The US response to the earthquake in Haiti has received ample attention. In the process, several common critiques emerged. Some said aid was disbursed too slowly; others pointed to glaring flaws in individual programs; and of course, many noted that Haitian contractors and NGOs were sidelined from the relief effort.
These critiques make a variety of important points. However, one perspective that’s still underrepresented is the analysis of current US aid efforts in light of the historical relationship between the US and Haiti.
The Haiti Justice Alliance received data through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request that enables such an analysis. Our investigation reveals that the US response showed a shocking lack of sensitivity to the most historically troubling aspects of the US-Haiti relationship.
Militarism and Miami Rice: Ignoble US Legacies in Haiti
Among the most enduring, harmful legacies of US involvement in Haiti are repeated military interventions and the destruction of Haiti’s agriculture. The details of these stories are well known, but they merit a brief overview for the purpose of the present discussion.
Between 1850 and 1915, US warships were a constant presence in Haiti’s coastal waters. In 1915, the marines invaded Haiti, marking the beginning of a 19-year occupation. During that period, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a Constitution for Haiti, which the US imposed on the country at gunpoint. Direct occupation gave way to proxy militarism as the US propped up a series of violent regimes beginning in the 1930s. Soon, this arrangement stabilized in the form of the brutal Duvalier dynasty (1957-1986), which the US consistently supplied with military and financial aid.
The succession from Papa to Baby Doc Duvalier was accompanied by a troubling development on the economic front. As one condition of continued support, the US demanded cooperation in forcing a shift in Haiti’s economic structure from agriculture to low-wage textile manufacturing. The goal was two-fold: the US hoped to maximize profits from what it saw as “cheap, docile labor” in Haiti, and meanwhile create a guaranteed export market for US rice.
Achieving these economic goals required suppressing Haiti’s agriculture. This was necessary not only to pave the way for US food imports, but also to free up labor for the nascent manufacturing sector. Importing rice at dirt-cheap prices and donating rice were two major components of the US effort to induce Haitians to give up farming. Eventually, these efforts paid off. In the 1980s, US rice imports to Haiti were roughly 1/20th of local production. By the early 2000s, after several decades pursuing these policies, Haiti imported twice as much rice as it grew for itself. This history is why activists like Pierre Labossiere say hunger in Haiti is “an imposed hunger.”
Since 2004, the primary expression of US militarism in Haiti has been the UN mission (MINUSTAH), not the US army. With 12,000 armed personnel, MINUSTAH enjoys US support because, according to Wikileaks documents, it’s a “bargain” way for the US to advance regional policy goals. Given that the US provides no soldiers and only one-fourth of MINUSTAH’s funding, the mission is the cheapest way to maintain a military presence in Haiti.
Straddling Ignorance and Malice: US Relief Efforts
In light of this history, US choices about aid allocation after the earthquake appear indefensible. The fact that the US sent 22,000 US soldiers to Haiti after the earthquake has already prompted some to call the response an “occupation.” What the FOIA data reveals, however, is that of the $1.1 billion the US spent in Haiti in 2010, nearly half ($465 million) went to the military response coordinated by the Department of Defense (DoD). While independent watchdogs criticize the US for militarizing its aid in general, the fact that the response in Haiti was so heavily militarized is particularly troubling.
The next area of concern is the money allocated through the “Food for Peace” (FFP) program. Of the $208 million FFP allocation, $35 million went to cash-for-work and food vouchers. The remaining $173 million went to importing more than 100,000 metric tons of food aid. Predictably, Haitian activists attempted to put a stop to food donations shortly after the quake–to no avail. Thus, in the first year after the quake, 60% of US relief money was spent in ways that reinforced historical patterns of exploitation and abuse.
Of the $460 million left over after the military and food aid allocation, $110 million went to the UN. While this money wasn’t for the peacekeeping force that earned MINUSTAH the title of “occupier,” the UN nonetheless lacks the popular legitimacy necessary to be a leader in the reconstruction. The UN’s legitimacy has further eroded since the earthquake because of a slew of scandals, the most damaging of which is undoubtedly the introduction of cholera.
Asking the Wrong Questions
In 2010, the US set aside $1.1 billion for earthquake relief to Haiti. Yet, nearly $750 million of that was channeled through the institutions behind the most perverse historical themes of US relations with Haiti. Therefore, when members of the media and the independent watchdogs question how and where the relief money was spent, they’re asking the wrong questions.
The mystery isn’t what happened to the money. Rather, the mystery is whether the US acted in ignorance of, or else willfully sought to replicate, the most abusive elements of its relationship with Haiti.
Perhaps such patterns should not be surprising. After all, according to the Congressional Research Service, “national security” and “commercial interests” both rank above “humanitarian concerns” (PDF) as objectives for foreign aid. Nonetheless, we have the right to demand better. When the US government uses our money in Haiti under the pretext of giving aid, our actions should advance Haiti’s welfare, not our own.
Nathan Yaffe is a board member of the Haiti Justice Alliance (HJA). HJA works for the sustainable structural changes needed to provide social, political and economic rights to all Haitians. In addition to writing and educating about Haiti from a justice perspective, HJA supports established grassroots partners in Haiti. For more information, visit haitijustice.wordpress.com/about