The nightmare just doesn’t stop. On Wednesday, two new aftershocks struck Haiti, whose cities and towns were destroyed by a major earthquake last week. In spite of outside aid and the efforts of its own intrepid citizens, Haiti is very far from seeing an end to its tribulation.

The Haitian government says it has already counted 72,000 dead, with more than 200,000 a possible total fatality count in a country of 9 million people. Compare this to the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, where 125,000 died in a country of 230 million: One Haitian out of every 45 may have died, compared to one person in 1,840 in Indonesia. And there is now danger that many, many people not killed outright in the quake will die of disease, hunger and exposure.

There is both cooperation and conflict in the rescue effort. Many nations have been sending in supplies and rescue teams, including Cuba, Spain, South Africa, Venezuela, Brazil, France, Mexico and the United States to name just a few. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked the Cuban government for allowing U.S. aircraft to pass through Cuba’s airspace en route to Haiti, and former Cuban president Fidel Castro suggested that even two countries that have butted heads as often as Cuba and the USA can cooperate in such humanitarian crises. But there is a question about whether, for example, any U.S. materials and supplies could be channeled to the more than 400 Cuban medical personnel working in Haiti (with more on the way) because of the U.S. blockade against Cuba.

Some within Haiti and regionally worry about the military slant of the U.S. effort. While the overwhelmed Haitian government of President Rene Preval has welcomed the U.S. action, and there is broad recognition that the U.S. military is uniquely able to provide certain kinds of large-scale help (helicopters, field hospitals, earth moving equipment), others wonder why so many “boots on the ground”, in fact over 10,000 in addition to thousands more United Nations peacekeeping forces, are needed. Leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela worry aloud about this. Spanish news media have complained that the U.S. military has expelled them from the airport, and several countries, plus the medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders, have complained that the U.S. military authorities that are now running the airport are delaying efforts to send in supplies and rescue personnel by air, while the distribution of food, water and medical materials seems to be very slow.

The troops are said to be needed to provide security for aid teams and for the Haitian people. Some violent incidents, resulting either from the desperation of starving people or from the activities of criminals escaped from collapsed prisons, have been reported but these incidents have been few, and some such reports may just be rumors. Cuban and other medical and rescue personnel have continued to work without being molested and without any armed protection.

Haiti is a nation of descendents of slaves who fought to the death for their freedom. The last time the Marines were there, from 1915 to 1934, they were sent to control “disturbances” and ended up implementing forced labor with brutal racist violence. The U.S. occupation authorities showed their “spirit of international cooperation” by helping to collect the blood money that France had demanded Haiti pay as punishment for defeating the French military in 1804. More recently, in 2004 U.S. troops spirited the legally elected president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, out of the country against his will.

To some in the United States, the tradition of asking former presidents to be symbolic heads of relief efforts may seem inoffensive. But seing President Obama flanked by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, announcing on television that these two gentlemen would be heading up the Haiti relief effort, may have seemed ominous to many Haitians. Can we expect Haitians to forget that Bush ordered the deposing and kidnapping of Aristide in 2004, and that Clinton helped to restore him in 1994 but in exchange forced Haiti to accept some of the neoliberal policies of “free” trade, privatization etc. that have enriched foreign investors but left Haiti an economic wreck?

On Friday, the Obama administration finally granted Temporary Protected Status to undocumented Haitian immigrants in the United States, which will allow them to stay and work for 18 months. But the government hastened to say that new Haitian immigrants without papers will immediately be returned to their destroyed country. There will be a speedup in processing the movement of Haitian orphans to prospective adoptive parents in the U.S. but it is clear that there is no possibility that the U.S. will take substantial numbers of Haitian refugees. And in Haiti, the government of President Preval sent out the message that nobody should take to boats to try to get to U.S. shores, because they will be stopped and returned to Haiti if they do. The large presence of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships off Haiti’s coasts gives backing to this warning.

Yet the small African nation of Senegal, in solidarity, has invited Haitians to move to its shores and offered them land. The per capita gross domestic product of Senegal is $1,600 in a population of 14 million, while that of the United States is $46,000 in a population of 307 million. Yet the fear of Haitian immigration to the United States has some suggesting that displaced Haitians be sent to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as happened during the administration of George Bush the First.

There are some very positive developments. The AFL-CIO reports on its blog about thousands of unionized U.S. nurses and others who are offering to go to Haiti en masse to help. U.S. unions and other organizations have set up phone-banking all over the country to raise money for Haitian relief. Teams of firefighters and search and rescue personnel have gone to Haiti from cities and villages all over the United States. There is a massive response from the African American and immigrant communities. These efforts should be applauded, expanded and supported by all.

The biggest test of all will be what happens after the rescue operations end and the focus changes to reconstruction. Will Haiti be forced by its extreme need to accept even more aid and trade plans that sacrifice the interests of its people for those of multinational corporations and powerful, developed capitalist states? Will the IMF back off demands, already being advanced before half the bodies have been retrieved from the ruins, that Haiti freeze government employees’ pay in exchange for vitally needed aid?



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.