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International Socialist Review Issue 39, January–February 2005

N E W S & R E P O R T S


An Unnatural Disaster


IN MID-SEPTEMBER, tropical storm Jeanne poured rain down on Haiti’s Artibonite region, swelling rivers into a nine-foot wall of water that smashed up the country’s third-largest city, Gonaïves.

At last count, more than 2,000 people have drowned, another 1,000 are missing and presumed dead, and 300,000 have been left homeless. Anne Poulsen, spokeswoman for the UN’s World Food Program in Haiti, stated "it’s not just people’s houses, it’s also crops and livestock that have been washed away. So it will take quite some months before people will be able to cope by themselves again."

Gonaïves lay under water for several days filled with the dead people and animals. Maita Alvarez, an aid worker with Oxfam, told reporters "the hygiene situation is appalling. There is no running water, no latrine. Some people have been drinking dirty water where dead bodies were floating. Its appalling." In conditions such as these, doctors are concerned about epidemics of cholera and other diseases.

The people of the region have no shelter, food, and clean water. Bishop Yves-Marie Pean stated "if people don’t get aid now, many of them will die of starvation."

Echoing the mainstream reporting, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, called it a "devastating natural disaster." But the same storm in the Dominican Republic killed a couple of dozen people. The scale of the storm’s impact in Haiti is entirely man-made. The free market system and the world’s biggest imperial powers–above all the U.S.–are responsible for creating the conditions for this unnatural disaster.

Impact of deforestation

Haiti is prone to killer floods like the one that struck Gonaïves because of deforestation that has left the land unable to absorb even light rainfall. As one AP report noted,

Poverty has transformed Haiti’s once-verdant hills into a moonscape of bedrock ravaged by ravines. More than 98 percent of its forests are gone, leaving no topsoil to hold rains. Even the mango and avocado trees have started to vanish, destroying a vital food source in favor of another necessity for the impoverished–charcoal for cooking.

The French who colonized the lush island in the eighteenth century cleared much of the country’s forest to build large plantations for their slaves to cultivate sugar cane, coffee, and other crops. After the Haitian Revolution that won independence in 1804, the great powers, and France in particular, imposed an embargo and only recognized the country after it agreed to pay France reparations for its freedom. They crippled Haiti with the poverty that has been the source of its social and environmental problems ever since.

With no other economic path to development possible, poor peasants divided the slave plantations into small subsistence plots. As they divided their lands among their children, the farms got smaller and smaller over generations. They overworked these small plots so that they became increasingly unable to support their families. To supplement their incomes, they turned to chopping down the remaining forests to make charcoal to sell as cooking fuel.

The U.S.-supported Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorships that ruled from 1957 to 1986 accelerated this deforestation. Their predatory rule robbed the country, failed to address the growing agricultural crisis, kept the peasants in desperate poverty, and drove them to further plunder the forest to make a living.

Some of the worst deforestation happened in the 1970s, as a direct result of a U.S.-backed scheme for the Duvalier dictatorship to impose a neoliberal plan of sweatshop development. The plan opened Haiti to cheap U.S. agricultural exports and encouraged peasants to migrate to the cities to work in new assembly plants built by American multinationals.

The plan failed. The sweatshops did not provide enough jobs, the economy went into crisis, and most peasants remained in the countryside where they chopped down the remaining trees of Haiti. As the Miami Herald reports, "In 1950, about 25 percent of Haiti’s 10,700 square miles was covered with forest…. By 1987 it was down to 10 percent. By 1994, 4 percent. Now foreign and Haitian scientists find only 1.4 percent of the Maryland-sized nation is forested."

Without the trees, Haiti has suffered an endless series of floods like the one in May on the Dominican border that killed 3,000 people, and now the catastrophe in Gonaïves.

The U.S. also prevented progressive, political forces from addressing the country’s poverty and consequent deforestation. In the 1980s the Haitian masses rose up in a movement called Lavalas, drove Duvalier from power, and elected reformer Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency on a platforms of land reform, aid to the peasants, reforestation, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers.

The U.S. backed a coup that drove him from power in 1991 and proceeded to massacre thousands of Haitians and forced tens of thousands more to flea the island. Eventually, the U.S. restored Aristide in 1994 on the condition that he implement a neoliberal economic plan, which he reluctantly did, increasing the country’s poverty and deforestation.

Never fully trusting Aristide, the U.S. imposed an embargo that strangled the country; thrusting peasants even in deeper into poverty. Finally in February 2004, the U.S. backed death squads that toppled the government, kidnapped and deported Aristide, orchestrated a UN occupation of the country, and installed the puppet government of Gerard Latortue.

As even the New York Times admitted,

Conditions in Haiti have steadily deteriorated since Mr. Aristide fled at the end of February, despite pledges of aid from the United States and the presence of a small United Nations force led by Brazil that is struggling to restore order. Rebels control much of the north, hundreds of people have died in political strife, and Mr. Aristide’s allies have threatened to boycott elections planned for next year. But all of that misfortune was dwarfed by the storm’s devastation.

The US, the UN, and the Latortue regime have failed to effectively come to the aid of the people of Haiti and Gonaïves. Outrageously, the U.S. has refused to grant the 20,000 Haitians illegally in the U.S. Temporary Protected Status normally given to immigrants from countries that have suffered disasters. It continues to deport Haitians, thereby deny Haiti money that these workers would otherwise send back to their relatives.

After the flood, the U.S., which had disbursed $5 billion to help American victims of Hurricane Ivan, initially promised only $60,000. After a public outcry, they decided to up that to $2 million, and now have promised a $50 million package for the Caribbean with half of it dedicated to Haiti.

However, that aid has barely gotten to Gonaïves as a result of the political chaos caused by the U.S. coup. The UN has only deployed 3,000 peacekeepers out of a promised 6,000, and those peacekeepers have worked hand in glove with the Latortue regime and its armed gangs to repress Aristide supporters.

The Red Cross warns that 250,000 people remain hungry in the city nearly a month after the storm. Even worse, the UN troops have had to ration inadequate aid, provoking riots over food that the troops have repressed. Now they are sending in so-called peacekeepers to police the city’s poor to prevent them from looting.

The Latortue regime has made the catastrophe worse and it is hanging onto power only thanks to the UN troops. Even if the UN were concerned to alleviate the suffering, it does not possess the infrastructure. "We are having trouble organizing and distributing food because there is no authority existing in the town," said Eric Mouillefarine, the head of the United Nations Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs in Port-au-Prince. This state of affairs exists because the new regime forced into hiding the personnel for agencies established under Aristide, such as the Civil Protection Bureau, that could have mitigated the impact of the disaster.

Instead of focusing his efforts on relief, Latortue has ordered his police to continue suppressing Aristide supporters. One woman told the Haiti Information Project,"they stop you and ask you political questions about Aristide and Lavalas. They ask you what you think about Latortue. If they think you like Aristide they will shoot you where you stand."

On the September 30 anniversary of the 1991 coup, the regime’s police attacked a demonstration in Port-au-Prince demanding the return of Aristide. Provoked, the demonstrators sought retribution against the police and pro-coup gangs. Latortue took advantage of this crisis to arrest three pro-Aristide politicians, including the head of the senate whom he blamed for the demonstration and violence. The resulting political crisis has prevented the aid arriving in Port-au-Prince from being distributed to Gonaïves.

The U.S. did not cause the storm, but it created the conditions that turned it into a murderous deluge. The U.S. and other great powers like France have Haitian blood on their hands. They owe billions of dollars in reparations to the Haitian people, who should have the right to choose their own government without imperialist meddling disguised as "peace-keeping."

Ashley Smith is on the ISR editorial board. He is the author of Aristide’s Rise and Fall in ISR 35, May—June 2004.

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