In January 2010, all eyes were on Haiti. A massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the tiny nation, leaving scores of people dead and homeless and nearly the entire country in ruins. The international community rushed to provide aid and offer relief during Haiti’s unimaginable crisis.
And as the story was reported around the clock, the refrain repeated by every TV host, journalist, pundit, activist and advocate became “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” With four out five people living in poverty, this is true. However, little attention was given to to how Haiti became such a poverty stricken nation. A combination of outlandish and unjust foreign debts, owed mainly to France, and political corruption, chiefly among the Duvalier regimes, have left Haiti’s economy ravaged. But even where there has been hope, outside forces have conspired to block much needed progress.
Wikileaks, the non-profit whistleblower organization founded by Julian Assange, in partnership with The Nation magazine and the Haitian weekly newspaper Haiti Liberte are publishing a series of reports based 1,918 documents from a seven-year period, starting 10 months before the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, that reveals the United States’ interference in the Haitian government and essentially bullying President Rene Preval to align Haiti’s interests with those of the U.S.
In 2006, Preval visited Venezuela in hopes of striking a deal with PetroCaribe, the state-run oil company that deals with only state-run entities, and in order “to negotiate a[n] energy deal that would bring electricity to more homes and save the Haitian people millions.” When the U.S. learned of this, it blocked the deal for years, enlisting American oil companies Chevron and ExxonMobil to refuse to transport PetroCaribe oil, which would have been necessary for Haiti to sign the deal. Eventually Chevron signed the deal in 2008, but after two years of negotiations the new arrangement served little benefit to Haiti.
Preval also led a campaign to raise Haiti’s national minimum wage by 150 percent — up 37 cents from 24 cents to 61 cents per hour — and caught the ire of the Obama administration. The increase would have had an impact on American companies, such Hanes and Levi Strauss, who contract Haitian laborers to sew their clothes. They insisted the wage increase not exceed 7 cents per hour, while the U.S. Ambassador persuaded Preval lower his target wage of $5 per day for textile workers down to $3 per day. Raising the wages by two dollars would cost Hanes about $1.6 million dollars more in wages to their staff of 3,200 Haitians. The company made $221 million last year on $4.3 billion in sales.
Foreign aid is not a sustainable model for economic growth, but so long as the U.S. undermines Haitian efforts to establish economic independence through sound trade ventures and fair wages that will save money and increase cash flow that could in turn lead to building of infrastructure, the Haitian people suffer. Instead of looking out for the interests of Haiti and the millions in poverty, the U.S. has protected its own political and business interests.
Haiti has experienced what Naomi Klein describes as the “shock doctrine,” where desperate times caused by political unrest or natural disasters have given way to the implementation of neoliberal capitalist economic policies that initially sound as if they will benefit a society as a whole, lifting it from abject poverty, but in application only serve to line the pockets of those already in power and the foreign companies looking to take advantage of poverty stricken nations for cheap labor.
Again and again, the U.S. has used its influence as the world superpower to exploit Haiti’s political uncertainty and ensure a safe haven for its global corporations to operate in ways that bypass American laws regarding labor and fairness. And because we see only the bottom line in personal pocket books, the American public turns blind eye towards these global injustices.
The U.S. does not want Haiti to become another Cuba or Venezuela, two socialist countries with unfriendly attitudes toward America and American business interests. But in pursuit of this goal, it has prevented Haiti from establishing any progressive economic policies that could help the country solve some of its own problems immediately. This is particularly cruel considering that oft repeated refrain that “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”
We can simply can not say we have Haiti’s best interests at heart and simultaneously work diligently to ensure those interests are not fulfilled. The U.S., and all other Western powers, needs to step aside and allow Haiti to chart its own political and economic future.