Haiti: An unnatural disaster

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There’s no such thing as a "natural disaster."

Yes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, tsunamis, wildfires and earthquakes are events created by nature. But for the people who find themselves in these kinds of calamities, who lives and who dies is often determined by factors created by men.

Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti was a horrible event. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a nation that has seen way too much suffering already, was virtually leveled. Tens of thousands of Haitians are dead or dying.

And then one remembers the recent history of Haiti, with decades of U.S. occupation and interference in its affairs. From 1915 to 1934, the Marines occupied Haiti and 40 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product was diverted to U.S. bankers.

One remembers how the United States propped up the murderous regime of the Duvalier family for nearly a half-century, a family that looted Haiti at will and killed or drove into exile anyone who dared to object.

One remembers how "free market" economic philosophies championed by the United States and embraced by the Duvaliers in the 1970s led to the dumping of agricultural imports by American firms and the collapse of Haiti’s farming economy. Haiti was once an agriculturally self-sustaining nation. After tariffs on rice and other foodstuffs were removed, farms were abandoned. The slums of Port-au-Prince started filling up as the country was transformed into one big sweatshop for companies looking for cheap labor.

One remembers how CIA-aided coups were launched against every democratically elected president, most notably Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted twice even though he was elected with about 75 percent of the vote.

One remembers Haiti’s legacy of possessing arguably the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in history, followed by decades of postcolonial oppression. Haiti before the earthquake was a nation where around 75 percent of the population lived on less than $2 per day, and 56 percent -- or about 4.5 million people -- lived on less than $1 per day.

This is how an earthquake becomes a man-made disaster. A nation that has known nothing but grinding poverty for decades, and whose housing and basic infrastructure ranged from woefully inadequate to non-existent, was hit disproportionately hard by this disaster. Even worse, Haiti has virtually no resources to rebuild itself.

This is how men affect the outcome of a natural disaster. Haiti was devastated by a series of four major hurricanes in 2008. Towns were literally swept away as more than a thousand people died and many thousands of homes were destroyed. Those same storms struck nearby Cuba and hit just as hard, yet only four people died in the entire nation. Why? Cuba hadn’t been bled dry like Haiti by years of economic exploitation disguised as "reform," and the Cuban government has the capacity that Haiti lacks to protect its people from calamity.

The international community is flooding Haiti with aid, as it should. Haiti will need a lot of assistance for a very long time to recover from this disaster. But after such a long history of exploitation -- some of it from several of the nations that are now offering it aid -- it’s time that the people of Haiti got a chance to freely determine their own future.

They deserve self-empowerment and functioning public institutions. They deserve a government and an economy not manipulated by outside forces. Haitians deserve all this, and more, as a partial payback for the long and shameful history of political and economic abuse that they have suffered.


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