It has been a month since the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and yet the Radical Activist Network meeting at Conway Hall last night was packed.
It's an indication of the growing interest in Haiti's future - with over 35,000 people signing up to a 'No Shock Doctrine in Haiti' Facebook group - and real concern that in spite of the body blow that neo-liberalism has taken as a result of the world economic crisis, the situation in Haiti is seen as a tempting prospect for proponents of the 'shock doctrine' described in Naomi Klein's book. Already Jim Roberts of the the rightwing Heritage Foundation, in a posting on the US think tank's website that was hurriedly removed after criticism of its callousness, has said:
Speakers last night included Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment, who gave a broad overview of Haiti's history, of the meddling and military intervention by the US and the economic power concentrated in the hands of a few powerful families. He also gave a very different perspective of the slums of Port-au-Prince, described as "the most dangerous place on Earth" by the United Nations and in films like Ghosts of Cité Soleil, arguing that this was a gross misrepresentation that ignores the tremendous solidarity within slum communities.
In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake 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.
These Western perceptions of Haiti have been reinforced by the reporting of the 'security situation' since the earthquake, particularly by the BBC's Matt Frei, who was heavily criticised for the racist undertones of his reports. At that time, most Haitians had seen little humanitarian aid but plenty of armoured personnel carriers cruising the streets and around the US-controlled airport, which more closely resembled the Green Zone in Baghdad than a centre for humanitarian aid. Remarkably it took former president - and former occupier of Haiti - Bill Clinton to pull Frei up on this, saying, on the BBC's News at Ten on January 18:
Nick Dearden, director of Jubilee Debt Campaign, was just as good value as the last time I heard him speak (at Climate Camp in Blackheath last summer). He described how Haiti has been crippled with debt since its independence, from the demands by France for 'compensation' for the value of its slaves (only repaid in the 1940s) to the huge debts run up by the Duvalier dictatorship. The conditions laid down by the IMF for loans to service this debt have included slashing tariffs on rice, allowing the US to dump its subsidised surplus on the country and forcing farmers into the slums of Port-au-Prince, whilst it has also demanded that Haitian governments privatise health, education and public infrastructure and restrict the minimum wage. No wonder it has been so hard to cope with the aftermath of disaster.
Actually when you think about people who have lost everything except what they’re carrying on their backs, who not only haven’t eaten but probably haven’t slept in four days, and when the sun goes down it’s totally dark and they spend all night long tripping over bodies living and dead, well, I think they’ve behaved quite well... They are astonishing people. How can they be so calm in the face of such enormous loss of life and loved ones, and all the physical damage?
Even when Haiti was finally included amongst the countries eligible for debt relief, only loans up until 2004 were included and there were conditions. Before the earthquake, the country was still committing to repaying nearly 10% of its revenue to its creditors, over $500 million in total over the next decade. Now, in order to rebuilt, Haiti needs enormous investment and campaigners have pushed for this to be in the form of grants rather than loans - and to include the unconditional cancellation of all of its debt.
The final speaker was Selma James, the wife and political colleague of the historian CLR James, who is one of those fantastic, old-school, inspirational speakers that we seldom hear anymore. She spoke eloquently about the continued demand by Haitians for the return of Aristide, the need for solidarity rather than charity and was highly critical of the role of the UN occupation force (see the video below for an for example) and of the power of aid agencies in Haiti, an issue taken up by medical journal The Lancet since the earthquake, in which it attacked the way charities and other non-governmental organisations have clamoured for attention.
Overall it was a interesting and informative meeting, although where the campaign goes next was far from clear. Activists are attempting to articulate an alternative narrative about Haiti, but its immediate future is hardly hopeful. Influential US think tanks like the Brookings Institute are already suggesting that the country should become a US protectorate, whilst companies are eyeing up the millions of dollars worth of reconstruction contracts and The Nation has reported that private mercenary companies are bent on 'disaster profiteering'. Once the immediate generosity of donations to provide food and water has passed, the danger remains that Haiti will become a new experiment for nation-building - but once again for the benefit of international capitalism, not the people who have suffered so much already.