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More Than Aid, Haiti Needs Allies

In dark times like this, especially when concerning darker people of the world, the liberal capitalists come out in droves, ready to give as much tax-deductible money their accountants agree to. But Haiti needs more than aid—it needs allies ready to carry as many crosses in not only helping rebuild broken infrastructures, but ensuring political stability once the rubble clears, the dead bodies have been disposed of, and mainstream media has turned its camera lenses to more titillating topics.

As philosopher Slavoj ?i?ek wrote three years ago, this crew—of movie stars, TV personalities, news anchors, entertainers, executives, wealthy philanthropists, etc.—“love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them.” They never hesitate to take a moment from their busy lives to urge everyone watching whatever PSA they’re staring in this time to “give” as “much” as possible; to spear a dime; to empty their pockets for a good cause. But, to ?i?ek’s point, more often than not, whatever aid is accumulated not only fails to reach populations most in need, but also works to “mask” the underlying economic exploitation exacerbating the disasters: “There is a chocolate-flavoured laxative available on the shelves of US stores which is publicised with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!—i.e. eat more of something that itself causes constipation.”[1]

And, it seems, the laxative-pushing has already begun. The conservative Heritage Foundation was quick to remind patrons that “Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S.” (Later renamed: “Things to Remember While Helping Haiti.”) In a blog post for the foundation, an author describes why this life-altering (and life-stopping) moment must be used, amidst the aid efforts of course, to “interrupt the nightly flights of cocaine to Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the Venezuelan coast,” to “prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea in dangerous and rickety watercraft to try to enter the U.S. illegally,” to “insist that the Haiti government work closely with the U.S. to insure that corruption does not infect the humanitarian assistance,” and to “implement a strong and vigorous public diplomacy effort to counter the negative propaganda certain to emanate from the Castro-Chavez camp.” All these are critical since “[l]ong-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are … badly overdue.”[2]

This is why aid is never innocent. There are almost always political incentives tied to foreign aid. It’s not enough merely to cut checks or text a few numbers; it’s critical to know into whose hands—and toward what ends—one’s cash is going.

Haiti has suffered enough—from the bellicosity of its affluent neighbors—and as if to punish Haitians further, mainstream media has made a circus of the crisis.

Once word of the disaster hit newsrooms across the country, the big networks dispatched their celebrity correspondents with swiftness. Anderson Cooper, Ann Curry, Brian Williams, Bill Hemmer—you name them. Of course very few of the big-name bobbleheads were prepared for reality as it stared them down. Take, for example, FOX News minion Bill Hemmer who whined, “I’ve had the good fortune of seeing a good part of this world, and a lot of the 3rd world, and this is the most inaccessible story I have ever covered.” He went on: “It’s inaccessible in so many ways: our ability to communicate, our ability to move around, our ability to get information.”[3] Oh, you don’t say, Bill. Inaccessible? In a country systematically destroyed—and turned upside down—by economic foreign policies!—Inaccessible? NBC’s Brian Williams was less caustic: “This is just a colossal calamity.”[4] The celebrity news men and women, with sleeves rolled up, made sure to dramatize and document every aspect of their sojourn in Haiti—from sleeping in baggage containers, to inhaling the toxic smell of dead bodies. These are the “stories” of their lives, as Williams put it.

But where’s Haiti’s story?

Starting last Tuesday night, viewers were informed Haiti is such a “poor” country. Poor Haiti. Why this country is “poor” has hardly gotten a second of address. Why a country only 500 miles from Florida had, long before the earthquake, 50% of its citizens malnourished, with 70% making less than $1 a day, couldn’t be of lesser concern.[5] In recent times, one other similar event—dramatically affecting the lives of poor Black folk—comes to mind: Katrina.

The parallels are unmistakable:

1) The historical antecedents which made both natural disasters even worse are almost entirely ignored. In Katrina’s case, for a state with the third highest rate of children living in poverty, and whose illiteracy rate was 40%, many, educated by popular press, wondered why residents couldn’t simply drive out of the impending storm. For Haiti, the most financially disempowered country in the Western hemisphere, dilapidated by decades of political instability (sponsored by certain governments), and flooded with foreign food imports and subsidization—which inevitably led to famine, which inevitably led to street riots and violent protests in mid-2008: little of this history has found solace in the shock-and-awe broadcasts of network news and cable chatter.[6] Instead, we are simply told that Haiti is a “poor” country. Poor by nature. Worse yet, the vibrant history of successful revolt against former colonizers, of economic independence, of genuine democracy—which spans centuries—is unknown to most raised on Cable Network News.

2) The same news channels who sensationalized every bit of the Katrina debacle, and then patted each other’s backs warmly for reportedly—though sufficient proof doesn’t exist—holding accountable elected officials responsible, are back at it. Sticking microphones into the faces of hapless victims, holding up babies as props, shedding insincere tears—back at it. One wonders where the crocodile tears were before relatives were picking and pulling out family members from beneath bricks and buildings. The rain of salt water could have done greater good when Haiti’s peoples were catching hell, for decades, due in large part to the economic policies of a few superpowers.[7]

3) “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food’,” Kanye West eloquently protested five years ago, in wake of images, disseminated by TV, web, and print media, describing Black New Orleans families disproportionately (in stark contrast to those of Whites) as looters—rather than harmless citizens starving of hunger.[8] And, though the disparity of racial representation hasn’t been featured in the same sense this time, news folk have already gotten down to the business of fixating on a few Haitian men armed with machetes, and on reports of food-looting, than the hungry bellies left unfilled and the lost ones unrecovered. Not only does this thoughtless practice offer a very unfortunate and unfair presentation of the real reality, it also discourages some from giving any further since, they figure, their charitable dollars are likely to end up being misused or looted by street thugs and rogues. Just as with the many unsubstantiated reports of babies raped in the Superdome and mothers sexually assaulted, news of widespread, uncontrollable crimes are also dominating mainstream reports.[9]

4) With this, of course, comes the rationalization of military boots on the ground. For Katrina, it was the criminal gang Blackwater dispatched.[10] For Haiti, it is the U.S. Army and U.N. Peacekeeping forces—and, to be sure, backup private security. 5 years ago, police forces ran amok, with unfettered and unrestricted power, imprisoning (or attacking) any citizen who even looked suspicious (Black and male).[11] There’s no reason to believe the same wouldn’t happen—or isn’t already happening—again in Haiti. And reports of Blackwater employees blowing off heads and clashing with innocent civilians should dispel the mistruth that military might can do the job of relief organizations.

5) The cranks of the religious right never disappoint in helping translate God’s thoughts. Just last week, Rev. Pat Robertson informed millions of viewers—who, I can only assume, he believes are dumber than 5th graders—that the people of Haiti are simply paying for their “pact to the devil.” They’ve been “cursed,” he lamented. Not economic exploitation; not hazardous architectural decisions forced by economic exploitation; not a natural disaster aided by an abused planet; but divine retribution—as was also said following Katrina. “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it,” Rev. Robertson explained on his international program, “The 700 Club.” “They were under the heel of the French—you know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘Okay, it’s a deal’.”[12] It’s obvious Robertson’s twisted theological thinking is steeped in racism, in a belief, much like slave masters convinced themselves centuries ago, that white domination of Black “savages” was divine ordinance. But it also bespeaks an extremist philosophy of Christianity—far from the redemptive gospel of Jesus Christ—that preaches eternal damnation of every sinful—better yet liberal—soul. When Katrina struck and dead Black bodies were shown swimming in muddied waters, popular preacher John Hagee, another press secretary for God, explained why it was wrong to feel sorry for the victims (in both cases, predominantly Black): “What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God. In time, if New Orleans recovers and becomes [a] pristine city, it can … be called a blessing. But at this time it’s called a curse.”[13]

But for all the parallels between Katrina and Haiti, one difference shatters all similarities: the Bush gang was well-equipped, financially and infrastructurally, to provide relief efforts for dying citizens. Haiti was in no such shape. Even if all government agencies were functioning faultlessly, there still was a great gap in what could be done and what should be done. The apathy of cold-hearted, insecure nitwits like Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding: “[W]e’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. income tax.”[14] Katrina victims, however, deserved more from a government fully capable of providing “adequate evacuation plans … [and] transportation for people [lacking] money, cars, or help to get them out of the city.”[15] The indifference of brain-dead megaphones like Bill O’Reilly notwithstanding: “Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans … weren’t going to leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren’t going to get turned off from their source. They were thugs.”[16]

Haitians, it is true, need all the help they can get, but, as Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, warns, “crises are often used now as the pretext for pushing through policies that you cannot push through under times of stability. Countries in periods of extreme crisis are desperate for any kind of aid, any kind of money, and are not in a position to negotiate fairly the terms of that exchange.”[17] Desperation ought not to be abused by oligarchic governments to drown Haiti into more debt or hold that sovereign nation economically hostage. Desperation ought not to be abused to enforce even more draconian mandates that only promote further instability. Desperation ought not to be abused to enhance specific political policies that only service imperialistic ambitions. Unless one still believes in fairy tales, it’s almost unthinkable to assume many foreign governments, who’ve already come bearing gifts, don’t see this as an opportunity to accomplish all three.

Katrina should serve a sobering reminder.

While human beings were hanging from rooftops and stranded in water-packed houses, Republican leaders were promoting “relief measures … to achieve a broad range of conservative economic and social policies.”[18] If Haitians are to lead lives of dignity, devoid of foreign intrusion, allies would have to do more than just donate money or relief resources in the coming months and years. Though the earthquake as a natural disaster was almost unpreventable, it also stands true that, as was written post-Katrina, “a long-gathering storm of misguided policies and priorities preceded the tragedy.”[19]

And this is where Harry Reid comes in. Reid made news recently for comments underlying why Obama’s light skin and Ivy League parlance—lack of “Negro dialect”—helped endear him to a mainstream (white) majority. Flip that and the implications are obvious: Haitians, like many New Orleans residents, are of dark skin and, most likely, speak in non-purified vernacular. Thus, their concerns—indeed their humanities—were never of top priority in the hearts and minds of those now rushing to shell out cash for these “poor” people. They aren’t “clean” and “nice-looking,” as Vice President Biden might put it; thus, for decades and even centuries, their plights were ignored—rendered inconsequential.[20] But now that the earth has opened up to swallow a people long-neglected and forgotten, we witness a stumbling-over of communities and countries, worldwide, to “help” out at this most unfortunate of times.

But this charade would only last a few weeks—as always. In but a little while, the people of Haiti, like New Orleans residents, would be left to fend for themselves and, most tragically, left to defend themselves against neoliberal capitalists with insidious intents. And the game has only just begun.

Last week, House speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed hope to see this “tragedy” transformed into a “new, fresh start” for Haiti—an opportunity to build a “boom economy.” Pelosi drew from personal history: “From my own experience with earthquakes, being from San Francisco, I think that this can be an opportunity for a real boom economy in Haiti.”[21] The same was said post-Katrina, and, within 2 years, permanent changes were already instituted to reframe the city of New Orleans into a Disney-like tourist attraction—wiped clean of its rich, Black history (and residents). None of this was easy, of course. But it worked with a systematic plan including “criminally contaminated trailers for Katrina-stuck families, hotel evictions, displacement of communities [through] the demolition of public housing projects, rampant homelessness, and forced evacuation [of] helpless families.”[22]

There are no reasons to believe Haiti isn’t headed for the same fate. With George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spearheading official relief efforts in Haiti, it seems, in fact, almost the inevitable fate. Only a courageous countervailing movement that stands strong for the dignities and humanities of Haitians—during the aftermath and beyond: when TV channels have moved on to the next circus, when people have stopped giving and relief organizations are running out of aid—would save Haiti from an even greater earthquake already rattling the ground beneath.

TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears in various online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

Notes.

[1] Slavoj ?i?ek, “Nobody has to be vile,” London Review of Books (April 6, 2006).

[2] Jim Roberts, “Things to Remember While Helping Haiti,” The Foundry (January 13, 2010).

[3] Danny Shea, “Bill Hemmer From Haiti: ‘This Is The Most Inaccessible Story I Have Ever Covered’,” The Huffington Post (January 14, 2010).

[4] Danny Shea, “Brian Williams In Haiti: ‘This Is Just A Colossal Calamity’,” The Huffington Post (January 14, 2010).

[5] Lenore Daniels, “The U.S.’s ‘Fidelity to Our Values’ is Haiti’s ‘Tragedy’,” The Black Commentator (January 14, 2010).

[6] Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “Where was the world when Haiti really needed it?” The Daily Voice (January 14, 2010).

[7] Garry Pierre-Pierre, “As Haiti Embargo Tightens, Poor Children Get Hungrier,” The New York Times (July 3, 1994).

[8] Aaron Kinney, “‘Looting’ or ‘finding’? Bloggers are outraged over the different captions on photos of blacks and whites in New Orleans,” Salon (September 1, 2005).

[9] Gary Younge, “Murder and rape – fact or fiction?” The Guardian (September 6, 2005).

[10] Daniela Crespo and Jeremy Scahill, “Overkill in New Orleans,” Alternet (September 12, 2005).

[11] Photographic report detailing questionable shootings of 10 civilians, following Katrina.

[12] Amanda Terkel, “Pat Robertson Cites Haiti’s Earthquake As What Happens When You ‘Swear A Pact To The Devil’,” Think Progress (January 13, 2010). Online:

[13] Matt Corley, “Hagee Says Hurricane Katrina Struck New Orleans Because It Was ‘Planning A Sinful’ ‘Homosexual Rally’,” Think Progress (April 23, 2008).

[14] Audio: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201001130022

[15] Henry A. Giroux, Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), p. 43.

[16] Audio and Transcript: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200509150001

[17] “Naomi Klein Issues Haiti Disaster Capitalism Alert: Stop Them Before They Shock Again,” Democracy Now! (January 14, 2010).

[18] Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers, 2007), p. 149.

[19] Ibid., p. 147.

[20] Ibid., “The U.S.’s ‘Fidelity to Our Values’ is Haiti’s ‘Tragedy’,” The Black Commentator.

[21] “Top US lawmaker: Quake aid may give Haiti ‘new fresh start’,” AFP (January 16, 2010). Online:

[22] TOLU OLORUNDA, “Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of apathy,” The Daily Voice (August 28, 2009).

 

 

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