Jan 19, 2015
January 12th was the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, during which some 300,000 people died and a million and a half were displaced, mostly losing their homes. Today more than 80,000 are still homeless, the country is far from rebuilt, jobs remain scarce, and wages are at poverty level with only an informal economy to keep people alive. Just as before the earthquake, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with schools, hospitals, and justice only for those who can afford to pay.
Buildings, both before and after this earthquake, were built so poorly that they collapsed even in tropical rains, leaving hundreds dead. In 2004, floods killed more than 4,000 Haitians.
An AP journalist named Jonathan Katz wrote of his sorrow, anger and frustration with the so-called reconstruction of Haiti in a book called The Big Truck that Went By. His sub-title is “How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”
The strength of Katz’s book is his pointing out how France and the United States helped create this poor and poorly functioning country.
Sugar from what they called Saint-Dominique in the 18th century was France’s greatest source of profit. The French forcibly took thousands of black people as slaves from Africa to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. A slave uprising beginning in 1801 eventually drove out the French plantation owners, but the Haitians left behind were forced to pay money to the French for a century. They “owed” the planters an indemnity for dispossessing them of their lands. That was one reason for the poverty of a country that produced a commodity very much desired in the rest of the world.
In the 20th century, Haiti was invaded by the U.S. in 1915, followed by 20 years of military occupation and U.S. control of Haitian finances until 1947. “Papa Doc” Duvalier built his regime of terror in the 1950s; his son would also quickly drain the country of every penny while opening industrial zones for foreign manufacturers to hire Haitians at extremely low wages. Until recently, every baseball used in the U.S. major league was sewn in Haiti, at a wage of $1.79 per day. Even in Haiti, that meant greater poverty. Joseph A. Banks had its $500 men’s suits sewn there. Clothing was hardly the only kind of “foreign” capital to exploit Haiti. The second largest cell phone network in Haiti is a U.S. corporation.
Even the overthrow of the Duvaliers – without, of course, the return of all they had stolen – did not lead to any kind of development of infrastructure or permanent jobs at a living wage.
When the earthquake struck, about one third of the Haitian population lived in rickety slums in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The whole world saw the earthquake disaster on the media and millions of people wanted to pledge money. The reality after the cameras left was that 93 cents of every dollar pledged stayed with the donor organizations and the contractors they used from their home countries. Haitian firms got five million dollars in orders out of the eight BILLION dollars pledged.
Most observers, far distant from Haiti, proclaim the problem is corruption. Without question, Haiti functions with bribes to get anything done. It’s just that in the U.S. we call the same thing “lobbying.” In the U.S. millions and even billions of dollars are passed to contractors with the right connections to Congress.
Instead of development, what Haiti got after the earthquake was the re-introduction of cholera, a disease once eradicated there. The source of the infection was UN soldiers stationed there. In 2010, eight months after the earthquake, Haiti lacked medical facilities to treat cholera: almost 5,000 Haitians died.
Katz also points out that, instead of building housing or hospitals or schools, the first projects funded in Haiti after the earthquake were hotels in Port-au-Prince. Haitians certainly could never afford them! Meanwhile at least 100,000 people squatted in the area outside the capital, hoping for housing that never came.
Katz’s book shows underdevelopment in all its hideous colors. All over the world, ordinary diseases, even ordinary storms, kill thousands who would have survived had they lived in rich countries.
What makes the difference is money – most of which has been stripped out of Haiti and every other poor country by the exploiters of the rich countries.