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US Policy in Haiti Over Decades “Lays the Foundation for Why Impact of Natural Disaster Is So Severe”

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We discuss the situation in Haiti following Tuesday’s massive earthquake, as well as the history of Haiti, with two guests who have spent a lot of time there: Bill Quigley, the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 25, 2021Haiti’s Villages Continue to Be “Cut Off from Help” More Than a Week After Massive Earthquake
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest here in studio is Bill Quigley. He’s the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, has spent years also working in Haiti. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bill, you also were deeply involved in the situation in New Orleans, and you were — in the break, you were talking about the similarities, in terms of the ability of the local authorities to respond. Could you talk about that?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yeah. The trauma that this causes affects the elected officials, the police, the fire, everybody through. And ultimately, you know, until order is restored — and “order” meaning a just order is restored — people break into small groups, family groups, neighborhood groups and that to try to care for each other. The police are just as bewildered and traumatized as everybody else.

And I want to say, one of the big worries that we have about Haiti is this, you know, sending in the military, that there is this real sense that you can’t actually start to feed people, you can’t actually share water with people, until you have people there with machine guns to prevent, you know, these — the worries of folks. And there’s an actual fear of the victims by people who are coming. They’re afraid of the people, when in fact the people are the most resilient, cooperative, generous folks who have already survived on their own. And this sort of militarization and scaredness — you know, scariness of the people there is something that’s common to all disasters. And we can talk some more about that in a bit, but it’s a very eerie sense of what’s happening there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’ve been struck, too, by the disparate responses of governments, not just the United States, but other governments around the world. President Obama, listening to him talking about that we’re doing military flyovers to assess the damage and prepare our aid. But while the United States is assessing the situation, there have all been reports that a China airplane, from halfway around the world in China, landed yesterday with supplies and equipment to help the people of Haiti. The Cuban foreign minister announced that Cuba has 400 people already in Haiti that have been working on a — medical people working on a mission. They’ve already set up two field hospitals and, just yesterday alone, treated 800 people. And Venezuela, President Chavez, sent a plane that landed last night with firefighters and medical personnel and other equipment. So these other countries are moving faster than we are here in the United States, even though we have these enormous resources.

BILL QUIGLEY: Cuba has always been a real partner of Haiti. And I was always struck there, because the United States was keeping people from Haiti out of the United States; Cuba was pulling people into Cuba to train them as doctors. They were — a scholarship in every church and every village and everything there to do as doctors. So they have been friends for some time.

The United States’ relationship with Haiti has been troubled for hundreds of years and is really one of the causes of — not of the earthquake itself, which would have devastated any place, but what one of the exacerbating things that — why Haiti is so impoverished to begin with, why people are building these houses on the sides of ravines, why there are so many people in Port-au-Prince and why they’re not in the countryside anymore. You know, and I don’t know if you want to talk about that now, but the history really lays the foundation for why the impact of this natural disaster is going to be so severe.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that history. Actually, Juan, I first met you not here in the United States, but in Haiti.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Right, in Haiti, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was during that first coup against President Aristide from 1991 to 1994. It turned out the CIA was involved in that coup. And for three years, he was kept out. We’re talking to Bill Quigley here in our studio, as we’re also joined by Skype by Brian Concannon, who is a director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. And I want to continue that discussion of the history, which is so critical, Brian.

BRIAN CONCANNON: Thanks, Amy. It’s good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history and how, as Bill was just saying, this — how the history exacerbates the crisis of the earthquake that has afflicted so many millions of people in Haiti right now?

BRIAN CONCANNON: Sure. The history really defines the response and the vulnerability of Haiti to the earthquake. One of the most obvious ways it does that is, as Bill was mentioning, the reason why the people got to the hillsides where they were most vulnerable to the earthquakes — and I’m pretty sure when we start getting more detailed reports on how many people have died that most of the people who have died will have done so in shantytowns perched on the hillsides.

And they got there because they or their parents or grandparents were pushed out of Haiti’s countryside, where most Haitians used to live. And they were pushed out of there by policies thirty years ago, when it was decided by the international experts that Haiti’s economic salvation lay in assembly manufacture plants. And in order to advance that, it was decided that Haiti needed to have a captive labor force in the cities. So a whole bunch of aid policies, trade policies and political policies were implemented, designed to move people from the countryside to places like Martissant and the hills — hillsides that we’ve seen in those photos.

AMY GOODMAN: And would you like to add to this, Bill, this history from, well, 1804?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, as you — not everybody does know, but, you know, in 1804, the imported African slaves that were brought to work the island revolted against their French rulers and colonial folks there and established a free state, a free black state, first time in the world. And the United States responded very badly, because we clearly — you know, we still had enslaved millions and millions of Africans in the United States. And it wasn’t ’til after the Civil War that we even had any sort of relationship with them. And Haiti is much closer to the United States than even some parts of the United States.

France put a military blockade around Haiti to force them to pay reparations for their own freedom, to recompense people for the slaves that were freed. And in the last century, the United States supported dictator after dictator, and the elected officials, we supported the coups that knocked them out. We have kept the country dependent. We have kept the country militarized. And we kept the country impoverished. We have dumped our excess rice, our excess farm produce and that stuff on the country, thereby undercutting the small farmers who would make up the backbone of the place.

So, there are two really good articles for the people in the audience, today’s New York Times, Tracy Kidder, and also in The Guardian by Peter Hallward, saying the crisis that we helped create. We didn’t create the earthquake, but we created some of the circumstances that made the earthquake so devastating.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Of course. And it took Haiti all of the nineteenth century to pay the reparations to the French, so they were in debt throughout the nineteenth century. But I’d also like to raise this issue of the relationship between Haiti and Latin America that most people are not aware of, because, Amy, as you recall, the times that we were in the Presidential Palace in Haiti, the palace that has now collapsed, there was a statue on the second floor of the Presidential Palace in Haiti to Simón Bolívar, the great liberator, because in the early nineteenth century, when Simón Bolívar attempted his first revolt against Spanish rule, he was defeated, and he fled in exile to Haiti. The Haitian government at the time, the new republic, agreed to outfit a new force for Bolívar to return to liberate Latin America. But it had one condition, that he had to agree to abolish slavery in Latin America if he was successful. And as a result, there’s always been this close tie between Venezuela, long before Hugo Chavez.


JUAN GONZALEZ: In fact, when Aristide was first overthrown, it was not Chavez who was president, but it was Venezuela who granted him asylum and offered him to come to their country, because there has been the long tie of appreciation from Venezuela, Colombia and the peoples of the America for the assistance that Haiti gave them in their liberation.

BILL QUIGLEY: And one other thing, I think, that’s important, when people are saying, “Well, where are the police? Where’s the rescue squad? Where’s the fire departments? Where’s that?” Haiti has the most non-governmental organizations of any country in the world. The entire country has, in a sense, been privatized. And anybody who’s ever visited Haiti is struck by the fact that — of these big SUVs that are flying through town with the UN forces in them. Every NGO and charity that you’ve ever heard of in your life is working in Haiti. But their first reaction when something like this happens is to withdraw to try to find their own people, to try to make sure that their place is up. So the flipside of the good that they are doing is that they have substituted for the public sector, and so the public sector is not vibrant, is not there. It is not connected. It is not resourced, and the like. And the role of the NGOs has this really —- has this negative part to it, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you raise that. I wanted to turn to Naomi Klein for a minute. We were together last night at the Ethical Culture Society, where she addressed the crisis in Haiti.

    NAOMI KLEIN: But as I write about in The Shock Doctrine, crises are often used now as the pretext for pushing through policies that you cannot push through under times of stability. Countries in periods of extreme crisis are desperate for any kind of aid -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go back to that in a minute. We’re just going to improve the sound of that tape. But let me go a different direction then. I wanted to bring you the quote of someone else who was talking about history, and that was the evangelist Pat Robertson. I wanted to get your response to Pat Robertson. He made this comment yesterday. It was on the Christian Broadcasting Network program. He claimed that Robertson — well, Robertson claimed that Haiti was cursed after it made a pact with the devil.

    PAT ROBERTSON: And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.

    That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pat Robertson. Bill Quigley, your response?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, this is very sick, twisted man, you know, to have that approach. I think Pat is same person who said Katrina was the revenge for sodomy in the South and that 9/11 was something. I have been in many, many churches in Haiti. I have been to the National Cathedral. I was a friend of the Archbishop who died. These folks have nothing. They are so generous. They are so inspiring, because when they — even though they have nothing, to meet a stranger, as you would know from going there, they’ll give you half of their nothing. And people spend Sundays and Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays in church praying, asking for health, asking for cures for the illness for their children, asking for the chance to go to school. They’re deeply, deeply religious people.

And this idea that they made a pact with the devil, I think, is not something that’s peculiar, unfortunately, just to Pat, because this idea that Haitians and voodoo, that there’s some sort of very, very special thing, not talking about the Irish — the myths that we have as Irish or the different kinds of traditions that we have as Germans or Italians or other people like that, is a very deep racism in that. There’s also a very, very deep — just a twisted understanding of what the role of the Church is and what it can be for people. The first thing — I would guarantee that the very first thing that people did once they found their relatives alive or dead is that they prayed. And a lot of the screaming and crying that people are hearing in the streets, those are screams and cries to God asking for help, asking for forgiveness, asking for assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Naomi Klein. We’re going to try that tape again, her commenting on what is going on in Haiti right now and who is profiting already.

    NAOMI KLEIN: But as I write about in The Shock Doctrine, crises are often used now as the pretext for pushing through policies that you cannot push through under times of stability. Countries in periods of extreme crisis are desperate for any kind of aid, any kind of money, and are not in a position to negotiate fairly the terms of that exchange.

    And I just want to pause for a second and read you something, which is pretty extraordinary. I just put this up on my website. The headline is “Haiti: Stop Them Before They Shock Again.” This went up a few hours ago, three hours ago, I believe, on the Heritage Foundation website.

    “Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S. 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 image of the United States in the region.” And then goes on.

    Now, I don’t know whether things are improving or not, because it took the Heritage Foundation thirteen days before they issued thirty-two free market solutions for Hurricane Katrina. We put that document up on our website, as well. It was close down the housing projects, turn the Gulf Coast into a tax-free free enterprise zone, get rid of the labor laws that forces contractors to pay a living wage. Yeah, so it took them thirteen days before they did that in the case of Katrina. In the case of Haiti, they didn’t even wait twenty-four hours.

    Now, why I say I don’t know whether it’s improving or not is that two hours ago they took this down. So somebody told them that it wasn’t couth. And then they put up something that was much more delicate. Fortunately, the investigative reporters at Democracy Now! managed to find that earlier document in a Google cache. But what you’ll find now is a much gentler “Things to Remember While Helping Haiti.” And buried down there, it says, “Long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are also badly overdue.”

    But the point is, we need to make sure that the aid that goes to Haiti is, one, grants, not loans. This is absolutely crucial. This is an already heavily indebted country. This is a disaster that, as Amy said, on the one hand is nature, is, you know, an earthquake; on the other hand is the creation, is worsened by the poverty that our governments have been so complicit in deepening. Crises — natural disasters are so much worse in countries like Haiti, because you have soil erosion because the poverty means people are building in very, very precarious ways, so houses just slide down because they are built in places where they shouldn’t be built. All of this is interconnected. But we have to be absolutely clear that this tragedy, which is part natural, part unnatural, must, under no circumstances, be used to, one, further indebt Haiti, and, two, to push through unpopular corporatist policies in the interests of our corporations. And this is not a conspiracy theory. They have done it again and again.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein speaking last night at the Ethical Culture Society. She’s the author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

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