Haiti – Natural disaster on man-made tragedy

The massive earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12,2010 is estimated to have killed around 200000 people. The World’s attention is on Haiti now.
Where is this Haiti?What kind of people live there? What is their history? Let us try to find out some answers.

The country of Haiti makes up the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Hispanola is between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the eastern two-thirds of the island is the Dominican Republic.The capital of Haiti is Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is one of poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty percent of residents live in poverty,Haiti is one of the most densely populated country in Western Hemisphere with a population of about 10 million. 95% of the people are Blacks and are mostly Roman Catholics. French is the official language.

A history of man-made tragedy

The island of Hispaniola, of which Haiti occupies the western third, was  inhabited by the Taíno Indians, speakers of an Arawakan language.
Christopher Columbus landed on the island on 5 December 1492, and claimed the island for Spain.
Columbus described the people he found as “lovable, tractable, peaceable, gentle, decorous,” and their land as rich and bountiful. Hispaniola was “perhaps the most densely populated place in the world,”
But the arrival and conquest by the Euopeans changed all that in a few decades.
Bartolomé de Las Casas a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest and writer wrote,
“a beehive of people,” who “of all the infinite universe of humanity, …are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity.” Driven by “insatiable greed and ambition,” the Spanish fell upon them “like ravening wild beasts, … killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before.
 “from my own knowledge of the acts I witnessed.” “It was a general rule among Spaniards to be cruel,” he wrote: “not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings.” “As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to the earth by the horses, cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures, …[they] decided to abandon themselves to their unhappy fate with no further struggles, placing themselves in the hands of their enemies that they might do with them as they liked.”

Europeans also brought new diseases unknown to the Western hemisphere and by 1522 the native population was reduced to around 200.The Taínos became virtually, but not completely, extinct on the island of Hispaniola. Some who evaded capture fled to the mountains and established independent settlements.
Devoid of work force the Spanish governors began importing enslaved Africans for labor.
Spanish interest in Hispaniola began to wane in the 1520s, as more lucrative gold and silver deposits were found in Mexico and South America. Thereafter, the population of Spanish Hispaniola grew slowly. Fearful of pirate attacks, the king of Spain in 1606 ordered all colonists on Hispaniola to move closer to the capital city, Santo Domingo. The decision backfired, as British, Dutch, and French pirates then established bases on the island’s abandoned northern and western coasts.
French buccaneers established a settlement on the island of Tortuga in 1625. They survived by pirating Spanish ships and hunting wild cattle. Although the Spanish destroyed the buccaneers’ settlements several times, on each occasion they returned. The first official settlement on Tortuga was established in 1659 under the commission of King Louis XIV.
In 1664, the newly established French West India Company took control over the colony, which it named Saint-Domingue, and France formally claimed control of the western portion of the island of Hispaniola. Under the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, Spain officially ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. By that time, planters outnumbered buccaneers and, with the encouragement of Louis XIV, they had begun to grow tobacco, indigo, cotton, and cacao on the fertile northern plain, thus prompting the importation of a large number of African slaves.

“Saint Domingue was the wealthiest European colonial possession in the Americas,” Hans Schmidt writes, producing three-quarters of the world’s sugar by 1789, also leading the world in production of coffee, cotton, indigo, and rum. The slave masters provided France with enormous wealth from the labor of their 450,000 slaves.The white population, including poor overseers and artisans, numbered 40,000. Some 30,000 mulattoes and free Negroes enjoyed economic privileges but not social and political equality.
The brutal methods employed by French masters are described like this:

“Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excretement? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?”

Haitian Revolution

The slave revolt which started in 1791 ended on January 1 1804, with the elimination of slavery and establishment of an Independent  Republic of Haiti.
“Haiti was more than the New World’s second oldest republic[after USA],” anthropologist Ira Lowenthal observed, “more than even the first black republic of the modern world. Haiti was the first free nation of free men to arise within, and in resistance to, the emerging constellation of Western European empire.”
The indigenous Taíno name of Haiti (“Land of Mountains”) was given for the new nation.

Revolution aftermath

The rebel victory came at tremendous cost. Much of the agricultural wealth of the country was destroyed, along with perhaps a third of the population. The victory horrified Haiti’s slave-holding neighbors, who backed France’s claims for huge reparations, finally accepted in 1825 by Haiti’s ruling elite, who recognized them to be a precondition for entry into the global market. The result was “decades of French domination of Haitian finance” with “a catastrophic effect on the new nation’s delicate economy,”

Haiti was ruled by many leaders from the elite class who fought with each other and the colonial powers used these fights to control Haiti for their vested interests.

US invasions

The US was the last major power to recognize Haiti and that came only in 1862.   Haiti’s strategic role in control of the Caribbean became increasingly important in US planning in later years, as Haiti became a plaything among the competing imperial powers. Meanwhile its ruling elite monopolized trade, while the peasant producers in the interior remained isolated from the outside world.

US Navy ships entered Haitian waters several times to “protect American lives and property.” Haiti’s independence was scarcely given even “token recognition,” Schmidt observes in his standard history, and there was little consideration for the rights of its people.

Current situation

Seumas Milne  wrote in ‘The Guardian’ January 20,2010:

Punished for the success of its uprising against slavery and self-proclaimed first black republic of 1804 with invasion, blockade and a crushing burden of debt reparations only finally paid off in 1947, Haiti was occupied by the US between the wars and squeezed mercilessly by multiple creditors. More than a century of deliberate colonial impoverishment was followed by decades of the US-backed dictatorship of the Duvaliers, who indebted the country still further.

When the liberation theologist Aristide was elected on a platform of development and social justice, his challenge to Haiti’s oligarchy and its international sponsors led to two foreign-backed coups and US invasions, a suspension of aid and loans, and eventual exile in 2004. Since then, thousands of UN troops have provided security for a discredited political system, while ­global financial institutions have imposed a relentlessly neoliberal diet, pauperising Haitians still further.

After the Earthquake

It seems the US is more interested in ‘securing’ Haiti than in providing essential supplies.

Mark Weisbrot again in Guardian writes:
If people do not get clean water, there could be epidemics of water-borne diseases that could greatly increase the death toll. But the US is now sending 10,000 troops and seems to be prioritising “security” over much more urgent, life-and-death needs. This in addition to the increase of 3,500 UN troops scheduled to arrive……..Washington’s fear of democracy in Haiti may explain why the US is now sending 10,000 troops and prioritising “security” over other needs.

The US, together with Canada and France, conspired openly for four years to topple Haiti’s elected government in 2002, cutting off almost all international aid in order to destroy the economy and make the country ungovernable. They succeeded. For those who wonder why there are no Haitian government institutions to help with the earthquake relief efforts, this is a big reason. Or why there are 3 million people crowded into the area where the earthquake hit. US policy over the years also helped destroy Haitian agriculture, for example, by forcing the import of subsidised US rice and wiping out thousands of Haitian rice farmers.

The world-renowned humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders complained that a plane carrying its portable hospital unit with 12 tons of equipment including Dialysis machines was re-routed by the US military through the Dominican Republic. This meant a loss of more than 48 hours and a large number of lives.

Jarry Emmanuel, air logistics officer for the UN’s World Food Programme, said: “There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti … But most flights are for the US military.”

Future of Haiti

International Financial Organisations should write off all Haiti’s debt. Haiti needs grants and not more loans. USA should encourage a functioning democratic Government of people’s choice and reconstruction work should not be used to increase the US Corporations hold in Haiti. Haiti can be saved if the International community comes together in unity, not to control and loot, but to help the people of Haiti.

Haiti is suffering from a natural disaster of gigantic proportion. But looking at its history it becomes clear that the magnitude of suffering is so much because of the enormous man-made tragedies of yesteryears fuelled by human greed and cruelty.

Links and references
Year 501; Noam Chomsky
History of Haiti
Guardian articles 1 and 2
Map from CNN.com


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