Feb 24 2010

CounterSpin Interview: Mark Weisbrot on the Haitian Earthquake

‘Are you going to reconstruct the country without a state?’

Mark Weisbrot--Photo Credit: CEPR

Mark Weisbrot–Photo Credit: CEPR

Much of the reporting on Haiti disaster relief has portrayed the U.S. as doing its best, under near-impossible circumstances, to bring food, water and medical aid to earthquake-stricken Haitians. And indeed, many American efforts have given aid and comfort to Haitians—but Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says the U.S. is in many ways hindering relief. FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin interviewed Weisbrot for its January 29 show.

CounterSpin: Americans, including many U.S. journalists, have been showing their compassion for Haitians in this latest hour of need, and you come along in this feel-good moment—at least for the U.S.—saying the U.S. is in some way hurting the relief effort. Are you some kind of ghoul?

Mark Weisbrot: No, I mean, I’m not the only one. There were public complaints from Doctors Without Borders, from the French government, from Italian government officials, from a number of governments in South America, that all said the same thing: Especially during the first 10 days or so, the U.S. military controlled the airport, and they had this overemphasis on security. We don’t know how many they’ve already brought in, but their goal was 20,000 troops, and all the military equipment that goes with that.

And at various points there were people, for example from the U.N. World Food Program, saying that most of the flights were being taken up by the U.S. military. Doctors Without Borders put out a press release—this was the Sunday following the earthquake—saying that they lost three days when they could have been saving people’s lives because their planes, with 85 tons of medical supplies, were rerouted through the Dominican Republic. So clearly this was mishandled in a big way, and it did cost a lot of unnecessary suffering and death as well.

CS: So you’re saying, just to be clear, that half of the airplanes coming into the Haitian Airport in Port-au-Prince were U.S. military planes for U.S. military purposes, not for aid purposes?

MW: That’s right. Some of this is just incompetence; some of it is a view of Haitians that one of the doctors from Partners In Health described as racist: that somehow the entire country is going to descend into complete chaos and people killing each other if they don’t have U.S. troops occupying the country. So they had this idea that first you secure as much as you can, or maybe the whole country—who knows what they were trying to do—and then you establish supply chains and distribution centers, and then you get the stuff in the country.

And, really, the most urgent need in the first few days is just to get the medical supplies and the water where they’re needed, and if you lose some of it along the way, that’s not so terrible. There was some looting, some food was lost through looting, but that’s not really that big of a deal as compared to people not getting the lifesaving material.

CS: As you mentioned, security concerns go hand in hand with reports of rising crime and violence. A January 17 New York Times headline read “Officials Strain to Distribute Aid to Haiti as Violence Rises.” We saw many similar reports of rampant violence, later debunked, in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster [Extra!, 11-12/05]. What can you tell us about the stories of violence raging in Haiti that we’re seeing now?

MW: I don’t know how much there is. It’s very hard to tell. You did have, fairly early on, General [P.K.] Keen from the Southern Command, who’s in charge of the operation, saying that there was less violence in Haiti since the earthquake than there was before, and the reports from Partners In Health and doctors on the ground were quite similar to that. So I’m sure there’s some, but again, it isn’t anything drastically different from what was in Haiti before the earthquake; I don’t see any evidence for that.

CS: You mention concerns among Haitians and other concerned people about the U.S. military occupying Haiti. We talked about some of those concerns and about the history that might suggest that those concerns are bona fide with Bill Fletcher a few weeks ago [CounterSpin, 1/15/10].

But there’s a related storyline that’s coming out of Haiti, and that is that the disaster could be a blessing in disguise, and perhaps provide the opportunity for Haiti to remake itself. How does that view fit with the sort of “disaster capitalism” model? I mean, you wouldn’t think Haiti could be rebuilt without poor people, but they’ve done it in New Orleans, haven’t they?

MW: Well, I don’t know what their plans are going to be. I’ve seen some, of course, but I think the main thing right now, obviously the most urgent thing, is this obsession with security—and part of that, of course, is trying to make sure that people don’t leave the country and end up here, and part of it is also political, in the sense that the government is of questionable legitimacy.

They were supposed to have elections in February, which were rightfully postponed, but they weren’t going to allow the largest political party to run in the election, and 15 other parties. So the United States is also concerned with political control; any time there could be a rebellion, because so many of the people don’t consider the government to be legitimate, and for valid reasons. They mostly boycotted—89 percent, according to the official count—the last election in April because, again, they excluded the largest political party, which is of course the party of the elected president whom the United States helped overthrow in 2004. So you have these political matters too, I think, that are most important.

But in terms of the reconstruction of the country, it really is related to the question of even the most basic electoral democracy. In other words, are you going to reconstruct the country without a state, without a government? I mean, a tiny, tiny percentage of any of the aid that’s coming in now goes to the government. And there are reasons, of course, that NGOs want to distribute the aid, and there’s obviously a lot of corruption in the government.

But this has been a policy for a long time of the U.S. government: to not help build a functioning state in Haiti. Their total government revenues are about 10 percent of GDP; that’s 50 percent less than any number of countries in Africa that are way poorer than Haiti. So the U.S. program for decades now—besides having overthrown the government twice—its idea of reconstruction somehow doesn’t involve government, and that’s going to be a big problem, because they’re going to need a functioning government. They wouldn’t have as many casualties right now if they had any kind of a functioning government.