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Haiti response: pathetic or powerless?

fairleft's picture

The only way this ['relief in the short term or a better life in the long one'] will really happen is if the Haitians have a functioning and legitimate state capable of providing for the needs of its people. The US military, the UN bureaucracy or foreign NGOs are never going to do this in Haiti or anywhere else.

-- Alex Cockburn

Alex Cockburn and myself -- in Haiti's neoliberal catastrophe, pre and post quake -- predicted the real ineffectiveness of the international and internal response to the quake. The short-term ineffectiveness was confirmed yesterday by Italy's civil protection chief, Guido Bertolaso. He called the US-led 20,000 troop effort in Haiti a "pathetic" failure, saying it was too reliant on military personnel:

"I think it has truly been a pathetic situation. It could have been run a lot better, "The Americans are extraordinary but when you are facing a situation in chaos they tend to confuse military intervention with emergency aid, which cannot be entrusted to the armed forces.

"It's a truly powerful show of force but it's completely out of touch with reality." Mr Bertolaso, who holds the rank of a government minister, also accused individual countries and aid agencies of conducting a "vanity show".

He said: "Unfortunately there's this need to make a 'bella figura' before the TV cameras rather than focus on what's under the debris."

Mr. Bertolaso. . . said that the American decision to send large quantities of troops, cargo planes and aid was commendable. "However, when confronted by a situation of chaos, they tend to confuse military intervention with what should be an emergency operation, which cannot be entrusted to the armed forces. We are missing a leader, a co-ordination capacity that goes beyond military discipline."

Mr Bertolaso compared the US response to Haiti to its reaction to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. "It's a truly powerful show of force, but it's completely out of touch with reality. They don't have close rapport with the territory and they certainly don't have a rapport with international organisations and aid groups," he said.

He accused many of the organisations involved in the Haiti operation of "putting on a vanity show for the television cameras instead of rolling up their sleeves", singling out Bill Clinton, the former US President, who had made a show of helping with water supplies "but went back after a day".

He hoped it would be "the last time the world acts in this way ... Unfortunately there's this need to make a bella figura in front of the television cameras rather than focusing on what's underneath the debris."

Cockburn's perspective is echoed by Gary Leupp, in his excellent Grappling with what Happened in Haiti:

President Preval, a former Aristide ally, seems not so much unpopular as powerless.

Leupp adds:

You wonder how many died immediately, suffocated by rubble, and how many over many hours through neglect. There is no infrastructure in Haiti. Unlike nearby Cuba, which is organizationally well-equipped to handle natural disasters, Haiti has no emergency aid network. There’s not even a military; that was disbanded during the last invasion, the one that followed the U.S.-abetted uprising of thugs in 2004, the kidnapping of President Aristide (sent into exile in Africa), his replacement with Boniface Alexandre as a provisional president, and the subsequent election of Rene Preval. There’s no way of knowing what’s going on in that country, poorest in the hemisphere to begin with, now without power or water or meaningful news coverage.

And what's an ineffectual government to do other than postpone elections [update: “at least until November”]?

Postpone elections, Haitian minister urges

By the way, the one overwhelmingly popular political party is banned from participating in those elections, as The Globe and Mail delicately puts it:

The upcoming elections have already been marred by accusations that the political party of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted from power in 2004, has been unfairly banned from competing in next month's elections.

Supporters of Mr. Aristide, who has suggested he might return from exile in the wake of the quake, have threatened to boycott or disrupt next month's planned vote.

On corporate media coverage of the quake's aftermath, Leupp writes, "If people are moved to donate to earthquake relief, shouldn’t they know why things are so messed up in Haiti? Aren’t they owed some journalism?" In that 'why' direction, read the entire interview among Peter Hallward, Danny Glover, and Jesse Freeston (who is a Canadian pro-Haiti activist, which explains some of the Canada focus you'll read) excerpted below:

Peter Hallward: [Another reason Haiti is poor] has to do with the political steps they took to try and fight this neoliberalism precisely by electing a government that could represent a political alternative to neoliberalism. So, a popular movement develops in the 1980s to fight this tendency, elects a government on an anti-neoliberal agenda in 1990, and the story of Haiti ever since has been really driven by measures taken by the international community and the small Haitian elite to force that government, to force this popular movement, into accepting the neoliberal plan that directly resulted in the impoverishment of a great majority of its people.

Jesse Freeston: This has included US-backed coups against the Aristide government both in 1991 and 2004. In recent years, however, Canada has largely taken over the role of undermining Haitian democracy -- this according to Canadian independent journalist and author of Canada in Haiti Anthony Fenton.

Anthony Fenton: From the moment Aristide was reelected in 2000 until he left, fled, was kidnapped from Haiti in 2004, Canada played a deliberate role undermining him, following in lockstep with the US policy. They starved it of loans, starved it of being able to fulfill their democratic mandate. They empowered Haiti's elite and fueled a disinformation campaign. Then, in an unprecedented way Canada played a leadership role as a regional imperial power propping up an illegitimate regime from 2004 to 2006, imposing a neoliberal agenda that they had tried for so long to impose on Haiti. This is the new face of Canada -- this is Canada for the 21st century.

Jesse Freeston: Canada has also supported the post-coup criminalization of the Fanmi Lavalas party, but it has been the UN, headed by a Brazilian military, that has been largely tasked for policing social movements.

Peter Hallward: The main purpose has been to coerce the population into accepting the consequences of the coup. But remember: the coup in 2004 overthrew a government that had been elected with a massive majority -- it had at least 75% of the vote and won 90% of the seats in the Parliament. And, by all credible accounts, that government would remain and if it could be elected again tomorrow it would be. So, what the UN's main job has been is to provide a massive overwhelming military and police presence to basically force the population into accepting it, and, particularly in 2005 and 2006, that's what the UN did. It patrolled Port-au-Prince, treated the population like a hostile force, and on a couple of notorious occasions went in and attacked groups of people who were some of Aristide and Lavalas' most ardent supporters and killed dozens of them.

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Submitted by libbyliberal on

It patrolled Port-au-Prince, treated the population like a hostile force, and on a couple of notorious occasions went in and attacked groups of people who were some of Aristide and Lavalas' most ardent supporters and killed dozens of them.

This seems S.O.P. for "might makes right" bullying occupation forces. Corporate/western nationals coming in on shock and awe occasions or in the name of some suspect spun rationale or simply done without any disclosure to American public at all. And how many of the public actually listen and care if the truth actually does reach them with disinterest, or just human distractions, or assuming our country is doing the right thing, not risking lives on both sides because of the corporate bottom feeders.

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. (Japanese proverb)

fairleft's picture
Submitted by fairleft on

Being reality-based can be a little depressing at times and on certain matters, like Haiti right now and in the medium-term future.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

The politics in and toward Haiti is horrible. I'm not arguing about that at all. And, granted, the US military always has to be kind of stupid. For instance, A Doctors Without Borders plane carrying supplies was turned back because some military plane had to land.

So, don't get me wrong, I agree completely with most of what you're saying. But it's not right to slag off the US military for not doing more, not being better organized, etc. Before they came in, there was basically no organization. Ordinary Haitians have done amazing feats, helping each other. But that's not the same as national organization.

I don't know where the Haitian government is. There's barely a peep out of any of them. The UN got buried in the rubble, nor did they mobilize replacements immediately. Before the US military did what they could, air traffic control was seriously struggling, transport was barely happening, and so on, through a whole mass of infrastructure, coordination and control issues.

Once the US military started making a difference, there began to be noises off about "the bullies are taking control." The military has to tread incredibly carefully. Three million people need help, but the US can't be seen to be bossing anyone around. It's an impossible situation.

I think they should be given credit for doing a damn good job, under the circumstances.

And whatever Bertolaso may think, it's downright unprofessional at this point to be slagging off other people who are trying to help. He can write a critique of the whole thing a year later, pointing out what the mistakes were and how to fix them. But second guessing people who are, in effect, his colleagues in very difficult jobs is just pathetic at this point.