WikiLeaks Haiti: The Earthquake Cables

WikiLeaks Haiti: The Earthquake Cables

WikiLeaks Haiti: The Earthquake Cables

Despite reports from its own embassy that the post-quake situation in Haiti was “calm,” the United States launched a massive military operation that sparked an international backlash.


Washington deployed 22,000 troops to Haiti after the January 12, 2010, earthquake despite reports from the Haitian leadership, the US Embassy and the UN that no serious security threat existed, according to secret US diplomatic cables.

The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, were made available to the Haitian newspaper Haïti Liberté, which is collaborating with The Nation on a series of reports about US and UN policy toward the country.

Washington’s decision to send thousands of troops in response to the 7.0 earthquake that rocked the Haitian capital and surrounding areas drew sharp criticism from aid workers and government officials around the world at the time. They criticized the militarized response to Haiti’s humanitarian crisis as inappropriate and counterproductive. French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet famously said that international aid efforts should be “about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti.”

The earthquake-related cables also show that Washington was very sensitive to international criticism of its response and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mobilized her diplomatic corps to ferret out “irresponsible journalism” worldwide and “take action” to “get the narrative right.”

In a January 15 cable, Clinton told diplomatic posts and military commands that “approximately 4,000 U.S. military personnel will be in Haiti by January 16 and 10,000 personnel by January 18.” On January 17, Haitian President René Préval issued a “joint communiqué” with Clinton, in which Haiti requested that the United States “assist as needed in augmenting security,” helping to diminish the appearance of a unilateral US action and providing the rationale for what was to be the third US military intervention of Haiti in the past twenty years.

Aware that there would be international dismay about US troops playing a security role, Clinton outlined a series of talking points for diplomats and military officers in her January 22 cable. She said they should emphasize that “MINUSTAH [UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, as the occupation force is called] has the primary international responsibility for security,” but that “in keeping with President Preval’s request to the United States for assistance to augment security, the U.S. is providing every possible support… and is in no way supplanting the UN’s role.”

Meanwhile, the UN claimed that its 9,000 occupation troops and police officers had the situation under control.

At a January 18 meeting between President Préval and international officials, former Guatemalan diplomat Edmond Mulet, MINUSTAH’s new chief, said his troops “were capable of providing security” in the country. (Mulet had flown in on a Pentagon plane the day before to take over from Hédi Annabi, who was killed with 101 other UN personnel when the Hotel Christopher, which acted as UN headquarters, collapsed during the quake.) Mulet “insisted that MINUSTAH be in charge of all security in Haiti, with other foreign military forces limited to humanitarian relief operations.”

On January 19, with Resolution 1908, the UN Security Council unanimously approved sending more than 3,500 reinforcements to Haiti “to support the immediate recovery, reconstruction and stability efforts,” increasing MINUSTAH to 12,651.

But Obama administration officials said the additional US troops were necessary.

"Until we can get ample supplies of food and water to people, there is a worry that in their desperation some will turn to violence,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters six days after the quake. “And we will work with the UN in trying to ensure that the security situation remains good."

No Serious Security Threat After the Quake

After the quake, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, resembled a war zone. Bodies lay strewn, collapsed buildings spilled into dust-filled streets, while Haitians frantically rushed to dig out survivors crying out from under hills of rubble. Several flattened neighborhoods looked as if bombing raids had destroyed them.

But the one element missing from this apocalyptic scene was an actual war or widespread violence. Instead, families sat down in the street, huddled around flickering candles with their belongings. Some wept, some sat in shellshocked silence, while others sang prayers, wailing for Jesus Christ in Kreyòl: “Jezi!”

In the quake’s chaotic aftermath, Préval and his prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, were out of touch with US government officials for about twenty-four hours. When they did connect, the Haitian leaders held a 3 pm meeting on January 14 with US Ambassador Kenneth Merten, the Jamaican prime minister, the Brazilian and EU ambassadors, and UN officials.

President Préval laid out priorities: “Re-establish telephone communications; Clear the streets of debris and bodies; Provide food and water to the population; Bury cadavers; Treat the injured; Coordination” among groups amid the destruction, a January 16 cable explains. Préval did not mention insecurity as a major concern. He did not ask for military troops.

But the same cable reports that “lead elements of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived today, with approximately 150 troops on the ground. More aircraft are expected to arrive tonight with troops and equipment.”

The US government had already initiated the deployment of considerable military assets to Haiti, according to the secret State Department cables–before the Haitian government, it appears, formally requested assistance. At its peak, the US military response included 22,000 soldiers–7,000 based on land and the remainder operating aboard fifty-eight aircraft and fifteen nearby vessels, according to the Pentagon. The Coast Guard was also flying spotter aircraft along Haiti’s coast to intercept any refugees from the disaster.

A January 14 cable from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to US Embassies and Pentagon commands worldwide said that the US Embassy in Haiti “anticipates significant food shortages and looting in the affected areas.” But subsequent dispatches from Ambassador Merten in Haiti repeatedly describe "only sporadic” incidents of violence and looting.

One January 19 cable said that the “security situation in Haiti remains calm overall with no indications of mass migration towards North America.” Another cable that day said, “Residents were residing in made-shift [sic] camps in available open areas, and they had not yet received any humanitarian supplies from relief organization. Nonetheless, the residents were civil, calm, polite, solemn and seemed to be well-organized while they were searching for belongings in the ruins of their homes.”

“Security” vs. Humanitarian Relief

Following her boss’s talking points, Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, “assured Preval…that the military was here for humanitarian relief and not as a security force,” explains a January 19 cable.

But that’s not what journalists on the ground saw.

On January 19, Democracy Now!’s crew along with Haïti Liberté’s Kim Ives arrived at the General Hospital around 1 pm, shortly after troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. They found the soldiers, guns in hand, standing behind the hospital’s closed main gate. The troops had orders to provide “security” by denying entrance to a crowd of hundreds, including injured earthquake victims and family members of patients bringing them food or medicine.

“Watching the scene in front of the General Hospital yesterday said it all,” said Ives in a Democracy Now! interview the next day. “Here were people who were going in and out of the hospital bringing food to their loved ones in there or needing to go to the hospital, and there were a bunch of…US 82nd Airborne soldiers in front yelling in English at this crowd. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were creating more chaos rather than diminishing it. It was a comedy, if it weren’t so tragic…. They had no business being there.”

The journalists finally managed to get into the hospital and alerted the hospital’s interim director, Dr. Evan Lyon, about the problem. He immediately sent word down that the soldiers should stand down and open the gate. They did, but then positioned themselves in the driveway, among the injured hobbling into the hospital, as an unnecessary and unrequested security force, contrary to what Mills had promised Préval.

Three months later, US troops walking around in what appeared to be foot patrols could still be seen in downtown Port-au-Prince. “I don’t think we need soldiers with guns. We need engineers the most," Brital, a rapper in one of Haiti’s most popular hip hop group, the Barikad Crew, told Inter-Press Service. “I’d prefer to see soldiers who could educate instead of those with guns. Soldiers that can come and build roads, bridges, universities and hospitals.”

The enormous influx of US military personnel, weapons and equipment into the airport prompted a chorus of protest from mid-level French, Italian and Brazilian officials, as well as the aid group Doctors Without Borders. They were outraged that planes carrying vital humanitarian supplies were being prevented from landing, or delayed, sometimes for days.

“We had a whole freaking plane full of the friggin’ medicine!” Douglas Copp, an American rescue worker, said outside a UN base not long after the quake. The US military, which had taken over the Port-au-Prince airport, would not give clearance for the Peruvian military plane to land. It had to divert to the Dominican capital, 150 miles away. “In Santo Domingo, we got a bus, and we came into Haiti with just the things we could fit in the bus,” Copp exclaimed.

Clinton: “Get the Narrative Right”

Hillary Clinton brooked no criticism, which was growing worldwide, of the US military’s role in the relief effort. “I am deeply concerned by instances of inaccurate and unfavorable international media coverage of America’s role and intentions in Haiti,” she wrote in a stern January 20 message to embassies around the globe. “It is imperative to get the narrative right over the long term.”

She asked that embassies report back to her, “citing specific examples of irresponsible journalism in your host countries, and what action you have taken in response.”  

In countries all over the world, from Luxembourg to Chile, diplomatic officials scrutinized the media and hit back against criticism of the US military’s buildup in Haiti, sending back dozens of detailed reports.

For example, a January 20 cable from Doha tells how a hard-hitting Al Jazeera English segment described the relief effort’s militarization and compared the US-run airport to a “mini-Green zone.” This report resulted in a phone call “during the early morning hours of January 18" from the US Embassy in Doha to Tony Burman, Al Jazeera English’s managing director.

But the airport story was true. “They had taken over the place,” Jeremy Dupin, 26, said about the US “joint coordination” of the airport. After his home had collapsed, Dupin, a Haitian journalist, had wandered the streets for a day before linking up with an Al Jazeera English crew to work as a producer.

“There were 20,000 soldiers, so this was, you know, a big move,” Dupin said. “I think that we pointed out there were serious problems, and that’s why the US didn’t like the news, but we told the truth. And if we had to say it again, we would say it again.”

Many cables reported widely positive coverage in their countries. But instances of negativity toward the United States, no matter how small, were flagged and dealt with. In Colombia, for example, “the only negative coverage” was from a newspaper cartoonist who drew “a colonial soldier planting a U.S. flag on the island of Haiti,” the Bogota Embassy reported on January 26. “Post will meet with the cartoonist this week to discuss this cartoon with him and provide information refuting its inference, as well as engage with El Espectador’s editor to express our strong concerns.”

Militarization of Humanitarian Aid

There is no doubt that the US soldiers deployed to Haiti helped many earthquake victims. The 82nd Airborne Division helped set up one of the capital’s largest and best-equipped displaced persons camps of more than 35,000 with actor Sean Penn at the Pétionville Country Club, which was its operational base.

The Pentagon’s earthquake response also included one of the largest medical outreach efforts in history. Service men and women treated and evaluated thousands of Haitian patients, including more than 8,600 on the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort Surgeons and completed nearly 1,000 surgeries.

But other countries carried out rescue and medical relief efforts without the presence of military troops. For example, in the six months after the quake, the Henry Reeve Medical Brigade, a 1,500 member contingent of doctors who graduated from Cuba’s medical school, treated 70,300 patients, and performed more 2,500 operations, all without deploying soldiers or bringing in weapons, according to a Henry Reeve Brigade report in June 2010.

There is a growing movement among aid groups worldwide, and even in the UN, against the militarization of humanitarian aid. The report "Quick Impact, Quick Collapse: The Dangers of Militarized Aid in Afghanistan," by Actionaid, Oxfam International and other NGOs, could have been as easily written about Haiti, where the Pentagon’s “government in a box” strategy was being applied as the study was released in late January 2010.

“As political pressures to ‘show results’ in troop contributing countries intensify, more and more assistance is being channeled through military actors to ‘win hearts and minds’ while efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty…are being sidelined,” the report’s introduction reads. “Development projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structures aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable. There is little evidence this approach is generating stability….”

But no matter where one comes down on the question of the US military’s role and contribution in post-quake Haiti, one thing is for sure. The massive troop deployment was not set in motion because of demands from President Préval and the Haitian government, whose concern was with the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

Haitian business owners were the most worried about security, especially for their factories, according to the cables. Five days after the quake, Ambassador Merten met with representatives of Haiti’s business sector, who said “their major concern is security at all levels, to include security of goods, at marketplaces, and for ports of entry.” Later, they asked the UN occupation troops “to provide security for reopened factories, and pledged to re-open in weeks.” Embassy officers met again with Haitian business leaders one week later.

In a January 26 cable, Merten commented that “apparel manufacturers in Haiti operate on a high volume, thin margin, low capitalization basis where cash flow is extremely important for the business to survive.” He relayed a factory owner’s suggestion for a $20 million loan to the sector. Days later, he applauded the introduction of legislation in the US Senate “intended to provide short-term relief to Haiti’s apparel sector” by extending trade preferences.

Some longtime Haiti observers suggest other explanations for the quick and massive US military response to the earthquake crisis.

“It is certain that one important reason for the US troop deployment to Haiti after the quake was to bar any revolutionary uprising that might have emerged due to the Haitian government’s near collapse,” said Haitian activist Ray Laforest, a member of the International Support Haiti Network. “Also the perception of Haitians in Washington, since the time of its 1915 occupation, is that they are savage, undisciplined and violent. In fact, the 2010 earthquake proved the opposite: Haitians came together in an exemplary display of heroism, resilience and solidarity. Washington’s military response to the earthquake indicates how deeply it misunderstands, mistrusts and mistreats Haiti.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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