Friday, 22 January 2010

Disaster capitalism invades poor Haiti

WHAT the hell is going on in Haiti? And when I say "hell", that’s just what I mean.
I haven’t been there to see for myself, but if you can believe anything you see, hear or read, then I believe Haiti is about as close to Hell as life on earth gets.
The United Nations – an organisation which doesn’t exactly shy away from disaster spots – reckons the current state of Haiti is the worst it has ever seen following a natural disaster anywhere.
It’s not that the earthquake itself, though bad, was the worst ever. Just that Haiti, already just about the poorest country in the world, was so shatteringly ill-equipped to deal with it.
Decades – no, make that centuries – of desperately bad government have left a country without decent communications. Without proper organisation. Lacking, even before the quake, most of the services and support that we take for granted.
Already lacking decent housing, health care, sanitation, the people had nothing to fall back on when the buildings fell on them.
Reacting with horror to the crisis, the world (including you and me) rallies with what it can offer. Essentially, cash.
Which only goes so far in a place virtually cut off from the rest of us. A place with poor roads, one wrecked port and an airport that can only take one plane at a time.
What the Clintons thought they was doing blocking up that airport for their own photo opportunity, I can’t imagine. But it was one heck of a symbol.
The reasons why Haiti has been quite so poor and quite so corrupt for so long are many and complex.
It can’t just be down to America’s malign influence. If it were, how would you explain the comparative affluence of the neighbouring Dominican Republic, for instance?
But here’s a potted history from an informed North American commentator:
"Haiti has a longstanding history of US military intervention and occupation going back to the beginning of the 20th century.
"US interventionism has contributed to the destruction of Haiti’s national economy and the impoverishment of its population.
"A country has been destroyed, its infrastructure demolished. Its people precipitated into abysmal poverty and despair. Haiti’s history, its colonial past have been erased."
The words are those of author Michel Chossudovsky, an economics professor and head of the Centre for Research on Globalization.
It has to be admitted he takes an extreme, partial view. But it does seem a fair question why the United States, dominating and controlling the world’s aid effort, should see fit to send its military into Haiti - while making it hard for others, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, to land.
What’s needed there desperately is emergency medical, engineering and food aid, not the US Marines. Yet a probably lasting effect of the current crisis will be an occupying force of some 20,000 troops.
Like asset-strippers in a credit crunch, those who hold the reins of capitalism don’t believe in letting a good crisis go to waste.
That guru of unfettered, uncaring capitalism Milton Friedman was explicit about it.
In his seminal 1962 book Capitalism And Freedom, Friedman wrote: "Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change."
In other words crisis is a good thing. Especially if it’s someone else’s crisis and you can exploit it (and them).
Apart from the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Second World War was not fought on American soil. But it turned the USA from an inward-looking nation crippled by economic depression to the richest, most powerful country the world has ever known.
Casting itself as the world’s policeman, with an assumed halo of holiness, America got very rich. And the rich of America have had a vested interest in keeping it that way ever since.
We’ve heard a lot, in these times of global economic wobble, about Casino Capitalism. Haiti is in the grip of its close relative, Disaster Capitalism.
And to see how that works, you have only to look at how countries devastated by the 2004 tsunami have "recovered".
Take Arugam Bay, which was a run-down fishing village on Sri Lanka’s east coast before it was washed away. It’s been rebuilt, but not for the villagers.
Like other displaced poor Sri Lankans, Arugam Bay’s former inhabitants were forcibly rehomed in inland barracks.
Tourist operators, however, were welcomed where common housing was forbidden. So the former fishing village has been transformed.
Today, according to the brochure, it is a "high-end boutique tourism destination with five-star hotels, luxury chalets, a floatplane pier and helipad". An eager surfer enthuses: "Some of the guest houses are now much better than before the wave." So that's all right, then.
Arugam Bay was a model for 30 other rebuilt settlements on a new South Asian Riviera, allowing Sri Lanka to join the jet-set economy.
The former fishermen and their families have been transformed into the wage slaves of the visiting rich. With labour laws carefully redrawn to assist in their exploitation.
The same pattern followed wherever the tsunami hit. It is the way of the capitalist world.
So what future for Haiti?
I suppose if you’ve spent days lying in agony under a collapsed building, without food, water or medical attention, any future at all sounds good.

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