Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fwd: What You're Not Hearing about Haiti (But Should Be)

What You're Not Hearing about Haiti (But Should Be)
by Carl Lindskoog    Published on Thursday, January 14, 2010 by

In the hours following Haiti's devastating earthquake, CNN, the New York Times
and other major news sources adopted a common interpretation for the severe
destruction: the 7.0 earthquake was so devastating because it struck an urban
area that was extremely over-populated and extremely poor.  Houses "built on
top of each other" and constructed by the poor people themselves made for a
fragile city.  And the country's many years of underdevelopment and political
turmoil made the Haitian government ill-prepared to respond to such a disaster.

True enough.  But that's not the whole story.  What's missing is any
explanation of why there are so many Haitians living in and around
Port-au-Prince and why so many of them are forced to survive on so little.
Indeed, even when an explanation is ventured, it is often outrageously false
such as a former U.S. diplomat's testimony on CNN that Port-au-Prince's
overpopulation was due to the fact that Haitians, like most Third World people,
know nothing of birth control.

It may startle news-hungry Americans to learn that these conditions the
American media correctly attributes to magnifying the impact of this tremendous
disaster were largely the product of American policies and an American-led
development model.

>From 1957-1971 Haitians lived under the dark shadow of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a
brutal dictator who enjoyed U.S. backing because he was seen by Americans as a
reliable anti-Communist. After his death, Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude "Baby
Doc" became President-for-life at the age of 19 and he ruled Haiti until he was
finally overthrown in 1986.  It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Baby Doc and
the United States government and business community worked together to put
Haiti and Haiti's capitol city on track to become what it was on January 12,

After the coronation of Baby Doc, American planners inside and outside the U.S.
government initiated their plan to transform Haiti into the "Taiwan of the
Caribbean."  This small, poor country situated conveniently close to the United
States was instructed to abandon its agricultural past and develop a robust,
export-oriented manufacturing sector.  This, Duvalier and his allies were told,
was the way toward modernization and economic development.
>From the standpoint of the World Bank and the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) Haiti was the perfect candidate for this
neoliberal facelift.  The entrenched poverty of the Haitian masses could be
used to force them into low-paying jobs sewing baseballs and assembling other

But USAID had plans for the countryside too.  Not only were Haiti's cities to
become exporting bases but so was the countryside, with Haitian agriculture
also reshaped along the lines of export-oriented, market-based production.  To
accomplish this USAID, along with urban industrialists and large landholders,
worked to create agro-processing facilities, even while they increased their
practice of dumping surplus agricultural products from the U.S. on the Haitian

This "aid" from the Americans, along with the structural changes in the
countryside predictably forced Haitian peasants who could no longer survive to
migrate to the cities, especially Port-au-Prince where the new manufacturing
jobs were supposed to be.  However, when they got there they found there
weren't nearly enough manufacturing jobs go around.  The city became more and
more crowded.  Slum areas expanded.  And to meet the housing needs of the
displaced peasants, quickly and cheaply constructed housing was put up,
sometimes placing houses right "on top of each other."

Before too long, however, American planners and Haitian elites decided that
perhaps their development model didn't work so well in Haiti and they abandoned
it.  The consequences of these American-led changes remain, however.
When on the afternoon and evening of January 12, 2010 Haiti experienced that
horrible earthquake and round after round of aftershock the destruction was, no
doubt, greatly worsened by the very real over-crowding and poverty of
Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas.  But shocked Americans can do more
than shake their heads and, with pity, make a donation.  They can confront
their own country's responsibility for the conditions in Port-au-Prince that
magnified the earthquake's impact, and they can acknowledge America's role in
keeping Haiti from achieving meaningful development.  To accept the incomplete
story of Haiti offered by CNN and the New York Times is to blame Haitians for
being the victims of a scheme that was not of their own making.  As John Milton
wrote, "they who have put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their

Carl Lindskoog is an New York City-based activist and history completing a
doctoral degree at the City University of New York.  You can contact him at

ianna hawkins owen
african diaspora studies, phd student
university of california, berkeley
& say it loud, make it plain press

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