Securing disaster: The US repeats past mistakes in Haiti

The big idea The American-led mission in Port-au-Prince, Peter Hallward writes, has put military stability before humanitarian needs in a painful echo of Haiti's past.

"Most Haitians have seen little humanitarian aid so far," reported an Al Jazeera correspondent. "What they have seen is guns."
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The American-led mission in Port-au-Prince, Peter Hallward writes, has put military stability before humanitarian needs in a painful echo of Haiti's past. One week after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, it's now clear that the initial phase of the US-led relief operation has conformed to the three fundamental tendencies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history. It has adopted military priorities and strategies. It has sidelined Haiti's government and ignored the needs of the majority of its people. And it has proceeded in ways that reinforce the already harrowing gap between rich and poor. These three tendencies aren't just connected, they are mutually reinforcing - and they look likely to continue to govern the imminent reconstruction effort unless determined political action is taken to avoid them.

Haiti is the only country where slaves won their own independence, in a war that left a third of the population dead and the economy in ruins. Today it is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also one of the most polarised and unequal - in terms of wealth as well as access to political power. A small clique of rich and well-connected families continues to dominate the country and its economy, while the vast majority of the population live on less than $2 a day.

Mass destitution has grown far more severe in recent decades. Large numbers of small farmers have been driven from their land into densely crowded urban slums, thanks in large part to internationally imposed "fiscal austerity" measures; a small minority of these internal refugees are then lucky enough to find sweatshop jobs that pay the lowest wages in the region. Haiti's tiny elite has guarded its privileges for decades with frequent recourse to violence; for much of the last century, the country's military and paramilitary forces have acted principally against the country's own citizens. When a massive popular mobilisation culminated in the landslide election of the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990, the army countered the threat in the time-honoured way, with a coup d'état. Over the next three years, the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries killed around 4,000 Aristide supporters.

When Aristide returned to power in 1994, he took a decisive and unprecedented step: he abolished the army that had deposed him, in what one human rights lawyer called "the greatest human rights development in Haiti since emancipation." More than anything else, what has happened in Haiti since 1990 should be understood as the progressive clarification of this basic dichotomy - democracy or the army. Unadulterated democracy might one day allow the interests of the numerical majority to prevail, and thereby challenge the privileges of the elite. After Aristide won a second election in 2000, with his party taking 90 per cent of parliamentary seats, there was no army to depose him.

Instead, the strategy of the Haiti's little ruling class has been to redefine political questions in terms of "stability" and "security", and in particular the security of property and investments. Mere numbers may well win an election, but as everyone knows, only an army is equipped to deal with insecurity. The well-armed "friend of Haiti" that is the United States knows this better than anyone else.

After his re-election, Aristide's opponents sought international support for the destabilisation of his government, setting the stage for paramilitary insurrection and a further coup d'état, and in 2004, thousands of US troops again invaded Haiti (as they first did back in 1915) in order to "restore stability". An expensive and long-term UN "stabilisation mission" staffed by 9,000 heavily armed troops soon took over the job of helping to pacify the population; by the end of 2006, thousands more Aristide supporters had been killed.

A suitably stabilised Haitian government, over the course of 2009, agreed to persevere with the privatisation of the country's remaining public assets, veto a proposal to increase minimum wages to $5 a day, and to bar Aristide's political party (and several others) from participating in the next round of legislative elections. When it comes to providing stability, today's UN troops are clearly a big improvement over the old indigenous alternative. If things get so unstable that even the ground begins to shake, however, there's still nothing that can beat the world's leading provider of peace and security.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, it seemed hard to counter arguments in favour of allowing the US military, with its "unrivalled logistical capability", to take effective control of such a massive and complex relief operation. But in the wake of disaster, the imperatives of stability again won out. Military flights have taken priority over humanitarian shipments, while US commanders have trumpeted fears of popular unrest as their chief concern, despite widespread reports of patience and solidarity on the streets.

As many observers predicted, however, the determination of US commanders to forestall this risk by privileging guns and soldiers over doctors and food has only succeeded in helping to provoke some occasional bursts of the very unrest they set out to contain. In order to amass a sufficiently large amount of soldiers and military equipment "on the ground", they diverted plane after plane packed with emergency supplies. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) alone has so far had to watch at least five planeloads of medical supplies be turned back.

While US commanders set about assembling a force of some 10,000 Marines, residents in some less secure parts of Port-au-Prince soon started to run out of food and water. A full five days after the quake, the impoverished Port-au-Prince suburb closest to its epicentre, the town of Carrefour, hadn't received any food, aid or medical help. "In virtually every area I've driven to," observed the BBC's Mark Doyle on day six, "ordinary people say that I was the first foreigner that they'd met." Al Jazeera's correspondent summarised what other journalists had been saying all week: "Most Haitians have seen little humanitarian aid so far. What they have seen is guns, and lots of them."

The US decision to privilege military over humanitarian traffic at the airport sealed the fate of many hundreds if not thousands of people abandoned in the rubble of lower Port-au-Prince and Léogane. USAID announced on January 19 that international search and rescue teams, over the course of the first full week after the disaster, had managed to save a grand total of 70 people. Much of the international aid work, in fact, was confined to places - the UN's hotel Christophe, the Montana Hotel, the Caribe supermarket - that were not only frequented by foreigners but that could be snugly enclosed within "secure perimeters".

In their occasional forays outside such secure perimeters, meanwhile, many Western journalists seemed able to find plenty of reasons for retreating behind them. Lurid stories of looting and gangs soon began to lend 'security experts' like the London-based Stuart Page an aura of apparent authority, when he explained to a gullible BBC "security correspondent" that "all the security gains made in Haiti in the last few years could now be reversed [...]. The criminal gangs, totalling some 3,000, are going to exploit the current humanitarian crisis, to the maximum degree."

Reporters able to tell the difference between occasional and highly localised bursts of foraging and a full-scale "descent into anarchy" contradicted this suggestion all week, as did dozens of indignant Haitian correspondents. Haiti's Ciné Institute director, David Belle, for instance, insisted on 17 January that "nothing could be further from the truth [than] media stories of looting, violence and chaos [...]. The dignity and decency of the survivors in the face of this tragedy is itself staggering."

As anyone can see, however, dignity and decency are no substitute for security. Within hours of the earthquake most of the panicked staff in the US embassy had already been evacuated, and some foreign contractors in the garment sector (such as the Canadian firm Gildan Activewear) announced that they would be shifting production to alternative sewing facilities in neighbouring countries. Up in the higher, wealthier and mostly undamaged parts of Pétionville, a Washington Post reporter observed, local residents already knew that their government and business connections will allow them once again to pocket the lion's share of international aid and reconstruction money.

This is the fourth time that US troops have landed in Haiti since 1915. Although each invasion has taken a different form and responded to a different pretext, all four have been expressly designed to restore 'stability' and 'security' to the island. Earthquake-prone Haiti must now be the most thoroughly stabilised country in the world. Thousands of additional foreign security personnel are already on their way, to guard the teams of foreign reconstruction and privatisation consultants who in the coming months are likely to usurp what remains of Haitian sovereignty.

Perhaps some of these guards and consultants will help their elite clients achieve another long-cherished dream: the restoration of Haiti's own little army. And perhaps then, for a short while at least, the inexhaustible source of 'instability' in Haiti - the ever-nagging threat of popular political participation and empowerment - may be securely buried in the rubble of its history. Peter Hallward is the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment.