In the News: Some facts Stephen Harper should have on Haiti

If Canada is to play a positive role in Haiti’s future, we must know what the situation actually is, and why.

Recently I described how Haiti came to be in such wretched shape, thanks to its own brutal leaders and the interventions of France and the United States, a story that is rarely told in the mainstream media. What follows is more recent information about Haiti, shortly before and after the earthquake, all of it publicly documented yet little of it known.

For a serious government, there are important lessons to be learned here.

  • Two million people need food. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promised that by the end of January, the World Food Program and related organizations would feed at least half of those. In fact, the number fed was 600,000. "It has been slower than anyone hoped or expected," UN humanitarian aid co-ordinator John Holmes said.
  • Ban was also pushing a cash-for-work program. Jobs are to be created clearing the rubble at $4 to $5 a day. He appealed for $41-million for this program. By end January, $4.3-million had been donated.
  • A "donor" conference for Haiti last April, 2009, after hurricane season, saw $402-million pledged. Actual disbursements were $61-million, about 15 per cent of funds promised. This is quite typical of many such pledges, not just to Haiti. Typically as well, we rarely hear of these broken promises.
  • Many African nations – both governments and civil society groups – have donated funds to Haitian relief. With the sole exception of Botswana, and perhaps South Africa, all are as poor as church mice. Liberia, in west Africa, donated $50,000. Liberia’s total budget for 2010 is $370-million for about 3.5 million people. The province of Alberta, with the same population, had revenues for 2009-10 of $31.7-billion.
  • While rescue teams from six different countries worked frantically to rescue 50-70 trapped people – mostly foreigners – from the rubble of Hotel Montana, the best in town before the quake, as of the end of January a lower-middle class neighbourhood behind the hotel called Canape Vert had received no aid whatever.
  • Like Canada, the United States expects Haitians, with minor exceptions, to remain in Haiti. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has launched Operation "Vigilant Sentry" using the large naval flotilla the United States has assembled around Port-au-Prince. Their job is to deter desperate Haitians from embarking on the 1,000-kilometre sea crossing to Miami.
  • That the Haitian government and other local leaders are largely MIA is easily explained. According to the former chief economist of Haiti’s central bank, more than 85 per cent of Haiti’s best "human resources" now live abroad. Many who remained were apparently killed in the earthquake, since, as CTV’s Tom Clark notes, all were at work in their offices when the quake struck.
  • Haiti is one of the most unequal and polarized countries in the world, with a minuscule fraction of its population controlling almost all real power and influence and living lives of ostentatious luxury. Their section of the capital was largely untouched by the disaster. This elite has long used brute force to keep poor people in line, with violent military and paramilitary forces (some trained by the United States) doing their dirty work.
  • Much foreign aid lands in the laps of these elite Haitian families, who distribute it as they see fit. Even before the earthquake, almost half of all Haitians survived on a household income of 44 cents a day.

  • Despite their own monstrous leaders, Haitians have always been among the most wondrously creative people in the world, excelling in painting, culture, literature and music.
  • For critical days after the quake, the U.S. military controlled the Port-au- Prince airport. Perhaps confusing Haiti with Afghanistan, they gave priority to their own military flights and turned away other rescue, medical and food missions. Aid agencies and other governments that argued for food and medical care as a priority were rebuffed.
  • Canada’s troops arrived late in Jacmel to provide the area’s first relief apparently because Canada was waiting on the United States for its marching orders. This will of course be vigorously denied.
  • Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest from the Haitian slums, swept into office in 1991 determined to end what U.S. doctor Paul Farmer called America’s "ruinous policies towards Haiti." Aristide’s modest program terrified local elites and Western interests: land reform, a minimum wage of $3 a day, and an end to foreign-owed factories that paid paltry wages. Aristide was ousted in a coup backed by George H.W. Bush nine months later.
  • Haiti’s miserable urban slums have swollen in part because Haitian farmers were recklessly undermined in order benefit foreign, mainly American, interests. Farmers flocked to already bursting, squalid, unserviced shanties, perfect fodder for a natural disaster to sweep away.
  • According to Dr. Farmer, whose Partners in Health agency has been in Haiti for years, Aristide "did not please the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had invested millions in keeping Haitian wages low." USAID is America’s CIDA, though with explicitly political as well as humanitarian and economic objectives (a direction the Harper government may well be heading for). It is somewhat unusual for an aid agency to want to keep a poor country’s wages low.
  • When Bill Clinton allowed Aristide to return to office, it was on condition that he introduce the typical World Bank-IMF policies that undermined Haitians’ own interests. So tariffs on imported rice were slashed to the bone, American rice flooded Haiti’s markets, and countless rice farmers went under, soon fleeing to the urban slums.
  • Haiti, once a major rice exporter, faced food shortages after its natural disasters. USAID sent in rice purchased from the large U.S. agribusinesses that had already been generously subsidized by Washington, and carried in U.S. ships to Haiti. Many American interests benefited from this "humanitarian aid" to hungry Haitians. This is one example among many of how the West, including the "donor" countries, enriches itself while impoverishing Haiti.
  • Last year, Haiti’s government, so warmly regarded by Western governments and the United Nations, vetoed a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $5 – a day. It’s now $3.30 a day. In Ontario it will soon be a lowly $10.25 – an hour. I believe Starbucks has put on hold plans to open branches in Port-au-Prince Haiti in the immediate future.
  • Canadian companies have long taken advantage of Haiti’s sweatshop factory conditions. One such company used to be involved in making baseballs in Haiti that ended up being used by the old Expos team. Company spokespersons explained at the time that they were utilizing the " lowest-cost method of production." Other North American businesses seem equally unable to resist the temptation of paying the lowest wages in the Western hemisphere, although some, admirably, abide by higher standards. This is another example of how rich countries enrich themselves at Haiti’s expense.
  • Most outsiders’ plans for Haiti’s future include exploiting its low wage structures, probably for apparel companies; the question will be whether the wages will be merely very low, or outright abominable. The answer will tell us whether the richest countries in the world -supposedly generous in their aid to Haiti – will continue to get even richer by further impoverishing one of one of the poorest.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa