In the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated the slum-cities of Haiti, there has been a strong influx of foreign money and troops, apparently to help rebuild the poverty-stricken country. However, we should note that many of the countries that have been to the fore in expressing their altruistic intentions are those which are most implicit in the country’s tragic historical narrative of poverty, intervention and repression. In particular, we should place US involvement in the context not only of this country’s imperialist past and present in Haiti, but also in its strategic use of humanitarian aid to further its geopolitical agenda.
US humanitarian relief policy was pursued by President Ronald Reagan as a method of gaining foreign leverage, an alternative to the military incursions that had become increasingly unattractive to the American public. As argued by Yale research fellow Alexander Poster:
“Beginning in 1984 with the Ethiopian famine, the Reagan administration made a major financial commitment to disaster relief, investing over $500 million as part of a plan that would both feed starving children and weaken Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam’s socialist regime.”
This involved $500 million being distributed to various aid agencies, such as the Red Cross, and enabled Reagan officials to exert a degree of power over Ethiopian policy, including preventing further collectivisation of agriculture. In 1986, El Salvador received $300 million following an earthquake, propping up the regime of Jose Napoleon Duarte, a key Latin American anti-Communist ally, and ultimately opening up the country to free trade and US investment, as well as granting lucrative reconstruction contracts to US companies.
This point has also been emphasised by Naomi Klein, who points out that crisis has been used to push through projects that would otherwise provoke more resistance. The desperation of local governments, added to the clearing away of existing institutional arrangements creates a tabula rasa, opening the space for new policies to be pursued by whichever powerbroker is quickest and strongest on the scene. Reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina led to a sharp drop in public housing and the ‘Disneyfication’ of New Orleans. If this is the attitude towards American citizens, then there is little reason to believe that intervention in Haiti will display more concern for the poor and disempowered.
Reconstruction support has a long heritage in American policy, with the post-war Marshall Plan being perhaps the most important in scale and ambition. This plan for European reconstruction, according to Assistant Secretary of War Peterson, was specifically adopted as part of a strategy of “strengthening the economic and social dikes against Soviet communism” as US policy-makers were concerned that economic breakdown would propel Soviet-aligned parties to power in the European states. Aid for reconstruction was tied to economic and military allegiance with America, via the adoption of trade liberalization policies and membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and covert operations supported the federalist agenda through the American Committee on a United Europe.
The Wider Context
Haitians, as much as anyone else in the world, know that for American policy-makers, crisis is merely another opportunity for the powerful to pursue their own agenda. Haiti’s history is a tragic narrative of imperial intervention, from support of the murderous Duvalier regime, the two coups against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or the UN occupation that props up the murders of democracy activists by police and gangs (paid by the richest Haitians). So we must be sceptical about ostensible good intentions in the aftermath of the earthquake, especially given shifts in US Latin American policy under Obama.
In the run-up to the election Obama had signalled his intent to shift policy in the region, saying that,
“We’ve been diverted from Latin America… It is no surprise, then, that you’ve seen people like Hugo Chavez and countries like China move into the void, because we’ve been neglectful of that.“
These issues, the decline of US influence and the concomitant emergence of both opposing regional powers and rival imperial power play in Latin America constitute a major challenge to American policy and Obama has promised to isolate the Chavez regime, under the usual accusations of support for FARC. In this, US allies will play a major role, as seen in the continuing support for the nigh-totalitarian regime of Uribe in Colombia , or the coup-installed government in Honduras.
Indeed, the president of the UN General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto, had stated of the Honduran coup that:
“Many are wondering whether this attempted coup is part of the new policy [of the U.S. towards Latin America] since it is known that the Honduran army has a history of total submissiveness to the United States.”
The coup certainly meets the objectives of both US regional policy and the Honduran oligarchy, which had been threatened by attempts at constitutional reform and by the country’s movement into the orbit of ALBA. The recent alliance between Colombia & Honduras has certainly indicated a shift in the regional power balance.
A further signal of regional intent can be seen in the re-establishment of the IV Fleet in the last days of the Bush administration. This fleet will be responsible for naval operations in the Southern Command, which encompasses the Caribbean, Central and South America and surrounding waters, with a stated mission of counter-trafficking, humanitarian operations and training with regional partners. As we have seen, all these terms can have several meanings, and those nations which have strayed from the Washington Consensus reacted strongly against this action, considering it a significant threat to their sovereignty. Added to the recent increase in US military bases in Colombia, such fears do not seem to be without foundation.
Haiti is a country that is difficult to even call sovereign. The democratic mandate for Aristide has been treated with contempt by both the country’s wealthy elite and the international community, with two coups against his presidency and the continued persecution of his base of popular support and political party, the Fanmi Lavalas. This latter has included targeted extra-judicial murders by police, paramilitaries and elite-supported gangs, with the UN MINUSTAH mission failing to prevent or investigate such abuses despite substantial documentation. The Rene Preval government has overseen the acquittal of human rights violators such as Louis-Jodel Chamblain, who had helped lead the 2004 coup against Aristide and had previously been convicted in absentiae for crimes that included, as Amnesty International stated, overseeing the “1993 murder of pro-Aristide businessman and human rights activist Antoine Izméry…his role in the 1994 Raboteau massacre,” and who “has been implicated in other human rights crimes.’
Contempt has also been clear in the attitude of much US media’s response to the catastrophe, with Time magazine referring to indeterminate ‘human rats’, and armed gangs that will apparently threaten aid efforts. People actually involved in aid efforts have consistently rubbished the claims, but such fears, coupled with restricting security policies have hampered effective aid distribution, especially by limiting co-ordination between foreign aid workers and indigenous organisations.
What we are seeing in Haiti seems to be the latest in a long series of foreign interventions to protect private gain and pursue geopolitical agendas. As the period prior to the earthquake has shown, and as the immense poverty that is at the root of the catastrophic death toll and the reconstruction will undoubtedly show, neither the tiny Haitian economic elite nor the multitude of foreign powers is likely to be overly concerned for the suffering caused by their efforts in advancing these interests.
If we are concerned about this suffering, then we will need to both monitor the work done on our behalf by any NGOs that we fund, and ensure that Haitian grassroots organisations receive our support and solidarity. We should help such organisations in advancing their projects for reconstructing Haiti into a country with a more equitable economic and political power balance.
Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.
 See ‘Obama follows Reagan-era blueprint after earthquake in Haiti‘
 cited in pp28, Leffler, M. & D. Painter, Origins of the Cold War: An International History, (Routledge, 2005)
 See Merlyn Leffler, ‘The American Conception of National Security and the Beginnings of the Cold War 1945-48’ in The American Historical Review, Vol 89, No. 2 (April 1984) pp346-381
 The ACUE funded both the European Movement and the European Youth See A. Evans- Pritchard ‘Euro-federalists financed by US spy chiefs’ in The Daily Telegraph 19 September 2000.
 Two key studies, by the Miami School of Law and the Harvard School of Law Human Rights Advocates catalogue these abuses in detail. See, respectively, http://www.law.miami.edu/cshr/CSHR_Report_02082005_v2.pdf and http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/hrp/documents/haitireport.pdf