My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
Many people have and will continue to spend much time in the coming weeks and months on the Haiti relief effort. Such actions should be applauded. As we try to shape our own response, as students, individuals, activists, and members of various organizations we must realize that the situation requires us, whilst giving generously, to look beyond the direct short term relief effort and understand how this tragedy has been shaped by Haiti’s past. In confronting this, our actions, advocacy and the demands we make can be guided by attempts to bring not only relief but justice.
It is not by chance that Haiti is, by most measures, the poorest country in the Americas. Nor is this poverty irrelevant in understanding the severity of the consequences of the earthquake. Haiti is the child of the worlds first (and only) successful slave revolt. It has paid the price ever since its proclamation of independence on January 1st 1804. Haiti, despite being the only other republic in the Americas, was not recognized by the United States until 1862 shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Throughout the last 200-years Haiti has been plagued by foreign dominance. As early as 1888 the US began supporting military revolts against Haitian governments it deemed uncooperative. In 1915 America invaded and occupied the country until 1934. Subsequently the US has sponsored, supported and sold arms to a series of brutal dictators and was instrumental in the 1991 coup that unseated the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was twice exiled from his country, the second time in 2004 when he was kidnapped from his home by U.S. Marines and CIA operatives.
Such direct interference is only part of the picture. It is debt that has ultimately crippled Haiti. The French forced Haiti to pay reparations for the profits lost to the slave trade – the newly liberated slaves were to pay their former masters 150 million francs for their freedom. In 1900 Haiti was spending about 80 percent of its national budget on repayments leaving very little for its own development. Repayment of a reduced amount (90 million francs) took until 1947. However, during the US occupation Haiti “agreed to” a further loan of $40 million. Subsequently, the most dire of circumstances, has necessitated Haiti taking loans from the IMF, World Bank, and foreign governments and banks. After having had $1.2 billion in debt cancelled it still owes approximately $891 million. Despite being the Mecca of international aid agencies, a 2008 report from the Center for International Policy shows how in 2003, Haiti spent more in servicing its foreign debt than it received in foreign assistance for education, health care and other services. Debt repayments, naturally, cripple the government’s ability to invest in social services, infrastructure and poverty reduction programs.
The conditions attached to these loans, in particular the IMF loans, have been devastating to Haiti’s economy and people. These loans, as is so well documented, have become the preferred tool for imposing neo-liberal economic reforms with the interest of international capital, and not the local population, at heart. The devastating effects can be directly observed in the aftermath of the earthquake. In 1995, for example, the IMF forced Haiti to cut its rice tariffs from 35 to 3 percent. Haiti went from a country able to both feed itself and export to being totally reliant on foreign rice imports, the majority of which comes from the US which subsidizes its own rice industry to the tune of $1 billion per annum. This naturally undermined rural agriculture, created systemic food insecurity and led to huge migration towards the cities that generated a perfect pool of labor for foreign corporations to exploit. The huge shanty towns housing these predominately unemployment urban migrants have been devastated by the earth quake and the death toll continues to climb.
What does this mean for our approach towards this crisis? Firstly, as Noami Klein points out, crises are often used as opportunities to extend foreign dominance. Aid and money is desperately needed and all sorts of conditions can be attached. Literally hours after the disaster the right wing Heritage Foundation observed that: “In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region.” We must ensure that all foreign aid is given as grants and not loans and that the conditions attached do not attempt to impose or control domestic politics or economic policy. The IMF’s extension of a further $100 loan already runs contrary to this. We must fight to have the IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other foreign debtors cancel all of Haiti’s debt. It is inhumane to expect millions in repayments when the social need is so high.
Secondly, we must seek to normalize the status of Haitians living abroad. The granting of temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians living illegally in the US is a step in the right direction. The Haitian Diaspora contributes about a fifth to the Haitian economy and this steady influx of money will be ensured for the long-term recovery of the country.
Thirdly, we must ensure that the money going towards the relief effort in Haiti is actually reaching the Haitian people. The funding for the over 10 000 private organizations supposedly performing humanitarian work in Haiti must not merely pay the salaries of western aid-workers, nor should governments (as they do now – with the US leading the pack) insist that a large percentage of this aid money return to the pockets of the donor country, e.g. US aid agencies importing supplies from the US opposed to buying them locally. We must also ensure that those working in Haiti are doing so according to the internationally accepted humanitarian guidelines and are treating the Haitian people with the dignity they deserve.
Lastly, we need to ensure that foreign troops leave once the relief work is completed. It is understandable that the US is making use of its vast military machine in relief operations but given the context of US-Haiti history and America’s current occupations and military presence around the world, the arrival of these troops could justifiably cause Haitians some unease.
Advocacy on these issues is essential. This is not “exploiting” the misery of the earthquake in order to achieve other ends; it is a call to focus attention on what has shaped the nature of the human toll wrought but this natural disaster. As Richard Kim notes, it is time to move beyond talking about how to “help” Haiti, “to stop having a conversation about charity and start having a conversation about justice–about recovery, responsibility and fairness. What the world should be pondering instead is: What is Haiti owed?”BACK TO TOP