Haiti, emergency aid and the left

Submitted by cathy n on 1 February, 2010 - 6:56 Author: Dan Katz

For the call for funds and solidarity from the radical Haitian workers' organisation Batay Ouvriye, see here.
For Liverpool TUC's initiative in support of Haitian workers, see here.

On 12 January Haiti was struck by a gigantic 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The scale of the devastation is difficult to comprehend. In a desperately poor country of around nine million people between 200,000 and 300,000 have died.

The Haitian President, René Préval has said that in the first eight days after the quake 170,000 bodies were cleared from the streets and rubble-reduced buildings. Perhaps two million people have been displaced. The government says 200,000 tents are needed. 25,000 commercial buildings were destroyed. And 60 million cubic metres of debris needs to be cleared.

The Presidential palace and most government buildings in the capital, Port-au-Prince, collapsed. The government now meets in a police station.

5,000 prisoners escaped from damaged prisons. Millions of records, kept only on paper, have been destroyed. Tax receipts and court records now flutter around in the streets.

By all commonly-used indicators Haiti was a desperately poor and "failed state" even before this disaster. For example, GDP per capita stood at under $1,000 (2005), or one tenth of the Latin American-Caribbean average. Most ordinary Haitians scraped by on less than $2 a day.
In response an international rescue operation has begun, involving the UN, foreign troops from many states, various aid agencies and NGOs. The UN says it intends to hire up to 220,000 Haitians to work on reconstruction.

Foreign intervention was requested by the Haitian government and welcomed by Haiti’s people. There has been a lot of criticism on the ground —that aid, including US aid, did not and continues not to arrive quickly enough (rather than that Haiti should be left alone to solve its own problems, which manifestly it cannot).

But despite it all, aid has brought improvements: some electricity, fuel and telecommunications have been restored. The UN World Food Programme says it has reached about 500,000 people, about one quarter of those it aims to help. A 1,000-bed US hospital ship is now anchored off-shore.

The US has taken over the administration of the airport, by agreement with the rump Haitian state. The airport is now handling three times as many flights as it did before 12 January.

Workers’ Liberty has highlighted the continued existence of a radical left in Haiti, by printing the appeals of Batay Ouvriere (Workers’ Struggle, a left-wing union confederation). Such organisations, calling for international workers’ solidarity, are maintained by wonderful, brave people, people we are proud to call our comrades — but people who are marginalised on an island in ruins, where the working class, as a class, has been scattered and put out of work. And we want to help them to survive beyond this disaster (as we have in the past, through the No Sweat campaign).

However some of the “left” has another angle on the Haitian disaster, beyond particular criticisms of the international aid effort, and beyond solidarity with workers' groups and other forms of Haitian self-organisation.

For instance the notorious Stalinist hack, Seamus Milne. Writing in the Guardian, Milne selects his facts to support the message he wants to convey. Milne says the US is using the relief operations as a cover to pour in troops with the aim of "keeping Haiti under control". His absolute and perverse anti-Americanism is only capable of recognising American actions that — according to Milne — deliberately, callously obstruct medical supplies at the airport, or get in the way of the relief work of “Cuban doctors” and “Welsh firefighters”.

Of course it is no accident that Milne picks out US “obstruction” of Cuban doctors (rather than any other nationality of doctor, such as US doctors who are in Haiti in large numbers), as he is a continuing supporter of the Cuban “socialist” dictatorship. Milne's reference to Welsh firefighters is intended to stir up our nationalist indignation (against the beastly, inhuman Americans getting in "our lads" way’).

The basic accusation of much of what passes for the far-left is that the US/imperialism is in the process of occupying Haiti under the pretext of aiding the relief effort. Some even add to this "analysis" slogans about the troops: “US troops out” (Socialisme ou Barbarie) or partial "withdrawal of the troops" (Workers' Power). Socialist Worker's article on 30 January was headlined "Hell in Haiti as aid turns to occupation", although the article did not back this statement up with any clear argument. The Socialist Party say the deployment of US troops will "mark the start of what, in effect, will be US military rule."

It is true that the US has an appalling history of bullying and bossing its poor neighbour. The US occupied Haiti for two decades in the first half of the 20th century. It is also true that responsibility for Haitian poverty lies in no small part with the punitive actions of US-dominated capitalism — the IMF and the World Bank. The US ruling class has never been that interested in helping the workers and poor people of Haiti, but more in exploiting its sweated labour — it will continue to be so.

However, the US’s relationship to its backyard — the Caribbean, Central America and, beyond into South America — has changed radically from what it was even in the 1970s and 80s. At that time the US helped to organise a coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government (Chile 1973), backed fascistic dictatorships (eg. in El Salvador), funded right-wing guerrillas (eg. the Contras against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government), trained death squads for a number of Central American states, invaded Grenada to topple a government it disapproved of (1983).

What changed? Centrally, the implosion of the Soviet Bloc led to the ending of the Cold War and the US’s competition with the USSR. Regimes in South America are integrated more or less in the globalised world order and are bourgeois democratic. These are different times.

None of this means that we believe the US has become a benign player, a liberal "do-gooder" state. Nor do we endorse US policy. The US is still a massively powerful, aggressive imperialist power.

As such, elements of US intervention are rooted in the need to preserve stability in the area and avoid, for example, an enormous refugee exodus impacting on the US.

But the nature of its intervention, now, in Haiti, is not motivated by the need to “control Haiti” through military occupation. Why would the US need to invade to “control Haiti”? It can get its way — pretty much whatever it chooses — by use of its staggering economic and political power.

Equally why should the “left” find it so outrageous to think that Obama has looked at what has happened and thought that the rich US should try to help its poor neighbour and Haiti’s suffering people?

As soon as two days after the quake, on 14 January, over 20 states had sent troops. The US has sent a large contingent, of 20,000. But what are these troops doing?

The LA Times states (27 January): “So far, [US troops] have been involved almost entirely in aid deliveries, with very little work in security, which is mostly being handled by Haitian police and the UN’s 7,000-strong peacekeeping force.” An agreement signed on 22 January gave the US responsibility for ports, airports and roads and the UN and the Haitian authorities responsibility for law and order — mainly because the US has the greatest capability.

Total US contribution to the relief effort in Haiti, including Pentagon and USAID (US Agency for International Development) money, stands at $380 million, USAID stated on Tuesday 26 January. On Wednesday 27 January a USAID medical team leader announced that US military and civilian teams in Haiti have so far provided medical assistance to 11,600 people, many of whom needed amputations. (AFP)

And the US has begun to deliver vast quantities of aid. For example the USS Carl Vinson arrived on 15 January with 600,000 emergency food rations and 100,000 ten-litre water containers. Apparently the US Navy had conducted 336 air deliveries, and delivered 32,000 gallons of water, 532,000 bottles of water, 110,000 meals and 4,000 kg of medical supplies by 20 January.

The point here is not to paint up the US intervention, but to say that even if half of the reports of the US agencies are true, aid has been provided on a colossal scale. The problem is that much much more is needed. No doubt the US could have done more and faster. We should criticise the US ruling class for this and say that, in fact, given the history of US involvement in Haiti, it is the least they can do.

But not so for sections for the far left. Their criticism amounts to an objection to any US intervention at all — that is the opposite of "faster and better".

And such people would say what, exactly, to the recipients of US-provided medical aid? Or to people receiving food or water? "Civilian aid only"? That is not a real choice here. The logistics of the operation cannot be met by "civilian" agencies.

At the moment any “US troops out” message, directly or by implication, means “Let the Haitian people starve and heal themselves.” Such irresponsibility, such thoughtlessness about the implications of words, and such carelessness about other people’s lives is yet another stupid and shocking example of ignorant posturing by the far left.


Submitted by AWL on Tue, 02/02/2010 - 01:32

I agree that focusing on calling for US withdrawal is dumb and amounts to saying "stop the aid", but isn't the point to demand that any aid that's delivered - by the US ruling-class or anyone else - is delivered without strings?

Clearly the US presence in Haiti doesn't represent a colonial, military occupation (as the article says - what would be the point?) but it's pretty plausible that a lot of the US-delivered aid might be tied to carrying out reconstruction projects on a particular - i.e. neo-liberal - basis. Even if there aren't explicit strings, by positioning itself as the main supplier of aid the US can manoeuvre for a greater role in reconstruction. We should warn against that possibility and demand that aid is given on the basis of need and without strings.

The focus for the left should be on building practical solidarity with the Haitian workers' movement and calling for more, better and faster aid without any strings attached.

This article obscures that a little bit I think and does slightly lapse into "painting up" the good intentions of the US intervention (not out of positive support for it but out of a legitimate desire to cut against the knee-jerk response of a lot of the left).


Daniel Randall

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/03/2010 - 10:59


I'll let Mark reply in detail, but two points. The first one is fundamental.

You say:
"The article has earlier referred to the fact that the US is more interested in Haiti's sweated labour than helping its people. Too true. The US also does not want to annex or permanently occupy Haiti like a literal 'colony', but rather 'control' it - subject it to the will of US capital. It cannot do so if it is unsure of the stability of the government, rule of law etc. and thus needs to be able to 'keep a lid' on the situation. Given the breakdown of the government, it cannot hope to do so by relying on René Préval."
In other words, the threat the US faces to its ability to continuing exploiting Haitian labour in a reliable, organised fashion is not (now, at this point) worker/popular militancy but the complete break down of the Haitian government and society. In other words, the immediate alternative to the presence of US troops is not workers and the poor threatening Preval or another bourgeois leader from the left, but social break down - in a situation where millions are already dead, wounded, have lost their homes, services etc.
Why would you see that as preferable?

You then quote Dan saying:
"As such, elements of US intervention are rooted in the need to preserve stability in the area and avoid, for example, an enormous refugee exodus impacting on the US."
and comment:
"This is posed the wrong way round. After all, our sympathies are obviously with the people trying to seek refuge, not those who are faced with the problem of trying to contain this 'problem'."
This is disingenuous.
1. Because the "as such" refers to the previous sentences:
"None of this means that we believe the US has become a benign player, a liberal "do-gooder" state. Nor do we endorse US policy. The US is still a massively powerful, aggressive imperialist power."
Perhaps this could have been clearer. But obviously it means that one aspect of the US's non-benign-ness is its reluctance/refusal to accept refugees.
2. Because our record on refugee/migrant rights is absolutely clear.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/03/2010 - 11:15

"But anyway, "troops out" doesn't necessarily mean an end to military planes or naval vessels dropping supplies, since these things don't need troops on the ground."

This strikes me as a bit silly. So "troops out" doesn't refer to US military intervention in general, but just to ground troops? It's okay for the US military to intervene, as long as no-one's feet touch the soil? Come on, Tom; that's just not serious.

Tom's right to say that we shouldn't go around sloganeering without having a grip on the facts; he says he's "not confident" about raising the slogan "troops out" here. Fine - let's investigate more.

But on the basis of what we do/can know right now, certain things seem pretty straightforward; firstly, that aid directly delivered by US military intervention is pretty essential and secondly that the intentions of the US military in Haiti do not appear to be directly colonial or in any way directly or immediately menace Haiti's independence (I think we can also say with reasonable confidence that the US ruling-class would have no interest whatsoever in occupying Haiti; the American bourgeoisie is not some deranged glutton that just wants to gobble up more and more land just for the sake of it). It therefore seems to me that focusing one's demands on calling for the troops to leave - rather than demanding that all aid is delivered without strings/caveats and warning against the trust/confidence in the troops in general - really misses the point, and just leads to getting tied in the sort of knots Tom ends up in where you say "troops out" but don't really mean it.


Daniel Randall

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/03/2010 - 13:42

I don't know a lot about aid delivery, and I always find these things hard to visualise/imagine, but I assume that dropping parcels isn't the end of the matter. Firstly because it's not a very efficient way of transferring/delivering things in bulk, and secondly because you actually have to get the food, water and medicine to people, which must be even more difficult in a society and environment torn to bits.

I'm sure Daniel would agree that you can of course, even when an occupation is not "directly colonial", call for imperialist troops out. In fact, I would think that's our default position. I'm for US troops out of Britain ("Britain out of NATO, NATO out of Britain"), but obviously I'd pour scorn on the idea that Britain is a US semi-colony or whatever. In a situation where US troops are pretty much playing the role of backing up the local ruling class against the workers/popular movements, you surely would say get out. Maybe that was right in Haiti in 2005. It's certainly not right now.

Looking forward to David's reply on my first point in post above.


Submitted by Jason on Thu, 02/04/2010 - 06:48

This article and the comments is indicative of a certain facet of AWL politics. In a seeming obsession to not be 'kneejerk' there's a fruitless concentration on why 'troops out now' is not a good slogan.

Instead of this arcane debate socialists should concentrate on getting aid to labour movement and activists in Haiti whilst also discussing the history of the island including the revolt against colonialism and slavery and the long term inteference in Haiti by the US- mainly using economic leverage but using troops frequently when needed including full scale invasions which has a great deal to do with Haiti being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere despite having been one of the richest colonies. Poverty is also the reason the death toll is so high. Proper investment and a planned economy under working class control can minimise deaths from natural disasters.

If there's a workplace collection no one is suggesting that socialists condemn this and have an impromptu demo of 'troops out now'. But we should argue for aid to go to activists on the ground and throw a spotlight on US imperialism's continued efforts to profit from others' misery.

See for example
this appeal

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 02/04/2010 - 11:22

We've reprinted both the Liverpool TUC statement and the Batay Ouvriye appeal. They're both on the front page of the site. Those were the first things we put up, long before we published this article, though unsurprisingly they haven't sparked debate in the same way as this. In contrast some on the far left - not PR, to be fair - responded by publishing calls for 'Troops out'.

Not only that but some practical action: we brought over a Batay Ouvriye representative for a speaker tour a few years ago, and our comrades are involved in organising a benefit gig for the union in London next week.

Good to pay a bit more attention!

In any case, as you go on to say, we can do all that while also debating the politics.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Matthew on Fri, 02/05/2010 - 09:41

Dan, leaving aside the usual slanders, half-truths and lies - "the racist denial of the right of return in Israel, for troops to stay in Iraq and for the right of Israel to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran" - where have we written that "the whole country would be in lawless mob rule if the US troops weren't there"?

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 02/05/2010 - 11:26

Let's not turn this into a row about Palestine.

Matthew:where have we written that "the whole country would be in lawless mob rule if the US troops weren't there"?

Sacha wrote: the threat the US faces to its ability to continuing exploiting Haitian labour in a reliable, organised fashion is not (now, at this point) worker/popular militancy but the complete break down of the Haitian government and society.

Rather than doing more textual analysis, let's try to get to the issues.

Sometimes societies do break down, and it is often not pretty, even though brutality and grasping by some are intermingled with heroic altruism, selflessness and acts of solidarity by others. There is nothing racist (!) about saying this - though it may be exploited in a cynical, authoritarian and sometimes racist way by bourgeois forces. And there are very unpleasant gangs in Haiti, as in most poor cities. I don't see what's racist about noticing that?

I'm not sure about Batay Ouvriye's formulation in 2005 - in any case, you might well say "Troops out of x factory or district" without saying "Troops off Haiti" in general, cf police and Brixton or Toxteth during riots in early 80s - but do you think the basic aim of the troops landed after the quake is to control the workers? No, they have not become benign, but they are basically there to deliver aid and, more cynically, preserve stability, in a society that has collapsed. And things will be WORSE for the working class if they leave immediately!

You might ask why Batay Ouvriye, who generally take a very 'anti-imperialist' position, say nothing about Troops Out in their solidarity statement.


PS Dan accuses Daniel of utopianism for arguing for no strings aid, but wants US soldiers to disarm and continue operating under civilian commanders!

Submitted by AWL on Sat, 02/06/2010 - 22:13

Dan says "Why the need for jet fighters and navy ships that are only designed for war?"

Does he think, and do others think, that the US is about to go to war on Haiti? Is it about to launch a direct occupation of Haiti (establishing more direct control than the existing troop presence has wielded over the past years)? Is the US about to put down down a working-class or even popular uprising to prop up a local ruling-class?

If the answer to these questions is "no", (and I think it is) then why should we focus our propaganda on this issue around demanding that the troops leave, particularly in a situation in which they are - like it or not - involved in the delivery of aid (whatever else they may be doing).

Working-class anti-imperialism is not about being abstractly "against", in the most vociferous way possible, whatever the big imperialist powers happen to be doing at a given time. It's about starting from a concrete assessment of the realities on the ground and developing perspective/slogans than can help build up working-class independence. A position of no confidence/trust in the troops and the demand for grassroots control of aid that's delivered (i.e. no strings) does that much better than to simply demand that the troops get out.

Others can start from "anti-imperialist" dogma if they like ("US troops are involved? Well, we'd better say 'troops out now', then. Why? Well... that's just what you say in these situations, isn't it?") but we prefer to start from reality. Dan2 says that it's not an "either/or" situation between US troops and no aid; okay, fine - but given the concrete reality that the US troops *are* involved in the delivery of aid (yes, they may also be involved in blocking other forms of aid and any amount of other stuff we'd be opposed to), why would you want to focus your demands on calling for their withdrawal rather than trying to shape the conditions under which that aid is delivered and who controls it?

I think that

* no confidence or trust in the troops
* for a massive international aid programme, delivered without strings
* international working-class solidarity to support the Haitian people and workers' movement

is a perfectly adequate framework for a socialist perspective on the situation. This wasn't spelled out more explicitly in the original article because it was a polemic against the knee-jerk, robotic use of "troops out now" by other left groups - not an exposition of AWL's full perspective on the issue.

Finally, the idea that the demand for aid without strings will almost certainly not be realised means we shouldn't raise it is absolutely farcical. The idea that Bush and Blair were going to retreat from their war plans once they've drawn them up was pretty fantastical ("utopian", one might say), but we continued to oppose and mobilise against the war because it was objectively the right thing to do. Raising such a demand gives a concrete focus for action as well as politically exposing the inherently class-biased nature of capitalist "aid".


Daniel Randall

PS: While I think the Workers' Power article is a total fudge, it is worth noting that it explicitly does *not* use the slogan "troops out now" or indeed any formulation of "troops out", but rather focuses on placing demands on the troops themselves. So maybe you *can* be anti-imperialist without saying "troops out now" after all...

Submitted by AWL on Sun, 02/07/2010 - 14:13

So the demand for aid without strings is utopian but the demand that the US military - the armed wing of the most powerful capitalist ruling-class on the planet - disarms isn't?

Not convincing.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 02/08/2010 - 10:15

From DAN2:
"So the demand for aid without strings is utopian but the demand that the US military - the armed wing of the most powerful capitalist ruling-class on the planet - disarms isn't?"
I still don't think you are getting the point I'm making.
The demand to disarm can't be achieved now but not all demands that are put forward are immediately achievable. However if there was a powerful workers movement in the US it could achieved. Even a powerful workers movement in Haiti could maybe make it achievable.
However the ruling classes will never, ever, give aid without strings. Why would they, it would go against all their material interests. They could be forced to do so, but that's different. Maybe that's what was meant, but it wasn't clear if that's the case.

"The ruling classes will never, ever [my emphasis], give aid without strings [...] They could be forced to do so."
Riiiiiight. For future reference, saying "thing X will never, ever happen", and then saying "it could happen" in the same paragraph tends to undermine your argument a little bit.
I have a high enough opinion of your intelligence, Dan to assume that you understand socialist agitational demands are not made in the belief that the ruling class will simply do what's demanded out of the kindness of its heart, but because they are forced to concede them by a working-class movement which has made the demand.
It is "against all the material interests" of the capitalist class to concede shorter working hours, higher wages, etc. Are these demands also "utopian"?