US Troops play ‘heroes’ after natural disaster in Haiti – the real disaster is Global inequality

While it’s easy to think of the recent earthquake in Haiti as just another natural disaster, it’s the poverty and injustice that have plagued Haiti for generations that have turned a natural earthquake into a human catastrophe. A 7.0 earthquake is a huge earthquake, but when one strikes a rich country like Japan, only a few people are killed because buildings are earthquake resistant and emergency infrastructure is in place to deal with emergencies. On the other hand, Haiti was already an economic disaster before the earthquake, with the worst poverty in the Western Hemisphere.

Haiti’s poverty is not an accident — it is the result of the global economic system which removes wealth and resources from the global south for the benefit of rich countries. This system is enforced with military power, which is why it is so ironic to see US troops helping earthquake victims portrayed as heroes. Sure it’s nice when US troops arrive to pass out water and pick up the wounded, but wouldn’t it be nice if the US military didn’t help destroy societies in the first place and leave them so vulnerable to natural disasters?

The US military has a long history in Haiti. In 1915, at the request of US banks which had taken over the Haitian banking system in 1910-11, US Marines invaded, beginning an occupation that would last until 1934. After dissolving the legislature, US officials wrote a new constitution, adopted in a flawed vote in 1919, which abolished a long-standing prohibition on foreign ownership of land. (Supposedly, future-president FDR personally wrote the constitution while acting as under-secretary of the Navy.)

US forces used an 1864 law that required peasants to perform free labor on roads in lieu of paying road tax to force thousands of people to build hundreds of miles of roads under the corvée system. The roads helped US troops move around and opened up the countryside to economic development. Haitian peasants saw the forced labor system as a return to slavery at the hands of white US solders.

When Haitians rebelled against US rule in 1919, US marines put down the uprising, killing up to 15,000 Haitians according to Haitian historians. (The US Navy admitted that 3,250 were killed.) Even after US Marines left in 1934, the US retained control over Haiti’s external finances until 1947.

Haitian society was in shambles before, during and after the US occupation, economically plundered by transnational corporations as well as local elites. Military coups were followed by military dictatorships, some supported by US authorities and others shunned, but the common thread has been a US focus on profits and control, while neglecting self-determination, justice and economic development for the common population.

Haiti is a victim of failed international development schemes that leave developing countries deep in debt to build mega-projects that don’t address basic human needs. In the 1930s, the World Bank financed the Peligre Dam, completed in 1956. It was built by Brown and Root of Texas, the now infamous defense contractors. The fertile agricultural Artibonite River valley was flooded, leaving its residents refugees in their own country. Meanwhile, the dam silted up more rapidly than expected due to massive Haitian deforestation, leaving it a useless breeding ground for malaria. In the end, the project just enriched a US company in the name of the Haitians it impoverished.

To the credit of the Haitian people, when the Canadian International Development Agency and the Inter-American Development Bank tried to build two more dams in the 1980s, ten thousand people stood up against the plan and against their own notoriously repressive government, and succeeded in putting enough pressure on the banks to halt the projects.

If you look at a satellite picture of the island of Hispaniola, it is easy to pick out the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, because Haiti was so massively deforested by European colonists. This deforestation has made every recent natural disaster much worse on the Haiti side of the island, because without trees the land washes away, burying roads and homes, and drinking water reservoirs are impossible to keep clean.

The overwhelming human tragedy of Haiti after the earthquake tears at our hearts. But in our response, we need to do more than just help the victims. We need to attack the underlying social, political and economic conditions that transformed a natural earthquake into a human disaster. We demand no more Haitis — people in the US and the developed world shouldn’t be living high on the hog while a majority of the world’s population barely has the resources to eat, much less prepare for natural disasters.

Many people want to donate money to help with disaster relief. The following groups are based in Haiti, run by Haitians, were active there before the earthquake, and will remain after the TV cameras have left. Helping Haitians help themselves is better than funding huge US based corporate-style charities.

• Aristide Foundation – medical facility run by Haitian doctors, students and Cuban doctors www.haitiaction.net

• Partners In Health (Zanmi Lasante) – one of the largest health care delivery services in Haiti staffed and managed by Haitians with a full training program for Haitians to become doctors and other health professionals: www.pih.org

• Institute For Justice And Democracy In Haiti – distributes objective and accurate information on human rights conditions in Haiti and pursues legal cases with local human rights groups www.ijdh.org

• Working Together For Haiti (Konbit Pou Ayiti) – focuses on Haitian solutions to environmental, social and economic problems by providing training and funding to community-based projects. www.konpay.org