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Haiti: the magnitude of this disaster is a product of imperialism

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The numbers of dead in the Haitian earthquake could well reach 200,000 or higher.

The quake measuring 7 on the Richter scale was succeeded by over 30 aftershocks, each over 4.5. The quake crushed houses, schools, hotels, the parliament building, the presidential palace, the UN headquarters and, critically, eight hospitals. It swept away much of the flimsy shanty towns that straggle up the hills surrounding the capital Port-au-Prince, a city of two million people.

Piled up in mounds, bodies are being scooped up by dumper trucks and buried in landfill sites. An even worse fate has befallen thousands of the living, trapped and in agony, under the huge number of collapsed buildings.

Four days after the quake only a small number of fire fighters and other rescue teams have reached the streets of the capital.

For the shocked survivors – many still searching for their loved ones - life is a living hell. The capital city’s open spaces like the Champs de Mars are crowded with “tents”, most just pieces of flimsy plastic sheeting stretched over poles. The International Red Cross said that 3 million of Haiti's 9 million people would depend on emergency aid to survive in the weeks ahead.

Millions are without shelter, light, power, food and water. Despite the media being full of pledges and promises from the world’s politicians, the correspondents who got to the streets of the Haitian capital by Friday 15 January reported little if any sign that aid was reaching the population. Given that the possibility of saving trapped people is measured in hours or at most two or three days, this shows how woefully inadequate the response of the world’s rulers has been.

Worse still, the evident priorities of the US, France and other imperialist powers with interests in the region, is to prevent “looting” by local people and preserve order. That’s why the first wave of “helpers” from the US came arms to the teeth: 3,500 US soldiers, 2,200 marines, but only 300 medical personnel.

The puny size of this medical support is all the more clear once compared with the 344 Cuban healthcare workers already on the ground in Haiti and the 800 personnel already there from Médecins Sans Frontieres. Yet the Marines brought in on amphibious landing ships will remain in Port-au-Prince harbour ‘at the ready’ to be called out if needed to deal with social unrest in the vast shanty towns of Cité Soleil and La Saline.

At the same time, it is wrong to present the huge loss of life as primarily a natural disaster. When an earthquake of exactly the same severity hit in northern California including San Francisco 21 years ago 63 people died – not 200,000. The first reason for the loss of life is that 60 percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were so badly built that the city's mayor had already declared them as unsafe in normal conditions (though the city has no building regulations despite being on a major fault line of the two American continents’ tectonic plates). Geologists had also been warning for some time of the likelihood of a major quake in Haiti.

The world’s media has the insolence to blame Haitians for their own problems. “OK”, they say, “poverty has made the effects of the earthquake worse but the poverty is the result of ‘bad governance’ and ‘corruption’”. But the ‘governance’ of Haitians has not been in their own hands for many years, and is not today. It is virtually a colony, effectively administered by the United Nations, with behind it the US. Most aid is funneled through foreign NGOs and coordinated by the UN headquarters, backed up by the 9,000 troops in the UN peacekeeping force (MINUSTAH).

Haiti’s independence is only of the most formal variety. It is an extreme example of what Marxists call a semi-colony.

The excuse for this given by the international community is the corruption of the Haitian government machinery. But there is a Haitian joke which goes, when a Haitian minister pockets 15 per cent of aid money it’s called "corruption", when an NGO or aid agency takes 50 per cent it’s called "overheads".

In fact the US has been interfering in Haiti for nearly a century. US marines occupied the country in 1915 to guarantee the repayment of US loans, and stayed till 1934. Between 1957 and 1986 the US backed up Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship. They feared the Haitian masses might be infected by the revolution in neighbouring Cuba.

When ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier finally fled to France, with much of his family’s ill-gotten gains, and the successor military dictatorship soon collapsed, a radical populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency in 1990 by a landslide. The country’s millionaire élite used their control of the rest of the state machine to frustrate Aristide’s reforms. A military coup in 1991 ousted him with the collusion of the CIA and US president George Bush Senior.

A partial turnaround came under Bill Clinton and the Democrats, who restored Aristide by a US invasion in 1994. But he and his Lavalas successor René Préval were hog-tied by IMF neoliberal “reforms” - nicknamed the "plan of death" by Haitians - and by the presence of US troops. The hopes of the masses were disappointed and Aristide thus disoriented his own supporters. Nevertheless Aristide was elected once again in 2000. Detested by the Bush Junior administration, they set out to undermine him. Loans were blocked and sabotage by the country’s business elite meant promised reforms were once again deferred or abandoned. This culminated in a second successful coup in 2004 spearheaded by local gangsters, acting on behalf of the Haitian elite, but inspired and bankrolled by leading figures in the US Republican Party. Aristide remains in exile in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Under the protection of the UN and the US, a tiny wealthy elite of a few thousand families, many of them millionaires, lives a life of luxury in the suburb of Pétionville whilst between 60 and 80 percent of Haitians live in absolute poverty. The unemployment rate stands at 75 per cent and 40 per cent have no access to primary healthcare. Only 20 per cent of Haitians can read and write. Three-quarters of the nine million people living in Haiti live on less than $2 a day. Half have no access to clean drinking water. It has the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the western hemisphere. Between 1975 and 1998 GDP per capita in Haiti fell from 500 to 370 US dollars per annum. In the CIA World Fact Book Haiti in 2008 was 203rd out of 229 countries in GDP per capita.

Barack Obama has made a big fanfare of the 100 million dollars the US will contribute to the relief effort, but this is only around one hour's spending for the US war machine, and less than some bonuses at the moment being paid out to Wall Street bankers. It is plain therefore that the rescue and recovery of the victims cannot be left to this vast military force. Socialists should demand:

• Much larger numbers of rescue teams with all the most modern equipment is dispatched at once. Only tiny rescue forces have been sent, when thousands of doctors, firefighters and nurses would volunteer.
• All armed military personnel to be withdrawn. If they are there to rescue those trapped in building then why do they need their weapons? Disarm or leave now.
• No use of UN or US troops to “restore order” – independence for Haiti
• All Haiti’s debts should be written off at once and without strings or conditions.
• Billions should be paid over by the USA and the EU countries for reconstruction and development. Not as loans but as reparations for the three centuries of plunder of the country by European and North American powers.
• “Illegal” Haitian immigrants in the USA and Europe must be given full citizenship rights and the ability to communicate with their homeland.

And, as the masses recover from the dreadful trauma of the earthquake, socialist workers and youth around the world most be ready to support them as they fight back against the parasites that have oppressed, exploited and impoverished them for so long.

No greater proof of the need for a revolution to overthrow capitalism and imperialism worldwide could be given than the carnage this system has inflicted on Haiti.