When the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti a little over a week ago, a lot more than buildings and infrastructure collapsed. While the presidential palace crumbled, so did the state infrastructure. In a country as desperately poor as Haiti, and with such revolutionary traditions, first and foremost in importance in this state infrastructure are the forces of repression. These forces – in the form of the police – disappeared entirely from the streets of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. For US capitalism, this was a terrifying situation.
US “Asserting Authority”
The Obama administration had to act fast. In slightly over a week, it is expected that some 10,000 US troops will have arrived there. Airlifted in with them will be their trucks, fuel, rations, water, and arms. As the Wall St. Journal reported (1/15/10), “Hillary Clinton told Fox News that a chief aim of the US effort was to ‘assert authority’ and to ‘reinstate the government’ in Haiti.”
In this, the US regime is in full accord with the advice of the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation, which advised, “We should rapidly deploy sufficient US military and civilian forces to help Haitians restore order in the capital of Port-au-Prince and in surrounding areas.” They cannot say it openly, but what they mean is that the state authority, first and foremost the forces of repression, must be restored immediately.
This takes priority over providing food, water and medical supplies. Doctors Without Borders, for instance, has complained that five of its planes were refused landing permission at Port-au-Prince and had to divert to Santo Domingo. This included a plane with an entire portable hospital. Benoit Leduc of this doctors’ group said that “hundreds of lives” were lost as a result. Mexican authorities have complained that its planes, also carrying medical equipment and food, were refused landing rights. Venezuela and Cuba haven’t even bothered trying to send planes to Port-au-Prince, knowing that the US military would not allow them to land under any circumstances; they just sent their planes to Santo Domingo also.
US Media Distortions
Over the years, the US corporate-controlled mass media has pictured impoverished Haiti as being violent and nearly ungovernable. They have built up this racist image in order to obscure the extreme measures that imperialism took to repress the self-liberated former slaves of Haiti. These steps included the extortion of some $23 billion (in today’s dollars) by France and the near-20 year occupation of Haiti by US Marines (starting in 1915). Now, they are ratcheting up the propaganda, as images of chaotic and violent crowds fill the media.
Is the emphasis on landing troops and military equipment necessary?
Naturally, after this extended delay, some desperate people will resort to violence, but the overall situation is remarkably different. As al-Jazeera (www.english.aljazeera.net) reports: “While there were reports of isolated incidents of violence, for the most part, there was an ‘organized calm’ in the capital.” Even US Lieutenant-General Ken Keen had to admit to al Jazeera that “The level of violence that we see now is below the pre-earthquake levels.” And the Wall St. Journal, written more to keep the heads of corporate America informed than for propaganda purposes, reported (1/19/10), “US officials have blamed security concerns for holding up providing relief. Yet a team of Cuban doctors were seen Monday treating hundreds of patients without a gun or soldier in sight.”
Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health commented to DemocracyNow.org that
“There are no security issues…. I’m staying at a friend’s house in Port-au-Prince. We’re working… as volunteers…. We’ve been circulating throughout the city until 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning every night, evacuating patients, moving materials. There’s no UN guards. There’s no US military presence. There’s no Haitian police presence. And there’s also no violence. There is no insecurity.” By the end of this week, though, there will be plenty of US and UN soldiers on the streets, but clearly their presence is not needed to maintain the rescue efforts. They are there to reinforce the capitalist state authority.
The result is that Port-au-Prince is becoming like a fortress. Sebastien Walker reports to DemocracyNow that where “the United States has taken control(,) it looks more like the Green (militarized) Zone in Baghdad than a center for aid distribution.” A Haitian “man in the street” commented to DemocracyNow that, “These weapons they bring, they are instruments of death. We don’t want them. We don’t need them. We are a traumatized people. What we want from the international community is technical help—action, not words.”
US Capitalism Terrified
This is the unreported reality, and a terrifying one it was to US capitalism. Here you had a country with a long history of struggle. It was not so long ago (2005) that the US helped engineer a coup that ousted a popular leftist president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is now in exile in South Africa. This president had launched a literacy program, funded the building of schools and medical facilities and sharply raised the minimum wage. This last was a real crime since under the leadership of ex-US president Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the strategy has been to develop Haiti as a source of ultra-cheap labor. Aristide also launched a campaign to recover the $23 billion that France had extorted from it back in 1825.
Even more dangerous was the threat of a Haitian working class mobilizing on its own. The partial example of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City should be recalled. There, when the state forces failed utterly to provide help, neighborhood committees self-organized and performed their own rescue operations. These committees then became the basis of a community movement that opposed the right-wing national government. The difference with Haiti is that in Mexico the state apparatus did not collapse almost entirely; in Haiti it did. Therefore, in Haiti the danger to capitalism was even greater.
This does not mean that capitalism would have been overthrown overnight, but the danger of this developing over a fairly short time was real. And in any case, they had Aristide waiting in the wings. To have him return to Haiti would compound the problem US capitalism faces throughout Latin America, where a populist movement has put hostile regimes in power in a series of countries. On top of that, US capitalism’s most threatening rival, Chinese capitalism, is making increasing inroads in the region.
Naturally, capitalism cannot allow a state of continual chaos and utter breakdown such as exists in Haiti now. They need a certain amount of stability, a somewhat functioning infrastructure, plus a working class that is not absolutely starving. US capitalism would also be utterly discredited, both at home and abroad, if they stood by, New Orleans-style, and did nothing. Finally, there is the consideration of regimes such as those in Venezuela and Cuba further increasing their influence. Therefore, some rescue and aid measures have to be taken.
The situation in Haiti bears being closely watched. From afar, it is impossible to tell to what degree the working class is or will organize to assert its class interests in the immediate future. If they do so, clashes with the US and UN troops are likely. However, it must be realized that the US military command is in a risky situation. Many of their troops are black, meaning they will tend to have a sympathy with the Haitian people. Maybe even more important, the troops, including National Guards from Pennsylvania and Florida, are headed for or are already in Haiti. Especially these National Guard troops would be open to considering the needs of their class brothers and sisters in Haiti. A campaign of fraternization with these – as well as the UN troops – would go a long way towards undermining their intended role of repression. (It should be noted that it is extremely unlikely that the Obama administration intends any long-term military occupation of Haiti.)
Several large US unions are now mobilizing to send aid to Haiti. This is being done so far under the control of the established union officialdom. This establishment has a long history of acting as the labor face for the US State Department and even the CIA. They have no intention of breaking with this criminal tradition in this instance. However, in the United States, there are many thousands of Haitian members of these unions. Through these and other active members of the unions, independent teams of US workers could be sent to Haiti. They could be sent both to bring aid as well as to organize direct links between the Haitian workers’ movement and organizations and that in the United States.
In this way, the working class in both countries could start to move forward.