—by Franck Laraque
What lessons can be drawn from the apocalyptic earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince and other places, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead, crippled, homeless, traumatized, and desperate; and whose photos leave us crying and powerless?
First, the resilience and solidarity among the masses themselves in trying to rescue, with their bare hands, those agonizing under the heavy rubble; in carrying the wounded and comforting the discouraged. They remind us of the barefoot soldiers, our unsung heroes who, at the battle of Vertières in 1803, gave us our independence under the leadership of our great Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and were forsaken afterwards. Second, the outpouring of international solidarity providing money, medical assistance, hospital care, food and water to the survivors. We also see the admirable reporting of reporters, unafraid of insecurity and fatigue, providing us with pictures and immediate information in order to heighten international awareness of this incommensurable tragedy. Third, there is the unsurprising visible absence of the President, Prime Minister and members of Parliament, who should be ashamed of their roles in the economic undermining of the country, and should resign.
It is obvious that the present dismal situation of Haiti requires two main stages: a) a humanitarian stage, and b) an alternative economic recovery stage.
A humanitarian stage
The need to save lives, to give care to the wounded in hospitals and medical centers, feed the survivors, build adequate hospitals and shelters, and clean the roads of debris for a regular transportation system, are some of the immediate requirements for a long-term international assistance to the Haitian people, not the Haitian government, with no strings attached, as it seems to be now. However difficult this humanitarian stage may be it will be easier than an alternative economic recovery stage.
An alternative economic stage
1. Causes of the pre-existing economic situation
The predatory nature of the Haitian government, its absence subsequent to the earthquake, and the absurd statement of an ambassador stating that, presently, there is a united Haitian front which is supportive of the President, is symptomatic of the kind of politics that wrecked the country not only before the Duvaliers, but also, in particular, since the inception of a corrupt economic system by the Duvalierist regime. A more or less chronological flashback will show the veracity of our contention.
Before the Duvaliers
The Haitian state, being the greatest landowner of the country (more than 50% of the territory), never stopped giving generous land concessions to big, foreign companies, at the expense of the peasants who were expropriated without compensation and became underpaid or unemployed workers. Some examples of such expropriations are: In 1927, the Plantation Dauphin in Fort-Liberté was granted more than 20,000 hectares for sisal plantations, whose workers’ wages were less than one dollar a day. In 1941, SHADA (Société Haïtienne Américaine de Développement Agricole) received more than 100,000 hectares to plant rubber trees for the exportation of rubber and trees for the construction of houses. These concessions led to the destruction of the peasants’ food crops and fruit trees. The fate of the peasants was the same as with the land concession, in 1956, to the Reynolds Mining Corporation for the mining of bauxite, and later on, in 1960, under the Duvaliers to SEDREN SA, for the mining of copper. Hence, the increase of the mass migrations to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In 1930, thirty thousand peasants had already migrated to Camaguey (Cuba). This work force, kicked out of its natural framework, would become the chief labor force of the American firms located in those countries.
Since the Duvaliers
The dictatorship of the Duvaliers (François, from 1957 to 1971; his son Jean-Claude, then a nineteen-year old imbecile, from 1971 to 1986) caused the worst human catastrophe the country has ever known. They murdered more than 10,000 people, caused the exodus of tens of thousands of peasants, and brought the mafia and drugs to the country, with the financial aid and moral support of Nixon, Reagan and their successors, all in the name of democracy and anticommunism. The exodus of the small farmers was a terrible blow to the economy, since they were the producers of the food crops and fruit trees that fed the country. Another policy, the adoption in the 1980s of economic neo-liberalism, was even worse. Its two main faces were, firstly, creating assembly factories, which gave an illusion of economic boom, and attracted peasants, who could no longer survive off their lands, to Port-a-Prince. There, slums would then spread like mushrooms. On the pretense of encouraging competition for cheap labor, the factory owners paid the lowest wages, forbade strikes, and did not provide any health/life insurance or pensions. Secondly, there was the need for foreign aid or loans, with its prerequisite of “free exchange,” or so-called “free market,” which destroyed national agricultural production by making it non-competitive through the drastic reduction of import taxes, and thus paved the way for the invasion of American products.
Another crushing blow was dealt to the peasantry with the creation of Free Trade Zones under Aristide’s government. The American-Dominican textiles factories in the Dominican Republic, having reached their quotas, decided, in agreement with the Haitian government and the World Bank, to establish such factories in Haiti, in order to take advantage of the available Haitian quota. These Free Trade Zones, which pay slave wages, grant tax exemptions, and allow the repatriation of profits, brought about the ruin of the farmers of the Maribaroux plain and nearby areas. Deprived of their fertile lands, these farmers were held at bay below the threshold of poverty. Then, in 2004, Aristide was removed from power and sent to exile by the Bush Administration, who parachuted Gérard Latortue, a puppet, from Miami to Port-au-Prince, and imposed him as the Prime Minister. Latortue’s repressive rule was a political disaster that brought more economic woes. He facilitated the return to power of former President Préval, with the ruinous consequences mentioned below.
2.The alternative economic stage
At present, the humanitarian stage is the priority, and requires the assistance of the whole world to rescue the victims of this monstrous earthquake, give them necessary health care, set up provisional buildings to house and feed them, to clean the streets, and insure the security of the survivors and helpers so more people are encouraged to come and bring their skills. Putting the Haitian people to work, not only in Port-au-Prince, but also in the other damaged cities and areas where people are migrating to, is an important part of any reconstruction plan. Vigilance is necessary, but there is no threat now of the same American militarization that existed from 1994 to 1995, when 20,000 soldiers occupied Port-au-Prince.* When this international assistance shows a real improvement in the situation, then the second period should come, that is to say, the reconstruction of the country with a very different vision of the future, but without forgetting the past.
The catastrophic seism, whose aftershocks keep on shaking the country, lays bare the pre-existing dilapidated state of the country; a result of the greed and bad faith of the representatives of the three branches of government and the obvious failure of the neo-liberal economic policies (mainly privatization and globalization) imposed by the Western countries, the United Nations, the World bank and the International Monetary Fund. This is the same concept they intend to apply in a so-called reconstruction of Haiti. It is insane, but it’s what it is. Most progressive recommendations advocate breaking away from the neo-liberalism imposed by foreign countries and implemented by the Haitian presidents and governments, which they have been supporting militarily, economically, and politically. The recommendations don’t say how to change this system while its active Haitian agents are still in power. It becomes obvious, then, that, first, the Haitian president and government have to be removed from office.
We see the need for a popular movement, just like in 1930, to put our incorrigible rulers out to pasture, and bring new leaders in who have a coherent and viable economic program, based on food-security, that blends egalitarian justice and an equitable sharing of the resources of the nation. In 1930, after the assassination of our illustrious freedom fighters Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batraville and the massacre of their supporters, the Haitian people resorted to strikes and street demonstrations in order to topple President Borno, who, supported by the American militarily forces of occupation, wanted to be reelected again. The well structured nationalist opposition came with a plan for the nomination of a Provisional President, and had the mission to organize free elections for a President who would negotiate the end of the occupation of the country. Indeed, the circumstances are different but the objective should be the same. The various peasant and grassroots organizations fighting for their political and economic rights should put their differences aside, and look for an agreement with other progressive forces and individuals to come up with a well structured plan to peacefully force out the present corrupt and predatory rulers and replace them with an entity committed to present and work out, with the international community, its alternative solution for the reconstruction of Haiti. The diaspora should be actively engaged in supporting this endeavor.
—Franck Laraque Professor Emeritus, City College, New York
* [NDLR] In light of the US actions in the aftermath of the quake (control of the Haiti’s four airports, the cordon-off of the seaport and the dispatch of over 12,000 troops, etc.), I’m not so sure that “there is no threat now of the same American militarization that existed from 1994 to 1995, when 20,000 soldiers occupied Port-au-Prince” as our friend Franck Laraque asserts, although I agree with him that the US mission is primarily humanitarian. In a phone conversation, Franck insists that there is not “militarization” per and that US forces, in absence of a functioning Haitian state, fill a security void that needs to be filled. TTG