One can see
At just a glance;
That Haiti never
Had a chance.

Our hearts go out to the Haitians. Earthquakes and hurricanes. Disaster after disaster. There’s no letup. We’ll send cash, food, meds, trucks, pumps, clothes, shovels, tarps, bulldozers, cement, computers, docs, water, clergy, plumbing, prayers, and everything else we can think of.

But what we won’t send is freedom. Despite all the shocking shortages one can observe in the street, freedom remains the nation’s paramount deficiency, along with the near total absence of a middle class.

It’s a scandal. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the U.S., Canada, and France helped overthrow Haiti’s popular liberal president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, twice, in 1991 and 2004. Nor can you tell simply from the devastation in the street that these three countries, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have forced tariffs down to nothing, sold off the phone system to the Vietnamese Army, and plan to privatize the electric and water utilities. This neocolonial scheme has drained off income and discouraged local investment. It also opened a virtual free-shooting gallery for multinational marketing companies.

During my recent trip there with the Haiti Action Network, I saw UN armored cars “keeping the peace” for the benefit of the corrupt corporate-friendly government, while turning a blind eye to police brutality and repression. The UN’s own trigger-happy presence has spawned a strong public anti-occupation sentiment, despite the modest improvement it has nurtured in general public safety. Many victims of UN forays were waiting vainly for medical attention and compensation, even before the earthquake.

Less visible are the local politics. As in all repressions, some dissidents have been killed and some detained for years without charge (a trick learned from the nearby U.S. Guantánamo prison). Others have fled the country. The rest fear for their jobs and safety. Despite this stifling of dissent, polling shows that a majority of all voters would favor a return to power of Aristide’s party. Consequently, it’s no wonder that the government recently banned that party from the upcoming election, much to the relief of the dominant Western powers.

The mind-boggling result of this brutal political and economic landscape is an unemployment rate of 70 percent. Yes, 70 percent. That’s why everyone seems to be selling mangoes in the market or pencils in the park. But this economic catastrophe, even before the earthquake, has lately brought a sparkle to the eyes of certain international investors. The UN special envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, recently visited the country touting a three-pronged plot: free entry of Haitian-manufactured free-zone goods into the United States, a $3/day wage rate in Haitian sweatshops, and cooperative regulations from the government in Port-au-Prince.

The lure of this plan is to create a new China-like cheap labor center in our own hemisphere. Shipping costs would be a mere fraction of Asia’s, rock-bottom labor rates would also depress rates elsewhere in Latin America, and unlike China, we would control the government. This is called “Economic Development.”

Not much else would change. Since no one can live on $3 a day, there would still be plenty of cheap pencils and mangoes on the street. But one problem is that in Haiti, unlike China, there’s always the danger of democracy breaking out again, endangering investment. The Marines will naturally be ready to occupy once more as they did from 1915-1934, but investors don’t relish that much stress.

Thus the exact shape of Haiti’s dismal future remains uncertain. But even if suspected oil, copper, or sweatshop bonanzas should blossom once the country is back on its feet, you can be sure that foreign powers and domestic elites will see that none of the profits accrue to the people.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. He spent December 28-January 7 in Haiti with the Haiti Action Network, a grassroots group that monitors political events in that country.

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