January 27, 2010

Talking Points on the US Role in the Haitian Earthquake Crisis (1/26/2010)

1. The US government's response to the crisis has been military, not humanitarian. This is the most important single thing to understand about what is happening in Haiti today.

The Obama administration has ordered a massive armed intervention in Haiti in the guise of carrying out a rescue and relief mission. The goals of this intervention are to enforce US interests in Haiti, both immediate interests (preventing earthquake refugees from coming to the US--see point 3) and longer term ones (continuing US dominance of Haiti's government and economy--see point 8).

2. US military intervention is blatant.

Flights into Port-au-Prince's small and damaged airport are being directed by an emergency flight control center at a US military base in Florida to insure that 20,000 US troops are in place in country and offshore by this week. Non-military flights have been given second priority for landing.

US naval vessels have played a similar role in Port-au-Prince's damaged port facilities. The US aircraft carrierCarl Vinson sailed into the Haitian waters amid reports hailing it as a "floating airport." This is a colossal lie--the only planes that land on and take off from aircraft carriers are fighter jets. Giant cargo planes or smaller planes bringing aid from around the world need not apply.

Haiti is already under occupation by a United Nations-sponsored stabilization force called MINUSTAH, which was set up with the active approval of the Bush administration. Its commander, a Brazilian, has complained that this UN-recognized occupation force has been pushed to the side by the US.

3. The main immediate concern of the US government is not to help in the catastrophe but to prevent Haitians from fleeing their devastated country to safety of the US, where many of them have kin.

A long-standing US military plan called Operation Vigilant Sentry has been implemented. Haiti is now effectively under an air and sea blockade to prevent refugees from leaving.

After political struggle in the US and global attention, the administration first announced a moratorium on deportation of Haitians, then that it is extending 18 month Temporary Protection Status (TPS) to undocumented Haitians already in the US. Both announcements were accompanied by firm declarations that any new incomers would be stopped on the high seas and returned to Haiti immediately.

4. The US military intervention badly hurt true relief efforts in the critical early days of the disaster.

Early on, Secretary of Defense Gates rejected proposals for airdrops of water, food and medicine, saying it was "simply going to lead to riots as people try and go after that stuff," although only very minimal violence ever did occur. Four days later, US occupation forces quietly started some helicopter drops to affected areas. No rioting ensued.

Meanwhile, US military air traffic controllers monopolized the airport for military purposes. In the first week, Doctors Without Borders got one plane full of supplies and medical personnel in. Four others were turned back, one of them three times!

Even government aid from other countries was blocked while US troops and their equipment were shipped in. The lesson was soon learned and donors started flying or shipping supplies and staff into the neighboring Dominican Republic and hiring coastal vessels or renting trucks for the long, difficult, overland journey. Venezuela, for instance, pledged a million gallons of desperately needed fuel and announced plans to ship it through the Dominican Republic to avoid blockages.

5. There has been no mass outbreak of rioting--a spokesman for the US Southern Command acknowledged that the level of violence in Port-au-Prince has been lower than before the earthquake.

There have been reports of looting but these are strongly reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when starving people took food from submerged supermarkets to stay alive and were called "looters."

We are told about how the earthquake shook the central prison and allowed the escape of all the prisoners, but we are not told that 80% of them had never even been charged with a crime.

We should not be Pollyannas and pretend that desperately poor people fighting for survival for themselves and their families won't break laws, nor deny that local criminals and opportunists will seek to gain power and make a gourde (the Haitian currency) out of disaster. The fact remains that the response so far has been one of remarkable restraint, civility and cooperation.

6. The role of the US mainstream media has been disgraceful. Not only do they act as stenographers for government and Pentagon claims, they work to buttress the official line.

A NY Times article on rioting a week in (which finally acknowledged that there wasn't much) was illustrated by a photo of "looting" which actually showed folks throwing food from a wrecked supermarket to a crowd below.

By the end of the first week, the media was leading with "human interest" stories--a woman who had been buried for seven days rescued, a Marine who lost family members in the earthquake, etc.

There have been no human interest headlines on places like, for instance, the Delmas neighborhood, where community groups based in a Catholic hospitality house called Matthew 25, organized the neighborhood. When food and water did arrive, they set up an orderly distribution line that doled out life-saving supplies equitably.

7. The economic interests of corporations and global capital are being protected above all else.

Just as in Katrina, survival scavenging is denounced as "looting" and "the breakdown of law and order" because private property rights are more important than human life. Big hotels have US military guards.

And new forces are looking to turn a buck. The International Peace Operations Association has volunteered its member groups for hire to help in the crisis. What is IPOA? A mercenary company trade group! Meanwhile, air freight charter rates to Haiti have increased anywhere from 10% to 100% in the days since the quake.

One ugly snapshot: the Florida-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines continued to drop passengers for an afternoon of seashore frolic and b-b-q, only 60 miles from the quake's epicenter, on a heavily guarded and fenced private beach at Labade, leased from the corrupt Haitian government. They had no trouble passing through the anti-refugee naval blockade.

8.The military character of the US earthquake response is also intended to maintain the whip hand the rulers of the US have over the destiny of the people of Haiti, including what kind of government and economy their country has.

This is a continuation of US policy running back even before the first US occupation of Haiti, from 1915-1934 and continuing through US-backed coups that overthrew the popular and democratically-elected leader of the country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide--twice, in 1991 and in 2004. The political party he started, Fanmi Lavalas, Haiti's largest, has been banned from participating in elections there since 2004, without a peep of "pro-democracy" protest from the US.

Similarly US-imposed economic policies that have entrenched poverty and dependence are expected to continue with little change. The US-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced the day after the earthquake that it was making an immediate $100 million dollar loan to Haiti--on the previously imposed conditions that the price of electricity be raised sharply and that there be no pay increases for public workers. A global howl of outrage forced the IMF first to turn the loan into a grant and later to drop the conditions, but the intent is clear enough.

9. Large US-based and global charities (know as Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGOs for short) serve in effect as arms of US policy in Haiti. Once Aristide ran again in 2000 after returning from exile and won the presidency, the US government started funneling most of its foreign aid through NGOs. So ineffectual and corrupt has the US-installed regime been since the 2004 coup that overthrew Aristide a second time that this policy still stands. This has made the big NGOs reliant on US money to fund and staff their Haitian operations, and who pays the piper calls the tune.

10. Obama's pledge of $100 million to aid Haiti must be seen in context. White House publicity surrounding his West Point speech on the escalation in Afghanistan reported that maintaining one soldier or Marine on the ground in Afghanistan for one year costs a million dollars. In short, one troop-year=one million dollars. So that $100 million could be offset just by keeping 100 troops home from the 30,000 he is sending into harm's way. Keep 500 home and that's a half a billion not spent on trying to force the Afghan people to knuckle under. That could go a long way toward giving Haiti a future, as long as it's not spent on the costs of one more protracted military occupation.

11. In exposing and criticizing US actions and intentions in Haiti, we should be careful to acknowledge the contributions that individual US troops can make. Those from medical field hospitals, motor pools and engineering units will be playing a critical role in weeks to come. Many will be enormously sympathetic to the plight of the Haitians and make big sacrifices to help them.

This is even more true of the on-the-ground staff and volunteers from NGOS who will be descending on Haiti in droves in the coming months.

But none of this changes the character or goals of the US occupation, or our responsibility to address it. It may not look like an occupation--the brass is desperate to avoid scenes of the 82nd Airborne gunning down starving Haitians. But the largest military force in the country, and the best armed and equipped, is the US military, and that amounts to veto power.

12. A lot of progressive suggestions for big changes in US policy toward Haiti are being put forward. Two deserve particular prominence:

Cancel the enormous debts to foreign creditors and global outfits like the IMF that have been strangling the Haitian economy since the 1800s.

Return Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti and ensure that all future elections include the party he leads, Fanmi Lavalas.

13. A final word: Racism.

Haiti is populated overwhelmingly by Black people, Black people who don't even speak English. Given the deeply white supremacist foundations of US society and culture, this seeps into everything that is happening.

From the blame-the-victim line on Haitian poverty to the assumption that rioting was right around the corner (not made in the case of Asians after the 2004 tsunami), it will have to be challenged again and again.

It will be an uphill battle. The reactionary right is already laying the foundation for a campaign to have the people of this country turn their backs on Haiti. The racist subtext of Pat Robertson's "pact with Satan" nonsense is obvious but it will go right along with exposes of high-living NGO officials and reportage on corruption and inefficiency in Haiti itself. The upshot will be "compassion fatigue." The idea that Haiti is hopeless and beyond helping will be driven more deeply into popular consciousness.

Our job is to unite with the Haitian people in their efforts to rebuild, and to demand they be given the tools and resources to do so. This can't happen, won't happen, with US Navy gunships off their coasts and international bankers dictating "free market" economic policies to them. There's our target.

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