Thursday, February 18, 2010

picking up the pieces (re: haiti)...

The big news at the moment is the devastating earthquake in Haiti and reports on casualties vary widely. Certain news outlets estimate upwards of 500,000 deaths, while more conservative number put the figure at nearly 100,000. Whatever the number, it’s a huge loss for a country of nearly 10 million individuals. However, the great loss of life and devastation witnessed in Haiti, however has been seen by some NGOs and multinational organizations as a means to rebuild Haiti anew from the rubble.

In fact, there is great opportunity in catastrophe, or so some would have you believe. Out of every tragedy comes a silver lining. But opportunity for who, one might ask. And while the main focus at the moment is on the catastrophic earthquake that has devastated Haiti, the one glimmer of optimism to be gleaned from this disaster is the possibility that Haiti might one day emerge from the rubble as a state reborn.

Even before the earthquake struck, Haiti was in dire straits. Haiti has remained since its inception one of the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries, even though it is located in close proximity to the world’s richest, the United States (trickle down economics, huh?).

Haiti has made considerable strides towards economic recovery and political stability since democratic elections were held in 2006 (and both Bush Presidents stopped overthrowing Haitian President Jean-Baptiste Aristide).  In 2008, the rise in food and oil prices hit the Haitian population disproportionately and led to social unrest and political crisis. Subsequently, the  country was hard hit by a succession of hurricanes and storms that left a trail of devastation,  destroying livelihoods and infrastructure with damages estimated at 15 percent of GDP. Now, the global recession poses further threats to the country’s stability through declining export  earnings and remittances.

Does I see the preferential U.S.-Haiti trade treaties HOPE I or II as purely altruistic gift for the creation of menial, low-skill, low-wage jobs for Haiti?

One is justified in wondering, 22 years after the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship, how it is that the current government's economic policy is that of Jean-Claude Duvalier? Here's what the Duvalierist newspaper "Le Nouveau Monde" wrote in 1984: "All the conditions are right for the country to become a platform for exports to the American market. Haiti has a workforce that is disciplined and accustomed to hard work since independence, a young and intelligent force, which provides labor at a cost well below its productivity".

This policy of the United States, called two decades ago the "American Plan" for Haiti, was in reality emptying the countryside of its people by flooding the Haiti market with subsidized American foodstuffs (refer to the Documentary Life and Debtfor further information on the causes and effects of such migration) who then migrate to the capital to form a low-skill sub-proletariat, ready to be exploited by the subcontracting bourgeoisie, thus destroying native agricultural production and threatening the ability of a nation to sustain itself. Indeed, even the few jobs created remains very precarious because they
depend totally on demand in the United States, which, as it so happens, is in the midst of recession.

As Haiti begins digging out from under 60 million cubic meters of earthquake wreckage, U.S. firms have begun jockeying for a bonanza of cleanup work. In the town of Leogane, about 30 miles outside Port-au-Prince, shows the massive destruction of buildings. At least two politically connected U.S. firms have enlisted powerful local allies in Haiti to help compete for the high-stakes business. It's unclear at this point who will be awarding the cleanup contracts, but there is big money to be made in the rubble of some 225,000 collapsed homes and at least 25,000 government and office buildings. We used to have vulgar colonialism, now we have sophisticated colonialism, and they call it reconstruction. It can be assured that the firms will not be Haitian-owned and these foreign companies are more than likely to repatriate to proceeds to their respective countries.

Randal Perkins, the head of Pompano Beach-based AshBritt, has already met with President René Préval to tout his firm's skills. To press his case, Perkins, a big U.S. political donor with a stable of powerful lobbyists, has lined up a wealthy and influential Haitian businessman, Gilbert Bigio, as a partner. Perkins isn't the only hard-charging contender for cleanup work. Another is Bob Isakson, managing director of Mobile, Ala.-based DRC Group, a disaster recovery firm whose résumé includes hurricanes, wars, ice storms and floods. He's also met with Préval since the earthquake.

How the work is delegated and who ends up awarding the contracts remains to be seen, but Préval is expected to play a pivotal role in setting priorities, even if others hold the purse strings. The United Nations designated former President Bill Clinton to coordinate Haitian relief efforts, and an international forum to coordinate plans is expected to be held this spring.

In his Jan. 28 meeting with Préval, which was attended by a Miami Herald reporter who was chronicling a day in the president's life, Perkins made a hard sell, boasting of AshBritt's $900 million U.S. government contract to clean up after Hurricane Katrina and promising his firm would create 20,000 local jobs. "It does no good if you bring in predominantly U.S. labor and when it's done, they leave. This is an opportunity to train thousands of Haitian people in skills and professions,'' Perkins, a 45-year-old Sweetwater native, told The Miami Herald. "If you don't create jobs for Haitians, your recovery is going to be a failure.''

AshBritt, Perkins said, also has clinched a coveted contract to handle future disaster cleanup work for the U.S. government in California and several other states.

"First and foremost, we have the experience,'' Perkins said.

That experience has come with controversy.

After Katrina, some questioned whether AshBritt's political donations or lobbyists paved the way for its huge federal contracts. The lobbyists have included: Barbour Griffith & Rogers, a firm founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Mike Parker, a former Mississippi Republican congressman who also was a senior official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Ron Book, a South Florida power broker.

Congressional hearings after Katrina aired objections that local contractors were passed over in favor of AshBritt. A 2006 congressional report examining federal contract waste and abuse noted AshBritt used multiple layers of subcontractors, each of whom got paid while passing on the actual work to others. Even now, AshBritt is under scrutiny by the Broward school district after an internal audit found the company allegedly overbilled by $765,000 for work after Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.

Haiti should be helped, not pitied. For decades much has been done to weaken the Haitian state, and it should be no surprise that the State has been unable to response to its own needs. The question now should be: how to develop Haiti's self-sufficiency as well as the nation at the same time. In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region, notes The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, DC-based think tank that formulates and promotes conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense (re: a completely Republican-based ideology).

Immediately following the Haitian earthquake The Heritage Foundation outlined some "Things to Remember While Helping Haiti," itemized briefly below:

-- be bold and decisive;

-- mobilize US civilian and military capabilities "for short-term rescue and relief and long-term recovery and reform";

-- US military forces should play an active role interdicting "cocaine to Haiti and Dominican Republic from the Venezuelan coast and counter ongoing efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to destabilize the island of Hispaniola"; (Whatever that means)...

-- US Coast Guard vessels should stop Haitians from trying "to enter the US illegally";

-- Congress should authorize "assistance, trade and reconstruction efforts;" and

-- US diplomacy should "counter the negative propaganda certain to emanate from the Castro-Chavez camp (to) demonstrate that the US's involvement in the Caribbean remains a powerful force for good in the Americas and around the globe".

Such rhetoric from powerful and influential lobbying groups such as The Heritage Foundation serve as an example of psuedo-imperial policy thinking that advocates predation, exploitation, and redevelopment for profit, not for desperate people to repair their lives. It disdains democratic freedoms, social justice, and envisions a global economy "where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish" solely for the privileged, the chosen few, not the disadvantaged or greater majority.

It's for free market plunder, regulatory freedom, tax cuts for the rich, exploiting the majority, corporate handouts, and militarized control for enforcement. For the moment the focus is Haiti, and now Chile, ripe for plunder, like the second tsunami that hit coastal Sri Lankans. The one that occurred on December 26, 2004 took 250,000 lives and left 2.5 million homeless throughout the region. After the disaster, Sri Lanka's east coast that was showcased to developers, hoteliers, and other business interests to exploit, a blank slate for what the tourist industry long wanted - "a pristine beach (on prime real estate), scrubbed clean of all the messy signs of people working, a vacation Eden. It was the same up and down the coast once rubble was cleared....paradise" given the profit potential.

New rules forbade coastal homes, so a buffer zone was imposed to insure it. Beaches were off-limits. Displaced Sri Lankans were shoved into grim barracks, and "menacing, machine-gun-wielding soldiers" patrolled to keep them there. Tourist operators, however, were welcomed and encouraged to build on oceanfront land - to transform the former fishing village into a "high-end boutique tourism destination (with) five-star resorts, luxury chalets, (a) floatplane pier and helipad".

It was to be a model for transforming around 30 similar zones into a South Asian Riviera to let Sri Lanka reenter the world economy as one of the last remaining uncolonized places globalization had not touched. High-end tourism was the ticket - to provide a luxury destination for the rich once a few deprivatization changes were made. Government land was opened to private buyers, labor laws were relaxed or eliminated. Modern infrastructure would be built, and public opposition suppressed to let plans proceed unimpeded.

The same scheme followed Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 when Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua were hardest hit. In Sri Lanka, Washington took the Mitch model to the next level, beyond individuals, to corporate control over reconstruction. Business ran everything, while affected people were shut out. Powerful business interests constructed a blueprint from housing to hotels to highways and other needed infrastructure. Disaster relief went for development. Victims got nothing and were consigned to permanent shantytowns like the kinds in most Global South cities and Global North inner ones. Aceh and other affected areas adopted the same model.

A year after the tsunami, the NGO Action Aid surveyed the results in five Asian countries and found the same pattern, residents barred from rebuilding and living in militarized camps, while developers were given generous incentives. The same scheme played out in New Orleans with unfettered capitalism given free reign. Prevailing wage rates for federally funded or assisted construction projects were suspended. So were environmental regulations in an already polluted area, enough to be designated a superfund site or toxic waste dump. Instead, redevelopment was planned. As a result, the inevitable happened, affecting the city's least advantaged, the majority black population, targeted for removal. The storm wiped out public housing and erased communities, letting developers build upscale condos and other high-profit projects on choice city land.

It was right out of the Chicago School's play book, what economist Milton Friedman articulated in his 1962 book, "Capitalism and Freedom". His thesis:

"only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around...our basic function (is) to develop alternatives to existing policies (and be ready to roll them out when the) impossible becomes the politically inevitable".

Friedman believed that government's sole function is "to protect our freedom from (outside) enemies (and) our fellow-citizens. (It is to) preserve law and order (as well as) enforce private contracts, (safeguard private property and) foster competitive markets".

Everything else in public hands is socialism, an ideology he called blasphemous. He said markets work best unfettered of rules, regulations, onerous taxes, trade barriers, "entrenched interests" and human interference, and the best government is practically none because, in his view, anything government does business does let it. Ideas about democracy, social justice, and a caring society were verboten because they interfere with free-wheeling capitalism.

He said public wealth should be in private hands, profit accumulation unrestrained, corporate taxes abolished, and social services curtailed or ended. He believed "economic freedom is an end to itself (and) an indispensable means toward (achieving) political freedom". He opposed the minimum wage, unions, market interference, an egalitarian society, and called Social Security "the biggest Ponzi scheme on earth". He supported a flat tax favoring the rich, and believed everyone should have to rely on their own resources to get by financially.

In a word, Friedman preached unrestrained market fundamentalism. "Free to choose," he said with no regard for human needs and rights. For him and his followers, economic freedom is the be-all-and-end-all under limited government, the marketplace being the master. Applied to New Orleans, it meant permanent changes, including removing public housing, developing upscale properties in its place, privatizing schools, and destroying a way of life for thousands of disadvantaged blacks expelled, and then priced out, from their communities.

For affected people, it was economic and social disaster under Friedman's prescription for mass-privatizations, deregulation, unrestricted free market predation, deep social spending cuts, and harsh crackdowns against resisters. It's disaster capitalism, business is booming.

Since the 19th century, America dominated Haiti. Before the quake, a proxy paramilitary UN force occupied the country, dispatched not for peacekeeping but for control. Worse still, it was the first time ever that UN forces supported a coup d'etat government, the one Washington installed after US Marines kidnapped President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, forcibly exiled him to the Central African Republic, and ended the political, economic and social reforms he instituted in areas of health, education, justice and human rights. Ever since, conditions for Haitians have been nightmarish, and now the quake and further misery ahead from the Pentagon's iron fist and greater-than-ever exploitation.

Obama's top priority is control, underway immediately after the Pentagon took over the Port-au-Prince airport, reopened it after its brief closure, and set up a temporary air traffic control center. Military personnel now decide what gets in or out, what's delivered and how fast. As a result, trapped Haitians perished, whereas a concentrated, sustained airlift, including heavy earthmoving and other equipment, might have saved hundreds or thousands more lives.

On January 15, Reuters reported that the Port-au-Prince 9,000-foot runway escaped serious damage and could handle big cargo planes easily. Immediately, food, water, medicine, rescue crews, and other specialists began arriving from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and elsewhere, but very little from America, including vitally needed heavy equipment.

Instead, the Pentagon sent in thousands of Marines and 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers (a 15,000+ force contingent once in place), armed soldiers, not humanitarian personnel and regular supplies to sustain them. Larger numbers may follow, to be supplemented by UN Blue Helmets and Haitian National Police under Pentagon command. A long-term commitment for militarized control is planned, not humanitarian relief, reminiscent of the 20-year 1915-1934 period when US Marines occupied Haiti.

Throughout the country, the lives of thirteen million people are at stake. Of immediate concern, are the three million in Port-au-Prince and surroundings, devastated by the quake and unable to sustain themselves without substantial outside help. The government is inoperative. Port-au-Prince is in shambles. People are struggling to survive, 100,000 or more likely dead, a toll sure to rise as disease and depravation claim more. Those in poor communities are on their own. On January 15, Al Jazeera reported that aid agencies are struggling under difficult conditions and inadequate supplies, let alone how to distribute them throughout the capital. As a result, frustration is growing with little help, no shelter, decaying bodies still unburied, the threat of disease, and the stench of death everywhere with no power, phones, clean water, food, and everything millions need.

Sebastian Walker, Al Jazeera's Port-au-Prince correspondent said:

"A lot of people have simply grown tired of waiting for those emergency workers to get to them. Thousands of people are streaming out of the city towards the provinces to try to find supplies of food and water, supplies that are running out in the city".

On January 16, Al Jazeera headlined "Haiti: UP to 200,000 feared dead". About 50,000 bodies have been collected, according to Haiti's interior minister, Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, and he anticipates "between 100,000 and 200,000 dead in total, although we will never know the exact number," nor how many more will expire in the weeks and months ahead, unnoticed and unreported.

On January 17, Al Jazeera headlined, "Aid teams struggle to help Haitians....amid difficulties in distributing relief supplies to those who need it most".

Sebastian Walker said delivering supplies stacking up at the airport has been extremely problematic:

"This comes down to the complex issue of who is in charge here. The US military has a great deal of control over the number of flights that are landing here. We heard that a UN flight carrying aid equipment had to be diverted because the US was landing its own aircraft there. The question of just who makes the decision over how to distribute the aid seems to be what is holding up the supplies."

The Pentagon decides, of course, and that's the problem. Obama also urges "patience," saying "many difficult days (are) ahead," without explaining his obstructionist uncaring role.

The result is reports like this:

-- from Canada's CBC "As It Happens" broadcast interview with an ICRC spokesperson saying he spent the morning of January 15 touring one of the hardest hit areas, and "In three hours, I didn't see a single rescue team;"

-- a same day BBC interview with an American Red Cross spokesperson complained about aid delivery - that arriving planes carried people, not supplies, and amounts at the airport weren't being delivered;

- the Canada Haiti Action Network calls Port-au-Prince a city largely without aid because areas most in need aren't getting it; further, in nicer neighborhoods, dogs and extraction units arrived, but 90% of them are just sitting around, perhaps because of no earthmoving equipment to reach victims;

-- another report said a French plane carrying a field hospital was turned away, then later allowed in; and

-- various reports say US forces are preventing flights from landing; prioritized are landing US troops, repatriating American nationals, and perhaps starving poor Haitians to death; dozens of French citizens and dual Haitian-French nationals couldn't leave when their scheduled flight to Guadeloupe couldn't land; an angry French Secretary of State for Cooperation, Alain Joyandet, told reporters that he "made an official complaint to the Americans through the US embassy."

Major health concerns include untreated trauma wounds, infections, infectious diseases, diarrhea, lack of safe drinking water and sanitation, and Haitians with pre-existing condition like HIV/AIDS, diabetes and cancer aren't being treated. Up to a million people need immediate shelter and non-food aid, including clean water, blankets, kitchen and hygiene kits, plastic sheeting and tents.

One nation delivering help is Cuba, but little about it is reported. Despite its own constraints, it's operated in Haiti for years, and now has over 400 doctors and healthcare experts delivering free services. They work every day in 227 of the country's 337 communes. In addition, Cuban medical schools trained over 400 Haitian doctors, now working to save lives during the country's gravest crisis. It's no small achievement that Cuba, blockaded and constrained, is responsible for nearly 1,000 doctors and healthcare providers, all of whom work tirelessly to save lives and rehabilitate the injured.

According to China's Xinhua News Agency:

"Cuban aid workers have taken charge of (Haiti's) De la Paz Hospital, since its doctors have not appeared after the quake", perhaps because many perished, are wounded, or are trapped beneath or behind rubble themselves.

Cubans are working despite a lack of everything needed to provide care except for what its government managed to deliver. Dr. Carlos Alberto Garcia, coordinator of its medical brigade, said Cuban doctors, nurses and other health personnel are working non-stop, day and night. Operating rooms are open 18 hours a day. Independent reports now say Washington is trying to block Cuban and Venezuelan aid workers by refusing them landing permission in Port-au-Prince. The Caribbean Community's emergency aid mission is also blocked. On January 15, the US State Department confirmed that it signed two Memoranda of Understanding with the remnants of Haiti's government putting Washington in charge of all inbound and outbound flights and aid offloading in the country.

Above all, Haiti needs democratic governance freed from US control, military occupation, and the kind of oppression it's endured for centuries so its people can breathe free. It doesn't need two past and a current US president allied with Haiti's elites, ignoring economic justice, exploiting Haitian labor, ignoring overwhelming human desperation, militarizing the country, crushing resistance if it arises, and implementing a disaster capitalism agenda at the expense of essential human needs, rights and freedoms.

The only good news is that the Obama administration granted undocumented Haitians Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months. They can now work legally and send remittances to family members. It affects 30,000 ordered deported and all non-US citizens. During the Bush administration and throughout Obama's first year in office, repeated calls for it were refused. Now after 80 representatives and 18 senators, Republicans and Democrats, and the conference of Roman Catholic bishops sent appeals, Obama relented for Haitians in America as of January 12. New arrivals will be deported unlike Cubans under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (as amended), a "wet foot/dry foot" policy under which those interdicted at sea are returned home, but others reaching shore are inspected for entry, then nearly always allowed to stay. TPS aside, Haiti faces crushing burdens- deep poverty, vast unemployment, overwhelming human needs, severe repression, poor governance, Washington dominance, a burdensome debt, and much more before the January 12 quake. It has been Haiti's plight for generations, the poorest hemispheric nation in the area most under Washington's iron grip and paying dearly for the privilege. far from God, and so close to the United States (apologies to Porfirio Diaz).

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