How Western Domination Has Undermined Haiti’s Ability to Recover from Natural Devastation
By KIM IVES & AMY GOODMAN, Democracy Now!
January 21, 2010
AMY GOODMAN: I’m standing here near the airport in Port-au-Prince. I can’t exactly say my feet are firmly planted on the ground, because this morning, just about 6:00, here in Port-au-Prince, we were in our room and just getting ready to leave for this broadcast, and the earth started to tremble. The floor, the walls, you feel the shake. It is that moment of just extreme panic when everyone in the house, everyone, starts running for their lives out of the house, making their way through rooms, jumping over—holding whatever it was you were holding at that moment. Outside, people hold each other, they weep, or they just breathe a sigh of relief. Although, not really, because you never know when the next aftershock will happen.
And while our house still stood, what about others? Sometimes the earthquake, which destroyed so much of Haiti, can leave a house standing, but it only takes a lesser aftershock to take it down. So who got hurt this morning? Who was lost in the rubble? These are the questions we have every day.
And as we walk down the streets of Port-au-Prince, seeing the bodies, the smell, the stench of death everywhere. Yesterday the hospital, across the street, the main pharmacy, where patients, where doctors go to get their drugs, is pancaked, is total rubble. And it was many floors. People were standing by. The way you know perhaps where bodies are buried—a pharmacist, a doctor, a nurse, a patient who had come over, a customer—is you see the flies swarming over areas.
There was a man laying on the street just across from the General Hospital. And then when we looked carefully in the rubble, we could see another’s head, and we could see the fingers that—curling over a board, as if the person was trying to get out. This is the face of Haiti.
But right now we’re joined by Kim Ives. We’ve been traveling together. Kim writes for Haiti Liberté, and he has been working with us through this week. He has been living in Haiti for years, in and out, traveling in and out.
Kim, I can’t say, “Welcome to Democracy Now!” since you’ve been with us all through this trip, but welcome to the broadcast of Democracy Now!
KIM IVES: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about this major catastrophe, this devastation. Now, of course, it’s a natural catastrophe, but can you talk about how this catastrophe fits into Haiti? The level of destruction we’re seeing today is not just about nature.
KIM IVES: No, not at all. In fact, this earthquake was preceded by a political and economic earthquake with an epicenter 2,000 miles north of here, in Washington, DC, over the past twenty-four years.
We can say, first of all, there was the case of the two coups d’états held in the space of thirteen years, in ’91 and 2004, which were backed by the United States. They put in their own client regimes, which the Haitian people chased out of power. But these coups d’états and subsequent occupations, foreign military occupations, in a country whose constitution forbids that, were fundamentally destructive, not just to the national government and its national programs, but also to the local governments or the parliaments, the mayors’ offices and also the local assemblies, which would elect a permanent electoral council. That permanent electoral council has never been made—it’s a provisional—and hence Préval, and just before the earthquake, was running roughshod over popular democracy by putting his own electoral council in place, provisional, and they were bringing him and his party to domination of the political scene.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, when you talk about the two coups, the one in 1991, the one in 2004, both were of them were the—led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
KIM IVES: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: And you talked about US involvement with those.
KIM IVES: Right. And Aristide, in both cases, was taken from Haiti, essentially by US forces, both times. The first time he ended up spending it in Washington, but now he’s presently in South Africa, where he’s been for these past six years.
But along with this political—these political earthquakes carried out by Washington were the economic earthquakes, the US policy that they wanted to see in place, because Aristide’s government had a fundamentally nationalist orientation, which was looking to build the national self-sufficiency of the country, but Washington would have none of it. They wanted the nine principal state publicly owned industries privatized, to be sold to US and foreign investors.
So, about twelve years ago under the first administration of René Préval, they privatized the Minoterie d’Haiti and Ciment d’Haiti, the flour mill, the state flour mill, and the state cement company. Now, for flour, obviously, you have a hungry, needy population. You can imagine if the state had a robust flour mill where it could distribute flour to the people so they could have bread. That was sold to a company of which Henry Kissinger was a board member. And very quickly, that flour mill was closed. Haiti now has no flour mill, not private or public.
AMY GOODMAN: Where does it get its flour? This is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
KIM IVES: It has to import it, and a lot of it is coming from the United States.
The other one is—and even more ironic, Amy—is the cement factory. Here is a country which is mostly made of limestone, geologically, and that is the foundation of cement. It is a country which absolutely should and could have a cement company, and did, but it was again privatized and immediately shut down. And they began using the docks of the cement company for importing cement. So when we drive around this country and we see the thousands of cement buildings which are pancaked or collapsed, this is a country which is going to need millions and millions of tons of cement, and it’s going to have to now import all of that cement, rather than being able to produce it itself. It could be and should be an exporter of cement, not an importer.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kim Ives of Haiti Liberté who also just put out another issue of Haiti Liberté here in the aftermath of the earthquake. You talked about the cement company, the flour company, privatization. You know, one of the most painful problems now, especially for the Haitian diaspora, and for people who have, overall, loved ones here in Haiti, is that they haven’t been able to find out if they’re alive. They haven’t been able to communicate with them.
KIM IVES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And this goes to the telephone company.
KIM IVES: Exactly. Teleco was the crown jewel of the Haitian state industries. During the first coup d’état, from ’91 to ’94, it was in fact the revenues from Teleco that sustained the government-in-exile of President Aristide. And now we see today, one week before this earthquake, the telephone company Teleco was privatized. It was sold to a Vietnamese company, Viettel. And if we had in this country a robust, agile, nimble national telephone company, a lot of the problems of communication could have been avoided. Instead, all the communications today are practically in the hands of the three private cell companies, Digicel, Voila and Haitel.
AMY GOODMAN: But those—some people might say, well, if it was just sold a week before, then the fact that it was weak was due to the previous owner.
KIM IVES: No, it was—that’s precisely the case. It was the Haitian government who was, in fact, with the leadership of René Préval and his prime ministers, who were undermining and sabotaging. We spoke over the years. I remember, thirteen years ago, we were doing a delegation here to talk to the unionists. That’s how long this struggle against privatization has been going. We were speaking to the unionist at the telephone company, at Teleco, a certain Jean Mabou. And Jean Mabou, the union leader, took us to a room where it was filled with new, brand new, modern telecommunications equipments, boards, all sorts of things. He said, “We’ve got these, and they won’t allow us to install them. They are deliberately undermining the state company so they can sell it.” And this is the irony, is that you have the fox guarding the chicken coop. And the people are, in that way, undermined in their ownership of their own state companies.
AMY GOODMAN: Kim, you know, unfortunately, at times like these, in global catastrophes, that’s when the world pays attention, and in this case, it’s attention to Haiti. You started in 1991 with the two coups against Aristide. A very brief thumbnail history of Haiti, going back to 1804, if you will?
KIM IVES: OK, thumbnail—1804, the first and last slave revolution in history, the first black republic in the world, the first independent nation of Latin America, which became the touchstone of all the other revolutions. It wasn’t until sixty years later that it was recognized by the government of Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War.
Then, in 1915, US Marines invaded the country and took control of the bank, took control of the government. They stayed there for nineteen years, ’til 1934. After that, they put in place an outfit called the Garde d’Haiti, the Guard of Haiti, which acted as a proxy force to maintain US interests in Haiti. And then that finally gave birth in 1957 to the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He became president for life, passed on his title of president for life to his son Jean-Claude Duvalier when he died in 1971.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of US in that?
KIM IVES: And the US was essentially supporting those governments all the time, for geopolitical reasons. Haiti was the principal bulwark against the eastward push of, quote-unquote, “Communism” coming from neighboring Cuba. And so, therefore, the Duvalier regimes, hugely unpopular, were propped up, given military support by and economic cooperation from the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: A kleptocracy, the dictators getting richer and the people getting poorer?
KIM IVES: Exactly. And then, in 1986, they started to see that this particular paradigm was creating too many Che Guevaras, too many revolutions in Latin America, and they switched over to these facade elections of putting supposedly democratic leaders in, but they were purchased elections.
Haiti was the first country in Latin America to foil this US-engineered election scenario by electing a poor parish priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to the presidency. And at the time of his inauguration on February 7, 1991, he declared the second independence of Haiti, because Haiti was going to become independent of the imperial domination of the United States and France. And they quickly responded with a coup d’état eight months later. He was sent into exile. And again, the earthquake centered in Washington and Paris of the past twenty-four years began.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have the first coup against Aristide. He’s kept out for three years. The coup happened under George H.W. Bush, but continued through President Clinton. By the way, one of the major platforms of President Aristide when he first came to power was to increase the minimum wage.
The second time he was elected, in 2004, immediately pushed out, taken out by US military and security, this was a story Democracy Now! listeners and viewers might remember well, because I followed a delegation to the Central African Republic, where he and Mildred Aristide were dumped, were essentially being held. And Maxine Waters, Congress member from Los Angeles, Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, I covered them going to the Central African Republic, and they brought back the Aristides to this hemisphere nearby Jamaica. Ultimately they ended up in South Africa, where they are today. They could not come back to this country. Tremendous pressure from the United States, the officials. It was Secretary of State Colin Powell at the time, Condoleezza Rice, saying he was not to return to this hemisphere.
Now, from exile in South Africa, President Aristide held a news conference. He issued a statement saying he wants to return. I’ve put this question to a number of people here in Haiti. In Washington, President Obama immediately appointed President Clinton and President George W. Bush to spearhead the fund-raising effort to help the people of Haiti—three presidents, a united front, saying this is not partisan. And so, here in Haiti, the question of Aristide’s return now. I mean, the US controls the airport. Prime Minister Préval ceded the control of the airport to the United States. But Aristide has asked to return. What about that image of, not to mention the resources of Prime Minister Préval, prime minister—previous prime minister Aristide—both presidents, rather—standing together and saying, this is beyond politics, we have to rebuild our country?
KIM IVES: Well, that’s exactly it. I was standing in front of the General Hospital yesterday after we went through and saw the horrors there, and I was speaking to a crowd of people outside on the corner. And that very question came up. Why can’t President Aristide come back? He wants to. He has said so. The government hasn’t given or renewed his diplomatic passport, which has expired. They haven’t given him a laissez-passer to come to the country. That’s all that’s needed.
If the government of Barack Obama or any other government wanted to really provide support here, even maybe more than all the C-130s we see offloading not just food and medical supplies, but guns, and lots of them, this would be—to send a plane to South Africa and bring Aristide here, it would create such a tremendous groundswell, a counter earthquake, if you will, of popular hope and pride and victory, that it would go a long way to rebuilding the necessary moral balance needed to weather the storm.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kim Ives, I want to thank you very much for being with us and ask one last question, and that’s about popular organizations in this country. Who has the power here? How are people organizing? This whole issue of security that has been raised over and over again to explain why aid hasn’t come from this area—we’re in the area of the airport where there is so much aid that has been stockpiled—and gone out to communities, so why the UN has said, for example, Léogâne, epicenter of the earthquake, that they would only come there after they could guarantee security.
KIM IVES: Like you said, Amy, this is the nub of the question. Security is not the issue. We see throughout Haiti the population themselves organizing themselves into popular committees to clean up, to pull out the bodies from the rubble, to build refugee camps, to set up their security for the refugee camps. This is a population which is self-sufficient, and it has been self-sufficient for all these years.
It’s not now that a bunch of Marines have to come in with big M-16s and start yelling at them. Watching the scene in front of the General Hospital yesterday said it all. Here were people who were going in and out of the hospital bringing food to their loved ones in there or needing to go to the hospital, and there were a bunch of Marine—of US 82nd Airborne soldiers in front yelling in English at this crowd. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were creating more chaos rather than diminishing it. It was a comedy, if it weren’t so tragic.
Here is—they had no business being there. Sure, if there’s some way where you have an army of bandits, which we haven’t seen, on any mass scale going and attacking, maybe you might bring in some guys like that. But right now, people don’t need guns. They need gauze, as I think one doctor put it. And this is the essence of—it’s just the same way they reacted after Katrina. It’s the same way they acted—the victims are what’s scary. They’re the other. They’re black people who, you know, had the only successful slave revolution in history. What could be more threatening?
AMY GOODMAN: And the community organizations in place here?
KIM IVES: Oh, and the community organizations, we saw it the other night up at Matthew 25, where we’re staying, the community. A shipload—a truckload of food came in in the middle of the night unannounced. It could have been a melee. The local popular organization, Pity Drop [phon.], was contacted. They immediately mobilized their members. They came out. They set up a perimeter. They set up a cordon. They lined up about 600 people who were staying on the soccer field behind the house, which is also a hospital, and they distributed the food in an orderly, equitable fashion. They were totally sufficient. They didn’t need Marines. They didn’t need the UN. They didn’t need any of these things, which we’re being told also in the press and by Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers that they need. These are things that people can do for themselves and are doing for themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Kim Ives, thanks very much. Kim Ives writes for Haiti Liberté.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!
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