Writer Peter Hallward spoke to Sadie Robinson about how the West has used last year’s earthquake as an opportunity to impose more control. Photographs by Leah Gordon
One year on from the devastating earthquake, much of Haiti remains in ruins. Life for ordinary Haitians has got worse not better, even after all the promises of aid, the visits from legions of politicians and celebrities, and thousands of US soldiers and United Nations (UN) forces.
This is the latest example of foreign intervention leading to disaster for ordinary Haitians. There is deep anger and bitterness among the population.
Peter Hallward, a writer and expert on Haiti, told Socialist Worker, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that much of the population has been repeatedly traumatised. It’s hard to imagine how people can still manage to endure it.”
More than a million homeless people are stuck in tents in the capital
Port-au-Prince. Rubble from the earthquake still dominates the streets. “Very little rubble has been removed—estimates hover around 5 percent,” says Peter.
Hundreds of thousands of people are malnourished. A new UN report says that nearly one third of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
The estimated 12,000 non-governmental organisations in Haiti have done shockingly little to deal with the cholera epidemic. More than 120,000 people have been infected and at least 3,300 have died, although the real number is likely to be much higher.
“Bodies are regularly tipped into mass graves at a notorious dumping ground at Titanyen, outside Port-au-Prince,” says Peter. “A friend of mine there says at least 20 new bodies show up every day.
“These are mostly people who haven’t been going through the hospitals, and it’s been happening for weeks. She talks to the people dumping bodies and thinks that thousands of bodies have not been counted, particularly in the countryside.”
On top of this, Haitians endured an election on 28 November so corrupt that most of the candidates called for it to be annulled. “The absurdity of these sham elections is beyond scandalous,” says Peter.
The most popular party, the left wing Fanmi Lavalas, was barred altogether. Lavalas has won every election it has stood in.
“I think the overwhelming purpose, this time, was finally to destroy the main problem that the great powers have had with Haiti—the resilience of its grassroots political movement, and the party most closely associated with it, Fanmi Lavalas,” says Peter.
Defenders of the election say Haitians had a choice of 19 people for the presidency. But it wasn’t a real choice—the only candidates were those accepted by France and the US.
The call by the exiled popular leader of Lavalas, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for people to boycott the election struck a chord. The turn-out of just 23 percent is dramatically low by Haitian standards.
Many voting centres shut early, citing “unrest”. Others never opened. Some Haitians found that they couldn’t vote because their name wasn’t on the list.
Despite all this, there will now be a run-off between the top two (or perhaps three) candidates. “The top three are just figures of the status quo,” says Peter. “Mirlande Manigat represents the old Duvalierists—the old pre-Aristide order and the army upon which it was based.
“Michel Martelly represents much the same people, with more of a populist touch. But it’s clear that he was tight with the Duvalier people and he supported the disastrous coups against Aristide.
“And Jude Celestin is an extension of [current president] René Préval. He’s a functionary who has no distinctive political agenda, and no obvious credentials to stand as leader of the Haitian people.”
But those with vested interests in Haiti have other motives for pushing the elections. “The run-off will give the international community the opportunity to say that Haiti has a so-called democratically elected leader,” says Peter.
“They want to move on to conducting the real business at hand, which is doling out money to businesses for reconstruction. Big international investors like AshBritt, Halliburton and the others who want to cash in have been waiting to see how best to avoid being saddled with some of the more unprofitable work.
“But it’s also because those in power want to be able to counter accusations that the international community is imposing its own reconstruction agenda—and for that, they need a willing partner in Haiti.
“They need a Haitian ’yes man‘. Préval’s gone a long way down that road, but arguably not far enough as far as his international minders are concerned. He’s mainly done what he’s told—accepted a subservient role in the reconstruction effort, privatised the phone company, sidelined and divided Fanmi Lavalas and limited wage increases to a woeful $3 a day.
“But he was once a Lavalas activist himself, and he still occasionally asks awkward questions. I think they need a figleaf to try and show there aren’t political problems, which scare away investors.”
UN troops occupy Haiti. Their role is described as “stabilising”—but what this really means is using brutal repression to keep popular movements in check and US-approved leaders in government.
“The UN continues to play the same role it has played for the last six years, which is keeping a lid on social discontent by military-style policing,” says Peter. “It has invested virtually all its money—more than $600 million a year—in an extremely well-armed, expensive occupation force.
“One report last spring showed that the UN didn’t pull anyone out of the rubble in the first three days of the earthquake.
“It’s incredible. They had 8,000 young, well-trained men, and couldn’t rescue a single person.
“It is beyond shocking that this foreign occupation is being presented as a positive ‘peace-keeping’ mission. Its only function has been to impose an unpopular coup on a very resentful population and to prevent them from taking significant political steps to counter or reverse it.”
Peter Hallward is author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk