Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Limited Compassion for Haiti

By Justin Podur - January 25th, 2010

Everyone agrees that the Haiti earthquake is a serious situation. Serious enough for the US to send thousands of Marines, to take over the airport, to suspend Haiti's sovereignty and take over the operation. Serious enough to unify the bitter partisan divide and put Bush, Clinton, and Obama together to raise funds. Serious enough for benefit concerts and the invention of new forms of philanthropy, where people can donate through their cell phones. But the Haiti earthquake is apparently not all that serious:
1. It's not serious enough to give undocumented Haitians a full amnesty. Yes, it was serious enough to give them Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which they'd been asking for for years, so that they can send back money legally and so they're not in danger of being deported back to their re-devastated country. But they still have to pay $470 dollars for registering (every dollar of which could have gone to Haiti – which adds up to millions of dollars if more than a few thousand register and pay the fee), and after their 18 month grace period ends they will be in the system and easier to deport than they were before registering.
2. It's not serious enough for public money. 200,000 people dead and millions homeless is a tragedy, but one approximately 30,000 times less serious than the Iraq war ($100 million for earthquake relief, $3 trillion for the Iraq war) and 40,000 less serious than the $4 trillion bank bailout. For those crises, the treasury magically opens, the money magically appears in the accounts, the public debt grows, and the taxpayers can pay later. For an earthquake or a tsunami, we rely on people's generosity, and put together star teams to beg for money on behalf of the victims.
3. It's not serious enough to let Aristide return. In times like these, playing politics is frowned upon, right? But playing politics to prevent a popular leader from returning to his own country after being forced into exile isn't. Aristide's kidnapping and the 2004 coup was a special humiliation inflicted on Haiti, his continuing exile a continued insult. This earthquake is not serious enough to stop that insult.
4. It's not serious enough to pay Haiti back the $22 billion it's been owed by France since the money was extorted by a blockade. The story is old and much repeated but deserves to be repeated again. When Haiti became independent in 1804 through a revolt of the slaves, France used a naval blockade to force the new country to pay its colonial master compensation for the property the Haitians "stole" - the property being the value of the slaves themselves. The indemnity, 150 million francs at the time, stopped the country from being able to rebuild after the devastation of the war of independence. When the international community was starving Haiti to death from 2001-2003, Aristide began a campaign to say – okay, if aid is blocked and loans are blocked, forget those, just give us our money back. 150 million francs in 1804 makes about $22 billion today. At that point, the machinations to overthrow Aristide began in earnest.
Before too long, as the security and looting stories rise in prominence, opinion pieces will appear about the ingratitude of Haitians. As donations level off, analyses will discuss compassion fatigue. These would be better informed by being a little less oblivious to the limits of governmental compassion for Haiti.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He visited Haiti in 2005. This essay was first published on his blog

Stand With Haiti

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti Smashed, Diaspora Shaken, Deportations Frozen

By Michelle Chen - January 13th, 2010
The devastation in Haiti is unrelenting, an avalanche of natural catastrophe exacerbated by man-made injustice. Perhaps 100,000 feared dead, homes shattered, people digging neighbors out of rubble without safe food, water or electricity. It’s hard to fathom just how much tragedy one tiny island country can bear, and Haiti seems to be testing the limits of a people’s resilience in the face of crisis.
Today, as the Obama administration mobilized aid resources, it also backed away from earlier plans to deport about 30,000 Haitian immigrants living in the United States, announcing that deportations would be suspended indefinitely. Anything less would be unconscionable, yet there has been no decisive action, on granting lasting immigration relief through Temporary Protected Status.
Meanwhile, anxiety and action are percolating in the Haitian diaspora. Haitian immigrants and others in the Bronx and Brooklyn are rallying to deliver relief and offer mutual support as they try to reach loved ones. The communications breakdown has sundered the ties that have served as a lifeline, economically and culturally, for a vast, vibrant Haitian transnational community. Remittances, according to World Bank data, amount to roughly one fifth of the country’s GDP—and a far greater value than paltry official development assistance or foreign direct investment, despite a legacy of U.S. intervention and a neoliberal assault via global financial institutions.
Edwidge Danticat, an acclaimed author who came to New York as a child (and whose uncle died in immigration detention--a sad story in itself), reflected on Democracy Now! on the historical trajectory of Haiti's suffering:
Indeed, the first black republic in this hemisphere, one of the first two republics in this hemisphere. But soon after independence, was not recognized by its neighbors, which it nevertheless helped gain, in some cases, their independence in Latin America and helped the US fight here in Savannah, Georgia. And then a series of debt, because it had to pay to France a large amount of money for its independence. And then two US invasion occupations and a series of dictatorships. It’s been—you know, before and in the midst of this, you know, deforestation sponsored by outside interests, and just a series of a very painful history. But—and add to that all the other natural disasters—four storms last year, the tropical storm Jeanne a couple of years ago, which covered the town of Gonaives. But nothing, I think, like today. ... You know, I can see parts of my old neighborhood, you know, through this very large veil of fire. So it’s really—it’s totally unimaginable. It seems like the abyss of a very long and painful history of natural and political disasters.
The promises of the Obama administration so far sound like an earnest attempt to aid Haiti. But the information blackout surrounding the country, the rush to deliver assistance though massive military-based institutions, and the history of Haiti's political power struggles under foreign intervention--should give activists pause (especially with a certain maligned former president emerging at the helm of the humanitarian effort). It's crucial to remember that in the wake of disasters, there is a razor-thin line between rescue and invasion.
Also on Democracy Now!, activist Kim Ives warned that the international aid complex could be co-opted as a vehicle for even deeper, more disruptive intervention in Haiti's fragile political and economic infrastructure. He noted that due to neoliberal debt policies, "foreign aid has essentially destroyed Haitian food self-sufficiency" in recent years by ruining rice agriculture. Haiti's extreme vulnerability today could inaugurate a new era of U.S. military domination, Ives said:
[A]id has historically in Haiti been extremely pernicious. It has destroyed Haitian agriculture. It’s been a real counter to development in the country, development aid. And even humanitarian aid has been often wasted. For instance, during—after the storms of 2008, $197 million was freed from the Petrocaribe accounts, which Venezuela provided Haiti. A lot of questions remain about how that money, that $197 million, was spent. A lot of it seems to have been frittered away into corruption and various other types of embezzlement. So, yes, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of corruption and charlatans flocking to Haiti like flies. And it’s important to find good relief agencies. One is the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, HERF, that people can go to the site of and find out more about that. And that is a place people can donate. But, yes, we can expect terrible things to be happening in the aid front in the coming weeks.
This is the untenable choice Haiti may be faced with now: death or subjugation to a foreign power hostile to democracy on the island. Outside of the country, the Haitian community and their supporters do have choices. As the floodgates open to geopolitical opportunism, activists can step up their vigilance to ensure that politicians' supposedly good intentions aren't exploited to further dispossess the Global South.
The phenomenon of Haitian immigration itself encapsulates the crisis that the earthquake exploded: they're refugees of economic, social and environmental upheaval. Buried under the weight of neocolonialism, the Haitian people may survive the earthquake, but they will still need a global movement to rebuild their future.
This essay was originally published on RaceWire.