In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, killing as many as 200,000 people, a recurring metaphor has been used to describe the scene: Haiti is hell on earth. It may seem strange to quibble over words when so many people are suffering so much. But words matter, and hell is one we should resist using. For one thing, it demeans the humanity of Haiti’s survivors–who are shaken, bloodied, hungry, thirsty, frightened and weary–but not damned. During the day, they clear rubble with their bare hands and pull bodies–a few living, most dead–from the wreckage. At night they sing for solace under stars and tents; there are no buildings left. There have been a few reports of violence, but for the most part Haitians have acted like any others facing immense disaster–organizing mutual aid, sharing what food and water are available, getting care to the neediest and waiting… waiting for help to arrive.
How much and how quickly that help comes are vital concerns, but equally important is what form that aid takes. There are reports that US troops initially militarized the Port-au-Prince airport, leading to complaints that they were prioritizing planes bringing in security personnel and weapons instead of humanitarian aid. Médecins Sans Frontières reports that five of its aircraft carrying equipment and medicine were turned away and diverted to the Dominican Republic, delaying delivery by days. Meanwhile, MSF clinics in Haiti lack very basic supplies. One MSF worker in the shantytown of Cité Soleil said, “We were forced to buy a saw in the market to continue amputations. We are running against time here.”
Given that the United States occupied Haiti on and off throughout the twentieth century, Haitians have every right to be wary about the presence of thousands of American GIs. Some soldiers distributing aid have reportedly removed their helmets, body armor and ammunition in an attempt to signal their intentions. Instead of indulging in the media’s anticipation of mob violence and chaos [see “The Haiti Haters,” page 5], the US military should amplify this message at all levels: this is a humanitarian mission only, and the United States has no intention to “secure” Port-au-Prince or any other part of Haiti.
This principle of self-determination ought to drive the economic aid Haiti receives as well, not just now but through its long recovery. Here it’s important to recall that for much of Haiti’s existence, foreign powers like the United States, France and Britain have used debt not just to control but to plunder it. In the nineteenth century the French forced Haiti into paying reparations of some 150 million francs to French slave owners. It took Haitians 122 years, but in 1947 they were finally able to pay off what remained of this debt. Yet this came at the enormous cost of its development: at one point the Haitian government was spending 80 percent of its national budget on repayments. In the 1990s the Clinton administration and international lenders like the World Bank, IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank pressured Haiti into structural adjustment policies that opened the country up to imports and to the privatization of state-run industries and public infrastructure like the telephone, education and healthcare systems. The dire state of affairs that preceded the earthquake–poverty, deforestation, food shortages, broken schools and malnutrition–is this history’s legacy. It’s a kind of hell, perhaps, but a man-made one.
Last year, much of Haiti’s debt was forgiven, but some $1 billion remains. The biggest loan holders–the World Bank, the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank, Venezuela and Taiwan–should forgive Haiti’s outstanding debt, and any new aid should be dispersed as grants, not loans. When the IMF announced a $100 million loan to Haiti on January 14, one that may have come with conditions like freezing public employees’ salaries, debt relief activists around the world sounded the alarm. On January 20 the IMF announced that the new loan comes at zero percent interest with no strings attached and that it is now “working with all donors to try to delete all the Haitian debt, including our new loan.” The promise of debt relief coinciding nearly simultaneously with a loan announcement is unprecedented in IMF history and is a demonstration of the power activists can have when the world’s attention is drawn to a humanitarian crisis of such magnitude. Tearing up Haiti’s debt would free much-needed capital for rebuilding the country; it would also just begin to compensate Haiti for the historic theft of its resources. Long after the cameras have left, global activists will have to be vigilant to make sure these pledges are kept so that Haitians can finally write a new history, for and by themselves.