Haiti Smashed, Diaspora Shaken, Deportations Frozen

By Michelle Chen Jan 14, 2010

The devastation in Haiti is unrelenting, an avalanche of natural catastrophe exacerbated by man-made injustice. Perhaps 100,000 feared dead, homes shattered, people digging neighbors out of rubble without safe food, water or electricity. It’s hard to fathom just how much tragedy one tiny island country can bear, and Haiti seems to be testing the limits of a people’s resilience in the face of crisis. Today, as the Obama administration mobilized aid resources, it also backed away from earlier plans to deport about 30,000 Haitian immigrants living in the United States, announcing that deportations would be suspended indefinitely. Anything less would be unconscionable, yet there has been no decisive action, on granting lasting immigration relief through Temporary Protected Status. Meanwhile, anxiety and action are percolating in the Haitian diaspora. Haitian immigrants and others in the Bronx and Brooklyn are rallying to deliver relief and offer mutual support as they try to reach loved ones. The communications breakdown has sundered the ties that have served as a lifeline, economically and culturally, for a vast, vibrant Haitian transnational community. Remittances, according to World Bank data, amount to roughly one fifth of the country’s GDP–and a far greater value than paltry official development assistance or foreign direct investment, despite a legacy of U.S. intervention and a neoliberal assault via global financial institutions. Edwidge Danticat, an acclaimed author who came to New York as a child (and whose uncle died in immigration detention–a sad story in itself), reflected on Democracy Now! on the historical trajectory of Haiti’s suffering:

Indeed, the first black republic in this hemisphere, one of the first two republics in this hemisphere. But soon after independence, was not recognized by its neighbors, which it nevertheless helped gain, in some cases, their independence in Latin America and helped the US fight here in Savannah, Georgia. And then a series of debt, because it had to pay to France a large amount of money for its independence. And then two US invasion occupations and a series of dictatorships. It’s been—you know, before and in the midst of this, you know, deforestation sponsored by outside interests, and just a series of a very painful history. But—and add to that all the other natural disasters—four storms last year, the tropical storm Jeanne a couple of years ago, which covered the town of Gonaives. But nothing, I think, like today. … You know, I can see parts of my old neighborhood, you know, through this very large veil of fire. So it’s really—it’s totally unimaginable. It seems like the abyss of a very long and painful history of natural and political disasters.

The promises of the Obama administration so far sound like an earnest attempt to aid Haiti. But the information blackout surrounding the country, the rush to deliver assistance though massive military-based institutions, and the history of Haiti’s political power struggles under foreign intervention–should give activists pause (especially with a certain maligned former president emerging at the helm of the humanitarian effort). It’s crucial to remember that in the wake of disasters, there is a razor-thin line between rescue and invasion. Also on Democracy Now!, activist Kim Ives warned that the international aid complex could be co-opted as a vehicle for even deeper, more disruptive intervention in Haiti’s fragile political and economic infrastructure. He noted that due to neoliberal debt policies, "foreign aid has essentially destroyed Haitian food self-sufficiency" in recent years by ruining rice agriculture. Haiti’s extreme vulnerability today could inaugurate a new era of U.S. military domination, Ives said:

[A]id has historically in Haiti been extremely pernicious. It has destroyed Haitian agriculture. It’s been a real counter to development in the country, development aid. And even humanitarian aid has been often wasted. For instance, during—after the storms of 2008, $197 million was freed from the Petrocaribe accounts, which Venezuela provided Haiti. A lot of questions remain about how that money, that $197 million, was spent. A lot of it seems to have been frittered away into corruption and various other types of embezzlement. So, yes, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of corruption and charlatans flocking to Haiti like flies. And it’s important to find good relief agencies. One is the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, HERF, that people can go to the site of haitiaction.net and find out more about that. And that is a place people can donate. But, yes, we can expect terrible things to be happening in the aid front in the coming weeks.

This is the untenable choice Haiti may be faced with now: death or subjugation to a foreign power hostile to democracy on the island. Outside of the country, the Haitian community and their supporters do have choices. As the floodgates open to geopolitical opportunism, activists can step up their vigilance to ensure that politicians’ supposedly good intentions aren’t exploited to further dispossess the Global South. The phenomenon of Haitian immigration itself encapsulates the crisis that the earthquake exploded: they’re refugees of economic, social and environmental upheaval. Buried under the weight of neocolonialism, the Haitian people may survive the earthquake, but they will still need a global movement to rebuild their future. Image: Associated Press