Understanding Haiti

James O'Nions says the tragedy of Haiti doesn't just lie with the recent earthquake

January 24, 2010
4 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.

Like many ‘natural disasters’, the earthquake in Haiti may have had a natural cause but what has made it such a disaster was more political and economic than tectonic. Cheaply constructed buildings, a lack of basic services and infrastructure, and a lack of the resources to deal with the aftermath are all the result of a deep poverty which rich countries bear a huge responsibility for.

Haiti was originally a French slave colony until an inspiring uprising by the slaves themselves kicked out the French and established a free republic in 1804. Yet in 1825, in return for international recognition, Haiti agreed to pay France ‘reparations’ for the loss of the colony and its slaves. This debt, worth $21 billion in today’s money, was not finally paid off until 1947.

Haiti was occupied by the US between the wars, and afterwards suffered decades of dictatorship by the Duvalier family. ‘Papa Doc’ and his son ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier took huge international loans, part of which they stole for themselves, and which they also used to fund their death squads and repressive state. Like many dictatorships during the Cold War, the west supported them for their anti-Communism and turned a blind eye to their abuses.

After popular protest in 1986, democracy was established in Haiti. Yet Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected president on a platform of social justice, was twice removed by foreign-backed coups in 1991 and 2004. The second time he was flown into exile by US troops in what he later described as a ‘kidnapping’. Yet even while in office, Aristide was hamstrung by economic conditions imposed on the country.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as an indebted country, Haiti was forced to impose structural adjustment polices dreamt up by the IMF and World Bank. These included cuts in health and education, privatisation and the reduction of controls on imports. The virtual elimination of the tariff (import tax) on rice in particular allowed subsidised US rice to flood Haiti, pushing Haitian farmers out of business and making Haiti dependent on rice imports when it had previously been self sufficient. Many of those who died in the flimsy buildings of the Cite Soleil slum around Port-au-Prince were former rice-farming families.

In the wake of the earthquake, many campaigning organisations called for Haiti’s remaining debts to be cancelled. The popular response was so overwhelming that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had announced a new $100 million loan under a facility that demanded more neoliberal economic conditions, appears to have agreed to turn that loan into a grant. IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said, ‘the IMF is now working with all donors to try to delete all the Haitian debt, including our new loan. If we succeed … even this loan will turn out to be finally a grant’. Some IMF board members aren’t entirely happy with this, but you can keep the pressure on by taking action on the Jubilee Debt Campaign website.

Meanwhile, press reports of an imminent violent breakdown of society, rubbished by Andy Kershaw in The Independent, appear to be helping justify a vast US troop presence. This is particularly worrying if we consider the recent history of the ‘shock doctrine’ policy exposed by Naomi Klein in her recent book – imposing an extreme free market in the wake of a disaster or upheaval when the population is unable to oppose it.

The donations that have poured into relief organisations since the earthquake have also been matched by political support, not just in demanding debt cancellation, but through a wider political lens such as that offered by the \’No shock doctrine for Haiti\’ facebook group, which now has over 22,000 members.

Despite the fact that 80 per cent of Haitians lived below the poverty line even before the earthquake, or perhaps because of it, Haiti doesn’t lack an organised civil society – from small-scale farmers’ organisations to neighbourhood committees. We should be ready to stand with them to demand a reconstruction effort that meets the needs of ordinary people, not those of neoliberal dogma.


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out


1