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.