Another earthquake in Haiti provides another opportunity for the NGO community, the Haitian oligarchy, and foreign imperialists to consolidate their profits and power.
During a visit to Haiti in early April, 2010, I traveled with a friend to the Club Indigo Hotel. Club Indigo was located 45 minutes north of Port-au-Prince near the small community of Montrouis. Formerly Club Med Haiti (and currently the Royal Decameron Indigo), the resort was promoted as “a unique residential, leisure and business hotel complex” and a “naturally privileged, protected place.” Set in a large tropical park, Club Indigo was situated between the Côte des Arcadins, one of Haiti’s longest stretches of pure white sand beaches, and a long mountain range.
My trip to Club Indigo occurred just three months after the January 12, 2010, 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed around 200,000 people and left more than a million people without homes. Traveling from the center of Port-au-Prince to Montrouis meant having to drive through the devastation of the earthquake: the broken roads and bridges, the flattened homes, the debris and the unsettled cement dust, and the throngs of people living in the streets and in temporary camps in open spaces, some in donated tents, others in makeshift cardboard shelters that were often covered by what became ubiquitous blue tarps.
These scenes of devastation and Black misery served as a backdrop for the apparatus of “aid.” The United Nations’ pristine white trucks, SUVs, and tanks-all filled with soldiers, often aiming large guns as the Haitian people-patrolled the neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince. At the same time, the city had suddenly become overrun by white and other nonBlack foreign humanitarian workers.
We eventually made our way out of the city and headed north on Route National #1 towards Club Indigo. An hour later, we arrived. We pulled into a long driveway bordered by remarkably lush, green grass and full, verdant trees and saw a white French-built Puma helicopter parked on the expansive lawn, surrounded by trucks and SUVs from the UN and several international NGOs. It immediately became clear that Club Indigo was a staging ground for the international earthquake relief operations.
The personnel and equipment were housed at Club Indigo to support the United States’ primary mandate to “secure” Haiti after the earthquake. The Obama administration not only assumed that the earthquake would result in violence (presumably perpetuated by Haitians), but would also cause a mass exodus of people to southern Florida. Three days after the earthquake, the U.S. Southern Command deployed a force of 22,268 soldiers and staff to Haiti. This was in addition to the 14,000-strong MINUSTAH deployment already in the country. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport and the country’s airspace were fully under U.S. command. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security activated “Operation Vigilant Sentry, ” making use of the massive U.S. Navy and Coast Guard flotilla surrounding the island to intercept, detain, and repatriate any Haitian attempting to reach the United States.
Yet, that day at Club Indigo, security was not at issue, leisure was. It was lunchtime when we walked into the lobby of the hotel, and hotel guests were lining up at the buffet. The scene shocked me. I had never seen so much food, and in such a variety! The multiple buffet tables took up the sizable foyer fronting the large dining area, and the food seemed endless. I would later learn that those crowded around the buffet tables, those basking in the sun–both at the large outdoor pool and on the sand near the beach–those playing beach volleyball, taking step aerobics classes, or just relaxing on the hotel patio–all were part of the large foreign contingent of military personnel, aid workers, missionaries, and business executives.
For both MINUSTAH troops, executive personnel, and the foreign “humanitarian” workers, this was their Haitian normal: upholding a Western-dictated military occupation comes with the trappings of elite living amid desolation. For me, the lavish foreign encampment at Club Indigo, three months after the earthquake, was a metaphor for the material, ideological, and political economic reality of the Haitian political present. During my stay, I spoke with some of the young white aid workers. Many saw no contradiction with their access to such luxurious life in the face of so much death, poverty, and pain. One 22-year-old white man from Australia, however, said that he felt uncomfortable and embarrassed to be housed in a resort. He must have been the minority. It was a running joke among Haitians in Port-Au-Prince that they could tell when the workday was over because a line of white pick-up trucks and SUVs would start making their way up to Petionville, the elite neighborhood in the hills where foreigners frolic. In fact, many bars of Petionville are often mostly white spaces, as those occupiers–military and humanitarian and business–find each other and leisure in Haiti.
But this also tells us who benefited from the foreign aid bonanza that was raised in the name of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
First, it was all these foreign “aid” organizations and their workers. They don’t call Haiti the “Republic of NGOs” for nothing. The American Red Cross raised $500 million and built six houses in Haiti. NGOs and official aid agencies, like USAID, act like a parallel government in Haiti. Indeed, between 2000 and 2003, USAID and the dubious “international community” completely bypassed the Haitian state and doled out millions of “aid” money to their own NGOs. It is no wonder that after the 2010 earthquake most foreign NGOs did not even bother registering with the Haitian government. They were only accountable to Haiti’s white rulers. Moreover, “foreign aid” is often nothing but a make-work program for westerners with a degree in “Development Studies” and no employment prospects at home. As the Guardian reported on Haiti’s earthquake relief aid back in 2013, “about 94% of humanitarian funding went to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors. In addition, 36% of recovery grants went to international NGOs and private contractors.”
Importantly, Obama had appointed Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to lead the “fundraising” effort in Haiti through the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. As the co-chair of the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, and the co-director of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Clinton was crowned the new king of Haiti.
The next group of beneficiaries is the small, largely non-Black oligarchy in Haiti. They own the land, the places of leisure, the hotels, the stores, the car dealerships and rental agencies, the ports and wharves. They own both all those entities allowing foreigners to live their rich, western lives in Haiti and the infrastructure enabling goods to come into the country. (As an aside, I visited Club Indigo in 2009, the year before the earthquake; the resort was practically abandoned and its grounds were unkempt and in disarray. Business was not booming then.) Because the oligarchy were already transnational elites, with U.S. or European connections, they received the large no-bid contracts and were under no compulsion to guarantee delivery of finished products. This was, after all, Haiti. The regular poor Black people do not matter.
By far the biggest beneficiary was western imperialism. The earthquake and its aftermath consolidated the 2004 U.S.-France-Canada-back coup d’état that removed Haiti’s first democratically elected government, led by Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It did so by installing the neo-Duvalierist Michel Martelly and Jovenel Moise and the PHTK political party. With the 2010 earthquake, many forgot that was the reason for the UN military occupation of the country. But the UN forces were there to give cover to the coup d’etat. The UN also convened a Core Group that road rough-shod over Haiti’s sovereignty. For example, just weeks after UN soldiers unleashed a devastating cholera epidemic and while the country was still recovering from the earthquake, the U.S. and the Core Group demanded that Haiti move forward with federal elections. The “international community” provided $29 million in logistical support for the elections, while insisting that Haiti’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, was banned. Martelly’s first pronouncement after being selected was that Haiti was “open for business.” The rest is living history.
What Haitian people do know is that the PHTK–both Martelly and Moïse, and their minions–have been fleecing them since their installation. They know that this installation ensured that there was no accountability for the reportedly $13 billion in aid money that was collected for Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery. They know that, while Haiti was “open for business,” there was hardly any work on infrastructure and social services. Even the Haitian national palace, destroyed during the 2010 earthquake, has yet to be rebuilt. What better representation of Haiti’s lack of sovereignty? Then, when Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on July 7th, 2021, the white rulers swooped in and installed their own lackey government with Ariel Henry as Prime Minister.
On the morning of August 14, 2021, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale hit the southern peninsula of Haiti. Some say that it was two back-to-back earthquakes measuring 6.9 and 7.2, respectively, both occurring near the towns of Jeremy and Les Cayes, with Petit-Trou-de-Nippes the epicenter. These earthquakes were followed by numerous aftershocks that measured above 5.0. At the time of writing, the death toll is 1419, with almost 7000 people injured. These numbers are expected to increase as access to many towns has been limited and efforts to search through the rubble have barely begun. To add to the misery, two days after the quake, Tropical Storm Grace hit the same area, drenching those living on the streets after their homes had been destroyed.
In the face of these brutal batterings by environmental disasters, it is easy for outsiders to pity Haiti, to believe that the people are cursed and “can’t get a break.” The reality is that the aftermath of the earthquake did not have to be this way. The earthquake did not have to result in so many more dead and houseless people because of the country’s lack of infrastructure. The resulting disaster from the earthquake and tropical storm did not have to be–if regular Haitian people mattered, and if the beneficiaries did not continue to get away with murder. As @public_archive tweeted:
If Haiti can’t catch a break it’s because imperialism in Haiti has been so relentless.
The crisis in Haiti is a crisis of imperialism. It is because of western imperialism–and those who aid and abet it–that the earthquake and tropical storm become wide scale disasters.
Joe Biden’s response to the earthquake was to put war hawk Samantha Power, who now heads USAID, in charge of U.S. relief efforts in Haiti. Power, true to her long history of warmongering and in line with U.S. dealings with Haiti, announced that she would be working with SOUTHCOM and the Department of Defense to come up with a relief strategy. Meanwhile, it is only a matter of time before the foreign NGOs begin their fundraisers to “help” Haiti.
Once again, the vultures are circling.
Jemima Pierre is a contributor to Black Agenda Report, the Haiti/Americas Coordinator for the Black Alliance for Peace, and a Black Studies and anthropology professor at UCLA.