A recent post on the blog of The Heritage Foundation, a US think tank, argued that any humanitarian intervention in Haiti should "prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea ... to try to enter the US illegally." The document goes on, "Long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are also badly overdue." In 2009 the Heritage Foundation was rated by the journal Foreign Policy as the fifth most powerful think tank in the US. That an organisation with such serious political clout is arguing for "humanitarian forces" to take advantage of a natural disaster to restructure the Haitian economy , impose neo-liberal policies and detain anyone who tries to leave, should raise alarm bells.
But this kind of thing has happened before in Haiti. Economic restructuring has already destroyed the livelihoods of Haitians, disasters have pushed them over the edge into mass death, the disaster justifies further restructuring.
During the 1980s, a WTO (World Trade Organisation) ban on food tariffs and subsidies, coupled with cheap subsidised US imports of food, killed off Haitian farming. Elites in the country bought up farms and asset-stripped them — selling off equipment and putting the profits in foreign bank accounts. Consequently Haiti suffered devastating food shortages and riots in 2008.
After the election of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2001, the United States suspended all international assistance to the country. Aristide had a populist programme — which privatised the electricity and telecoms industries, and funded literacy programmes and food aid programmes for the poor — this had angered international creditors. It is far from clear that they were equally worried about Aristide's human rights and democratic abuses.
But in 2004, Aristide was overthrown by a coup, supported by the US, and backed up within days by 1,000 US marines, followed a few weeks later by a "peacekeeping force" of 7,000 Brazilian troops.
Aristide’s welfare programmes, along with the mutual aid groups that had grown up around them, were smashed by the new government and peacekeeping forces. After the earthquake, homeless and starving Haitians have nowhere to go.
This disaster was exacerbated by poverty, which was created by free-trade rules, privatisation and the use of military forces to smash self-organisation of workers and peasants. These are the policies that the US has first encouraged by political pressure, then imposed by military intervention. The next intervention will seek to carry these policies forward.
Such is the business of global capitalist powers. Neo-liberal economists and governments sought to use the aftermath of hurricane Katrina to create better business opportunities in New Orleans —a flat tax and privatisation of education was imposed. In south east asia, land-grabs by real-estate developers and governments followed the tsunami.
Whatever we think of the immediate role the US forces are playing now, in distributing vital food and other aid, we should keep in mind the long-term. Will Haiti be an experiment for a raft of neo-liberal policies?