What You're Not Hearing about Haiti (But Should Be)

In the hours following Haiti's
devastating earthquake, CNN, the NewYork Times
and other major news sources adopted a common interpretation for the
severe destruction: the 7.0 earthquake was so devastating because it
struck an urban area that was extremely over-populated and extremely
poor. Houses "built on top of each other" and constructed
by the poor people themselves made for a fragile city. And the
country's many years of underdevelopment and political turmoil made
the Haitian government ill-prepared to respond to such a disaster.

In the hours following Haiti's
devastating earthquake, CNN, the NewYork Times
and other major news sources adopted a common interpretation for the
severe destruction: the 7.0 earthquake was so devastating because it
struck an urban area that was extremely over-populated and extremely
poor. Houses "built on top of each other" and constructed
by the poor people themselves made for a fragile city. And the
country's many years of underdevelopment and political turmoil made
the Haitian government ill-prepared to respond to such a disaster.

True enough. But that's
not the whole story. What's missing is any explanation of why
there are so many Haitians living in and around Port-au-Prince and why
so many of them are forced to survive on so little. Indeed, even
when an explanation is ventured, it is often outrageously false such
as a former U.S. diplomat's testimony on CNN that Port-au-Prince's
overpopulation was due to the fact that Haitians, like most Third World
people, know nothing of birth control.

It may startle news-hungry
Americans to learn that these conditions the American media correctly
attributes to magnifying the impact of this tremendous disaster were
largely the product of American policies and an American-led development
model.

From 1957-1971 Haitians lived
under the dark shadow of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a brutal dictator
who enjoyed U.S. backing because he was seen by Americans as a reliable
anti-Communist. After his death, Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude "Baby
Doc" became President-for-life at the age of 19 and he ruled Haiti
until he was finally overthrown in 1986. It was in the 1970s and
1980s that Baby Doc and the United States government and business community
worked together to put Haiti and Haiti's capitol city on track to
become what it was on January 12, 2010.

After the coronation of Baby
Doc, American planners inside and outside the U.S. government initiated
their plan to transform Haiti into the "Taiwan of the Caribbean."
This small, poor country situated conveniently close to the United States
was instructed to abandon its agricultural past and develop a robust,
export-oriented manufacturing sector. This, Duvalier and his allies
were told, was the way toward modernization and economic development.

From the standpoint of the
World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development
(USAID) Haiti was the perfect candidate for this neoliberal facelift.
The entrenched poverty of the Haitian masses could be used to force
them into low-paying jobs sewing baseballs and assembling other products.

But USAID had plans for the
countryside too. Not only were Haiti's cities to become exporting
bases but so was the countryside, with Haitian agriculture also reshaped
along the lines of export-oriented, market-based production. To
accomplish this USAID, along with urban industrialists and large landholders,
worked to create agro-processing facilities, even while they increased
their practice of dumping surplus agricultural products from the U.S.
on the Haitian people.

This "aid" from the Americans,
along with the structural changes in the countryside predictably forced
Haitian peasants who could no longer survive to migrate to the cities,
especially Port-au-Prince where the new manufacturing jobs were supposed
to be. However, when they got there they found there weren't
nearly enough manufacturing jobs go around. The city became more
and more crowded. Slum areas expanded. And to meet the housing
needs of the displaced peasants, quickly and cheaply constructed housing
was put up, sometimes placing houses right "on top of each other."

Before too long, however, American
planners and Haitian elites decided that perhaps their development model
didn't work so well in Haiti and they abandoned it. The consequences
of these American-led changes remain, however.

When on the afternoon and evening
of January 12, 2010 Haiti experienced that horrible earthquake and round
after round of aftershock the destruction was, no doubt, greatly worsened
by the very real over-crowding and poverty of Port-au-Prince and the
surrounding areas. But shocked Americans can do more than shake
their heads and, with pity, make a donation. They can confront
their own country's responsibility for the conditions in Port-au-Prince
that magnified the earthquake's impact, and they can acknowledge America's
role in keeping Haiti from achieving meaningful development. To
accept the incomplete story of Haiti offered by CNN and the
New York Times
is to blame Haitians for being the victims of a scheme
that was not of their own making. As John Milton wrote, "they
who have put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their blindness."