If, as CNN was reporting last week, some Haitians resent the presence of US troops in their country, it’s because US troops have been in Haiti before: in 1857, 1859, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1892, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912 and 1913. Apparently not satisfied with just shocking and awing the Haitians with periodic displays of force to remind them who really ruled the Americas, the US also occupied Haiti in 1915, leaving the country only in 1934.
It hasn’t exactly been clear what US interests in Haiti are, apart from the political one of keeping everyone in the US backyard in line. Of course it’s been for Freedom and Democracy primarily — which is probably why the US supported the French when the latter tried to regain Haiti in the middle of the 19th century from its former slaves; for Freedom and Democracy that the US supported the brutal regimes of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his successor-son Jean Claude (“Baby Doc”) from 1957 to 1987; for the same Freedom and Democracy that the US has sent in troops, the last time in 2004 so they could help oust the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the presidency of Haiti and install their preferred tyrant.
At the request of President Rene Preval — whose coalition of former military men and members of the Haitian mulatto (mixed blood) elite led the “reform movement” that abducted Aristide and exiled him to the Dominican Republic — US troops are back in Haiti, and control the airport as well as the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake.
Like most other natural calamities — for example, floods, storms and typhoons — nothing can stop an earthquake. But the devastating loss of life and the destruction the January 12 earthquake unleashed on tortured Haiti was not by nature’s hand alone. Haiti’s status as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and the incredible incompetence and corruption of the Haitian ruling elite, also had a lot to do with it. Neither can the US escape responsibility, its nearly two centuries of intervention having kept that country in desperate poverty under the rule of a succession of thieves, murderers and scoundrels such as the Duvaliers.
Life expectancy in Haiti is at 51 years the lowest in the Americas and lower than in many other countries in Asia — the result of the pathetic incomes, unemployment, lack of sanitary facilities and access to clean water among the majority that for hundreds of years has been driven by the vast inequality in wealth a succession of colonial and post colonial regimes has managed to preserve.
The numbers tell the story. Seventy percent of Haitians are unemployed. Eighty percent live below the poverty line. Only half the population can read and write. Average Haitian income is 66 US cents a day. Seventy percent of the population has no access to sanitary facilities; 46 percent has no access to clean water. One percent of the population owns 50 percent of the country’s wealth. Some of the most unspeakable slums in the world are in Port- au-Prince.
Over this cauldron of misery and despair presides a government that Transparency International has ranked as among the 13 most corrupt in the world, and the most corrupt in the Western hemisphere. Neither this government nor its predecessors has even bothered to enact building codes, in a country that’s regularly visited not only by earthquakes, but also by cyclones and floods. Millions live in makeshift housing which were among the first to crumble during the earthquake, while most of the concrete buildings of Port-au-Prince, some notably without the steel reinforcements that could have kept them intact, collapsed almost simultaneously.
The public health care system, deficient even in normal times, was overwhelmed by the sheer number of the injured and dying. No authority was visible to supervise the rescue and relief work needed in the aftermath — not only because the Haitian government had neither the personnel nor the resources to do so, but also because it had never prepared for a contingency that had been long predicted could happen. With the UN peacekeeping forces in disarray, the same government’s police forces could not keep order as hungry mobs roamed the streets to loot the ruins of homes, shops and supermarkets and to prey upon the survivors.
As an inept and corrupt government wrings its hands over the immense number of casualties and begs the world for aid, and the “international community” (read: mostly the United States) assumes practically all the responsibilities over relief operations, expect a de facto restoration of foreign rule in Haiti. For all its cost in lives, the Haiti earthquake provides an opportunity for the US to keep its troops — now numbering some 20,000 — in the country and to augment their number as they segue from rescue and relief operations to security operations.
The US commander has said that US troops will stay in Haiti only for three to six months, but that’s not etched in brass. Although it’s done it before, running Haiti a la Iraq and Afghanistan may not be the US preference at this point: after all, the country remains in the hands of its reliable allies in the Haitian elite. But the earthquake has exposed the incredible inability of that elite to provide even the rudiments of the services any halfway decent government should be able to manage. The resulting political instability could resurrect the demand for authentic change that’s been echoing in Haiti for centuries, and that’s not something the US wants. That’s why it sent in the troops almost as soon as the first aftershocks were being felt in Port-au-Prince. And that’s why those troops are likely to stay.