Thursday, February 4, 2010

Haiti: As the dust settles, questions, suspicions mount

My good friend Willy Gutman forwarded another one of his perceptive articles that I thought I would share.

Haiti: As the dust settles, questions, suspicions mount

W. E. Gutman

US troops made their habitually flamboyant entrance in the earthquake-ravaged Haitian capital to distribute aid and provide security in one of America’s most spirited military deployments since the 2003 Battlestar Galactica-style invasion of Iraq.

Hundreds of soldiers belonging to the US Army’s 82nd Airborne rappelled from helicopters in Port-au-Prince as US Marines waded ashore.

There are now some 11,000 US troops in Haiti. US Ambassador to the UN, Alejandro Wolff, said “We are there for the long term.” Total US military presence in Haiti is expected to reach 20,000 troops.

Washington insists that their role is strictly humanitarian.

But in a recent commentary titled, “The US Military in Haiti: A Compassionate Invasion,” TIME magazine says that “Haiti … became the 51st state… if not a state, then at least a ward of the United States.”

There is growing concern that this de facto federalization may go beyond “good-neighbor” philanthropy, that the earthquake could be used to exploit, yet again, a chronically impoverished country teetering back from the brink.

The presence of US military, which has taken over command of the distribution of humanitarian aid, has raised questions. The US and the France-based aid group Doctors Without Borders have exchanged very public words. The group says one of its planes carrying medical equipment was yet again turned away from the Port-au-Prince airport – the fifth such instance in the past two weeks. Medics from other nations have accused US air traffic controllers of turning away essential medical supplies that could have saved lives, with priority going to US military flights.

Although the US military is now overstretched, it clearly has the capacity to carry out an effective occupation of Haiti should it so desire. The way in which the US has responded to this latest disaster is reminiscent of its historical legacy of interference in Haiti. The country was occupied by the US between 1915 and 1934. Former President Bill Clinton dispatched troops to Haiti in 1994. In 2004, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed, abducted and deported at gunpoint by US-backed military.

These forays were rationalized as “legitimate actions to protect US assets.” Some called theme an extension of the Manifest Destiny doctrine.

Critics have also accused Washington of destabilizing Haiti’s economy by imposing neo-liberal policies that forced it to lift its rice tariffs in the 1990s and led to the creation of sweatshops, both of which undermined its economic autonomy and are seen as causes of an ailing infrastructure and poverty.

It’s no secret that deep in the seismically fickle bowels of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, there are significant and heretofore untapped deposits of oil. Scientists have also detected the presence of Uranium 238 and 235, and zirconium. Have these sites been designated by the US as strategic reserves?

Shortly before his downfall in 1986, “president-for-life” Jean-Claude “Bébé Doc” Duvalier acknowledged the existence of a major oil field in the Bay of Port-au-Prince.

Earlier still, in the 1950s, the Knappen-Tippen-Abbet company drilled in Haiti. The drillings proved promising and the results beyond expectations. However, multinational oil companies saw no need to exploit these riches. Haiti was neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait. At a time when a barrel of crude sold for about a dollar, and the Persian Gulf gushed with crude, there was not reason to invest in oil fields deemed less profitable.

The prevailing attitude at the time was, “We’ll keep the Haiti deposits in reserve until the Middle East bonanza runs dry.” The Knappen-Tippen-Abbet wells were carefully numbered, sealed with cement and “forgotten.”

The results of the drilling, it turns out, were not for public consumption. It was feared that they would encourage Haitians to work toward their own economic emancipation. When they learned of the riches buried under their feet, they asked a simple question:

“If the big oil companies are not interested in our oil, maybe we should ask our Cuban neighbors to come help us exploit it.”


No one denies the superb work done by US non-governmental organizations and individual volunteers in Haiti. But when a nation requires 20,000 armed troops to “oversee” what is being described as a slapdash and hit-and-miss relief operation, it looks, sounds and smells like an occupation.

Vested Geo-strategic interests, not altruism, often drive charity.

One can’t help but wonder whether the US would have acted with the same alacrity and panache had an earthquake of similar magnitude struck Congo, Sudan or Namibia.

And would Pat Robertson have claimed, as he did in the case of Haiti, that natural disasters are brought on by men consorting with the devil?


W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views.