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.