrung by the domination of the imperialist powers.

Haiti Liberte journalist Kim Ives observed on April 20 that the Haitian government will be under the complete supervision of foreign “donors”. “Under the Plan”, wrote Ives, “the World Bank distributes the reconstruction funds to projects it deems worthy. An Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, composed of 13 foreigners and 7 Haitians, approves the disbursements. Then another group of foreigners supervises the Haitian government’s implementation of the project.”

Profits first

Brad Horwitz, the CEO of Texas-based Trilogy software company, owner of Voila, Haiti’s second largest mobile phone network, was one of the two representatives who spoke for Haiti’s “business community” at the donors conference. “Urgent measures to rebuild Haiti are only sustainable if they become the foundation for an expanded and vibrant private sector”, Horwitz told the conference. “We need you to view the private sector as your partner to understand how public funds can be leveraged by private dollars.”

The other private sector spokesperson was Reginald Boulos, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Haiti. Boulos fiercely opposed last year’s union and student-led campaign to raise Haiti’s minimum wage to the equivalent of $5 a day, convincing Preval to keep it at $3 a day. Boulos was also a key supporter of both the 1991 and 2004 coups against elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now exiled in South Africa.

“We trust that the numerous promises heard will be converted into action”, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez told the conference. “That Haiti’s independence and sovereignty will be respected and ennobled, that the government of President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive will be facilitated to exercise all its faculties, and that it will be able to benefit, not the white and foreign companies, but the Haitian people, especially the poorest … Generosity and political will are needed. Also needed is the unity of that country instead of its division into market shares and dubious charitable projects.”

The Clintons didn’t see it that way. “My job in the next 18 months”, Bill Clinton told the conference, “is going to be to try to connect the inside and the outside forces in a way that maximises the input and impact of all the players, and minimises the frictions and transaction costs”. Deciphered, this means trying to maximise exploitation of Haiti’s cheap labour by foreign capitalists in a way that minimises the threat of a social explosion.

Prior to the earthquake, 70% of Haitians had to live on less than $2 per day. For several years now, Clinton has promoted the development of a large sweatshop textile sector in Haiti, enlisting the support of billionaire financier George Soros to create a $50 million new industrial park near Port-au-Prince’s airport. The January 25 New York Times reported that garment workers employed in the sprawling Sonapi industrial park were paid an average of $100 a month. Prior to the earthquake, the largely US-owned and managed garment industry accounted for 99% of Haiti’s exports, most of which was assembled from US-made fabric and exported back to the US.