'New Haiti,' Same Corporate Interests

In the wake of the earthquake that has killed more than 100,000 people in Haiti, the foreign ministers of several countries calling themselves the "Friends of Haiti" met on Monday in Montreal to discuss plans for "building a new Haiti." Participants in the Ministerial Preparatory Conference on Haiti, who included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; representatives of international financial institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive came to what Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, the conference chair, referred to as a "road map towards Haiti's reconstruction and development." However, the Latin American countries of ALBA--the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas--who held a counter-conference, and several grassroots Haiti solidarity organizations, who organized protests outside the conference, expressed skepticism that the "Friends of Haiti" and the international financial institutions would work to further the interests of ordinary Haitians.

One of the groups protesting the conference, Haiti Action Montreal, issued a statement warning that "There is a danger that these major powers will try to exploit the earthquake to further narrow pro-corporate ends, if reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina and in Asia following the tsunami are any indication."

As Naomi Klein has observed, this process is already underway. The Heritage Foundation think tank's initial response to the earthquake clearly followed the pattern she documented in her book The Shock Doctrine, by which neoliberal reformers seek to impose an agenda of privatization in times of crisis. It was less than twenty-four hours after Haiti was hit by an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude that the Heritage Foundation issued a release recommending that "In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti's long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region."

That sentiment was echoed by James Dobbins, former special envoy to Haiti under President Bill Clinton and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, who stated in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, "This disaster is an opportunity to accelerate oft-delayed reforms," including "breaking up or at least reorganizing the government-controlled telephone monopoly" and restructuring the ports, which also represent two of Haiti's few remaining state enterprises.

The World Bank also observed an upside to the catastrophe in Haiti; in a January 18 blog post titled "Haiti earthquake: Out of great disasters comes great opportunity," a World Bank disaster management analyst recently stated that "there is a silver lining to this great tragedy. Looking back in history, great natural disasters are often a catalyst for huge, positive change." Even calls for the expansion of Haiti's sweatshop industry are being made in the media.

The possibility of a repeat of the kinds of corrupt corporate profiteering that Klein documented in Iraq in the initial months of the 2003 US occupation have not been lost on Dan Senor, an adviser to the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and 2004. In a January 17 op-ed in the New York Times, Senor recommended the adoption in Haiti of the same fund used under the Coalition Provisional Authority--"a discretionary fund that American officers can dip into for development projects and crisis response without constantly looking over their shoulders at monitors in Washington."

As one financial analyst observed in a particularly frank article titled "An Opportunity to Heal Haiti," published a day after the earthquake in The Street, "Here are some companies that could potentially benefit: General Electric (GE), Caterpillar (CAT), Deere (DE), Fluor (FLR), Jacobs Engineering (JEC)." And that's not to mention the mercenary companies that, as The Nation's Jeremy Scahill has observed, are now setting their sights on Haiti.

The chair's opening remarks at the conference Monday suggest that corporate interests are being well represented in the planning stages for the "new Haiti." In his introductory speech at the ministerial conference on Haiti, Cannon stated, "We also have with us today some members from the private sector who have given generously to the humanitarian appeal but will also play an important role in Haiti's future." Singling out several sectors of the Haitian economy (including the ports, electricity and telecommunications) that have historically been state-owned, he added that "They [members from the private sector] will be accompanying and supporting us in rebuilding the national infrastructure of ports, roads and power generation and in re-establishing essential services from electricity, to banking and communications."

When I asked the World Bank's vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, Pamela Cox, to elaborate on what kind of private-sector role was being envisioned for Haiti's future, she said, "You'd have to talk to the private sector...in the sense that they're the ones who would be putting their money in so they'd have the decision. What we want to hear from them is what kinds of things they need, so that they can come back." Cox cited "one proposal" that she'd heard vis-&gravea-vis investment in the "garment manufacturing industry"--a sector that has long been associated with sweatshop labor practices in Haiti.

For anyone familiar with Haiti's experience of this sweatshop-based, pro-corporate development model over the years, it is clear that the road map the banks and "Friends" are charting for the "new Haiti" is not in the least bit new. And, for the Haitian people, who have always paid the price for these failed policies, it is nothing less than disastrous.

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