Haiti is poor for a reason

Look to western intervention to explain the crushing weight of Haitian poverty

As video showing the devastation of Haiti flashed around the world, the media carried heart-rending stories of death and disaster. Dahoud Andre, host of a Haitian radio program in New York, told the story of a woman in Haiti's capital who returned home after the earthquake to find her house flattened.

"Her husband and her two babies were inside," Andre said. "She could hear them from under the rubble, but could do nothing. There is no 911 that you can call. There is no mobilized national guard." Andre might have added that there was also no heavy equipment. People, desperate to save loved ones, dug through rubble with bare hands.

In their round-the-clock reports on Haiti's desperate plight, few mainstream journalists asked why the country was so unprepared for yet another natural disaster. Canada boasts, for example, that Haiti is the second-largest recipient of Canadian aid after Afghanistan. Yet, the country remains as desperately poor and ill-equipped as ever. World Bank figures show that before the quake, less than a third of Haitian households had electricity and only 11 percent had piped water.

After his re-election in 2000, Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide tried to improve living conditions for the poor, only to face opposition from the US, France and Canada. The Bush administration blocked $500 million in international loans to Haiti and funnelled millions to anti-Aristide opposition groups. In 2003, Canada convened a secret meeting near Ottawa where US, French and Canadian diplomats discussed overthrowing Aristide. Meantime, Aristide's government opened health clinics, built schools and doubled the minimum wage to about $1.60 per day to make life easier for the sweatshop workers who churn out cheap clothing for Canadian and American textile companies.

But those measures weren't popular with the rich, Haitian business elites and their international backers. When thugs carrying US-made weapons crossed the border from the Dominican Republic, the US refused to come to Aristide's aid, preferring instead to spirit him out of his country to Africa in February 2004. It was the second time Aristide had been forced into exile. In 1991, after only seven months in office, he fell victim to a military coup backed by the CIA. He was restored to power in 1994 by the Clinton administration on condition that he adopt harsh economic measures favouring big business, not the poor.

Since the 2004 coup, Haiti has suffered devastating hurricanes and floods, but instead of rebuilding the country, foreign aid donors like Canada have focussed on so-called "security." A United Nations military force continues to occupy Haiti, killing pro-Aristide demonstrators and conducting routine beatings. "People are sick and tired of the millions being spent, having guys riding around in giant tanks pointing guns at them," says Haitian journalist Kim Ives.

Sebastian Walker, a journalist with Al Jazeera, told viewers that a week after the earthquake, heavily armed UN troops were racing around the streets of the Haitian capital in armoured personnel carriers. "UN soldiers aren't here to help pull people out of the rubble; they're here, they say, to enforce the law," Walker reported. "Most Haitians here have seen little humanitarian aid so far. What they have seen is guns, and lots of them."

Meanwhile, the US military took control of Haiti's main airport to facilitate the landing of weapons and 11,000 American troops. Aid groups complained that their relief planes were being turned away. Doctors Without Borders, for example, said five aircraft carrying medical supplies were diverted to the Dominican Republic. Journalist Amy Goodman reported that other supplies were stuck at the airport because the US and the UN feared distributing them would be risky even though there were few reports of violence.

To top it all off, Barack Obama put Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in charge of relief efforts, the two politicians who had done their damndest to keep Haiti poor. As the old saying goes, with friends like that, Haitians hardly need enemies.

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