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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 former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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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 former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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