HAITI’S CLASSQUAKE by Jeb Sprague
January 19, 2010
By Jeb Sprague
Just five days prior to the 7.0 earthquake that shattered Port-au-Prince on January 12th, the Haitian government’s Council of Modernisation of Public Enterprises (CMEP) announced the planned 70% privatization of Teleco, Haiti’s public telephone company.
Today Port-au-Prince lies in ruins, with thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands dead, entire neighborhoods cut off, many buried alive. Towns across the southern peninsula, such as Léogâne, are said to be in total ruin with an untold number of victims. Haiti’s president, René Préval, and his administration remain largely inept, absent from Port-au-Prince and even the local radio.
At Pont Morin in the Bois Verna section of the capital, Teleco’s office building is badly damaged. One twitter poster in Port-au-Prince on Monday warned local residents to evacuate “After the latest evaluations of the building, they’ve noticed that the main poles of the structure are damaged.”
With masses of people unable to get critical emergency medical care, water and basic supplies, the lack of local state infrastructure and personnel is plainly apparent.
Instead of investing in social programs and government infrastructure that could have helped care for the people of Port-au-Prince, especially following such a natural disaster, Haiti’s government has long been pressured by the United States and International Financial Institutions to sell off its infrastructure, to shut down government sponsored soup kitchens, to lower tariffs that might benefit the rural economy.
The demographic trend in Haiti over the last few decade’s showcases the impact of capitalist globalization: the movement of rural folks to slums in Port-au-Prince, often perched in large clumps precariously on hillsides.
“Slums begin with bad geology,” writer and historian Mike Davis explains. In his book Planet of Slums, Davis describes the explosion of slum communities in today’s era of global capitalism. Billions have no choice but to live in close proximity to environmental and geological disaster, Davis explains.
In mid-2007, Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre and I wrote a piece for IPS (Inter Press Service) that investigated the gutting of Haiti’s public telephone company. We interviewed public sector workers laid off in droves. The government’s plan was to reduce Teleco employees from 3,293 to less than one thousand. By 2010 Préval’s appointed heads of Teleco had terminated employment for two-thirds of the workers at the company. During his first term in office from 1996-2001, Préval had already sold off the government’s Minoterie flourmill and public cement company.
Préval now follows through with the Cadre de Coopération Intérimaire (CCI), a macro-economic adjustment program formulated by his unelected predecessor (the interim regime of Gerard Latortue), along with international donor institutions and local sub-grantee groups. Privatization has been one plank of neoliberalism in Haiti.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Haiti was pressured to lower tariffs on foreign rice, bringing down the few protections in place for its local economy. With a lack of opportunity in the countryside, migration to the nation’s capital intensified. Hundreds of thousands took up residence in poorly constructed shantytowns, many in hillside slums such as Carrefour.
Using the worn-out rhetoric of nationalism to draw attention away from the implementation of policies favorable to global capitalism, government functionaries in Haiti have worked closely with IFI, NGO and governmental advisors and experts from abroad. For those Haitian politicians unwilling to go along with these plans, the brute force of coup d’états, economic embargo and reoccurring civil society training missions from abroad have reinforced the “right way” to govern.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Haitian state evaporated. Police searched for their own loved-ones, as government ministries and UN bases lay in ruins, many top officials now dead under tons of fallen concrete.
Widely criticized for failing in the days following the quake to visit or speak out on the radio to the neighborhoods of the capital in turmoil, Préval and other aloof Haitian government leaders have been encamped at a police station on the cities edge meeting with foreign leaders and journalists. On Tuesday Préval went to Santo Domingo in the neighboring Dominican Republic to confer further with aid officials.
The Washington Post explained “The U.S. government views Préval, an agronomist by training, as a technocrat largely free of the sharp political ideologies that have divided Haiti for
decades. But at a time when tragedy is forcing the country essentially to begin again, Préval’s aversion to the public stage has left millions of Haitians wondering whether there is a government at all.”
Hundreds of journalists have streamed into Port-au-Prince, while the U.S. military has set up base-camp at the damaged national airport with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the ground. Giving priority to unloading heavy weaponry, U.S. forces have turned away a number of large planes carrying medical and rescue equipment, prompting protests from France, Venezuela and the Médecins sans frontières.
International media outlets show images of Haitians digging with pieces of concrete at collapsed buildings. But over the days the cries of loved ones buried below have slowly fallen silent.
Other media have begun to show images of poor people in the capital’s downtown searching for food, calling them “looters”, when in fact mass starvation occurs as shotgun-wielding security guards attempt to cordon off the rubble of some of the larger markets.
Given the past decades of forced austerity measures imposed upon Haiti, it has been nearly impossible for the country to build up a larger government, one with more capacity to deal with emergencies, to support social investment projects, soup kitchens, or even improved slum housing. The overthrown Aristide government, 2001-2004, though severely crippled by aid embargoes and elite-backed death squads and opposition groups, had refused privatization, instituted a national program of soup kitchens and literacy centers, and even constructed a few blocks of improved slum housing in the capital (as covered at the time in an article by the former government newspaper L’Union).
Those small but welcome measures are a thing of the past. The repression of attempts by the people to have a say through democratic means and the forced subjugation of the local economy to global capitalism parallels the assumption of power by elites disconnected from the people they govern. These are the technocratic elites that Sociologist William I. Robinson in his book A Theory of Global Capitalim refers to as “transnationalised fractions of local dominant groups in the South…sometimes termed a ‘modernizing bourgeoisie’, who have overseen sweeping processes of social and economic restructuring and integration into the global economy and society.” Out from the ashes, do not be surprised if the Haitian people refuse to accept this.
Geographer Kenneth Hewitt coined the term ‘classquake’ in examining the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala that cost the lives of 23,000 people, because of the accuracy with which it struck down the poor. The classquake in Haiti today is much worse, compounded by decades of capitalist globalization and U.S. intervention.
Jeb Sprague received a Project Censored Award in 2008 for an article he published with the Inter Press Service (IPS) from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Visit his university website: http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~jhsprague/