disaster relief american style send in the marines

In the wake of the disastrous earthquake that struck Haiti last week, people all over the world are offering what help they can. Private donors, NGOs, and governments are all demonstrating that great emergencies bring great humanitarian efforts.

In the wake of the disastrous earthquake that struck Haiti last week, people all over the world are offering what help they can. Private donors, NGOs, and governments are all demonstrating that great emergencies bring great humanitarian efforts. Sadly, they also bring political opportunists, whose actions may result in a second disaster piled on top of the first.

One of the first players on the stage is often the International Monetary Fund. In the wake of the Haitian disaster, the IMF offered to extend that impoverished country another $100 million of completely insupportable debt. In return for this generosity, Haiti was to impose a wage freeze and raise electrical rates.

Next up was the US government who, after dithering for days, sent in the marines. Twenty thousand American troops are in Haiti or on their way there, under the pretext of ‘providing security’ in the face of ‘widespread looting.’ The marines have taken over the Port-au-Prince airport, diverting or delaying planes carrying food, aid workers, medical supplies and doctors to make way for military craft.

Ever faithful, Canada sent 2,000 troops to help out. But just how widespread is the security problem? Do reports of scattered looting and rioting justify displacing trained aid workers and doctors with armed soldiers, whose training is in warfare and occupation?

Alain Joyandet, the French minister in charge of relief, has called the American intervention an ‘occupation,’ complaining that US evacuations were being given top priority over all other flights. According to the Independent, Joyandet was “involved in a scuffle” with a US commander in the airport’s control tower over the flight plan for a French evacuation flight.

Doctors without Borders has complained military supplies are given priority over medicine. A week after the earthquake, marines guard the presidential palace, but the Port-au-Prince hospital has no supplies, and very few injured Haitians have access to transportation to hospitals, or to on-the-spot medical aid.

Let’s be clear about the Haitian debt. Haiti owes the world not one red cent. Since the day the black slaves there rebelled and threw out the French the country has been the victim of racist exploitive policies. French gunboats squeezed ‘reparations’ out of the infant nation to repay businessmen for their lost property – that property being the Haitian people. One of the crimes for which President Jean Bertrand Aristide was deposed by a US backed coup was that he had called for France to return that money in 2004 dollars – several billion of them.

The devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti was largely a result of US policy. In order to urbanize the population, to make it more available to the sweatshop economy, the Clinton administration dumped cheap subsidized American rice on the market and drove the Haitian farmers into slums and shanty towns, where they perished by the thousands under the rubble of substandard buildings.

I, for one, prefer not to believe that even the US military is so cynical it deliberately delayed food, water and medical supplies from reaching the Haitian people to create riots and justify the occupation. But if that had been their aim, they couldn’t have gone about things any better than they did.

While the Americans were still dithering about how to assist Haiti, the UN was warning that three million starving people might well start to riot. People were scavenging for food in ruined stores, and the press dutifully described this as ‘looting’. But who among us would not do the same? If you’re the parent of starving children, what’s more criminal, to break into a store, or to let them starve?

Of course the troops will do good deeds. They will deliver whatever food, water and medical supplies they can, they will offer first aid and eventually they will begin to transport people to hospitals. The question is not whether they will help, but whether they could have helped more by staying out of the way while qualified rescue and aid workers did their jobs.

As for the IMF, after much public outcry, they backed off and agreed to give Haiti a grant instead of extending their loan. This is good news, but the question cries out to be asked, in the face of such terrible devastation, why did it take a public outcry to make them do what was obviously right?

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.