It was a tragedy made more so by its predictability. The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 measured 7.0. In the following two weeks, a further 24 aftershocks were recorded. In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the destruction has been catastrophic. In a nation of nine million, estimates run as high as 200,000 dead; up to two million are homeless; perhaps a third of the population has been directly affected. And these numbers will rise. As access to clean water and sanitation grows scarce, and pooled water breeds malaria-carrying mosquitoes, the death toll will only grow larger. While solidarity with Haitians has produced record donations, how much they will actually benefit remains to be seen; at the same time “why” remains generally unasked and unanswered. Two days after the quake, U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson maintained that it was the result of a pact with the Devil Haiti’s founders had made to drive out the French. We need not look to supernatural agencies for the cause of Haiti’s misery; the answer is in front of us.
Haiti is no stranger to earthquakes. The country has been struck by deadly quakes throughout its history: In 1751, in 1770, in 1842, in 1889, in 1904, and again in 1946. Haiti is in an earthquake zone; it will be struck by earthquakes again. Yet, the quakes themselves are not the main issue. Earthquakes are the result of shifting tectonic plates, but they are essentially random within an established framework. The results though are largely predictable and to a certain extent manageable. In 1989, a 7.0 earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area; 63 people died. (The quake which struck Concepción, Chile a month after the Haitian quake measured 8.8 in an area with a higher population; however, only a fraction of Haiti’s casualties have been reported) Buildings in wealthier countries, where building codes are more likely to be enforced, are designed to shake. In poorer countries, like Haiti, like Turkey, like Nicaragua, like Pakistan, the list is unfortunately too long to continue, the buildings collapse, burying anyone or anything beneath them: The simple reason for this? Profit…and profit kills.
Capitalism throughout its existence has been a system driven by profit, by the need to accumulate value. As part of this drive, throughout its history, capitalism has developed the productive forces. Indeed, it continues to do so; however, since the early part of the twentieth century, capitalism’s patterns of accumulation and development have changed. Historically, capitalism’s main obstacle was scarcity. By the early twentieth century capitalism’s mass production was capable of overcoming that scarcity; something which paradoxically was essential to it. Now its tremendous productive forces have become tremendous destructive forces.
Capitalism must expand, or it is thrown into crisis. And thus it engages in a tremendous struggle within itself. A decadent capitalism not only can but does develop the productive forces of capitalism, yet it is constantly forced to engage in devalorization and the destruction of those same productive forces through war as well as economic and financial crises in order to prolong its existence. “Natural” disasters are a part of this scenario. As Amadeo Bordiga wrote in Murder of the Dead, “To exploit living labour, capital must destroy dead labour which is still useful. Loving to suck warm young blood, it kills corpses.”
How does Haiti fit into this analysis? For much of its “modern” existence, Haiti’s has been marginalized, exploited yet underdeveloped. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti, claiming the island for Spain and beginning two centuries of imperialist rivalry between Spain and France for the country. France was eventually to emerge victorious, but in 1791, the French were ousted by a slave rebellion led by a former slave, Toussaint l’Ouverture. It was struggle against what C.L.R James described in his Black Jacobins as “a quintessentially modern institution of capitalist exploitation.” In the century and a half since the Haitian revolution, Haiti has endured imperialist exploitation from Spain, France and most recently the United States. This coupled with an extremely unstable and corrupt domestic political leadership has led to an impoverished population, an underdeveloped economy and a devastated landscape. In 1926, 60% of Haiti was forested. By 2004, it had dropped to only 2%. The trees were cut down to provide charcoal, the main source of heat and fuel in Haiti, and to realize tremendous profit for the powerful elites in Haiti at incredible environmental costs. With the destruction of the forests and the accompanying soil erosion, people fled the land to the cities creating giant slums. This has produced an incredible disaster for the island’s ecology. This ‘slumification’ of the cities as giant shantytowns was accelerated during Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s 15 years in power. Under his rule, tariffs for U.S. goods were virtually eliminated. Domestic rice producers were swamped with imports from American farming operations sending hundreds of thousands of bankrupted farmers into the slums of Port-au-Prince looking for work.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, a position it has held for some time. Haiti has a labour force of somewhat over 3.5 million, of which almost two-thirds are without fixed jobs. About a quarter of Haitians make their livelihoods in fishing or agriculture. Haiti also possesses small mining rights involving bauxite, and some foreign owned sweatshop industries. The largest natural resource Haitians possess is cheap labour, and its endless supply of hungry children, who have no future. These children are increasingly the target of the entrepreneurs of the sex trade, or the social agencies which will place them with adoptive families in “rich” countries: each of these outcomes is testimony to the power and the horror of the commodity form.
The U.S. has maintained an interest in Haiti since the days of the revolution when it supported the rebels and the French government by supplying arms to both sides. In 1910, the U.S. State Department acting through the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) bought the Banque National d’Haiti, Haiti’s only commercial bank and also the national treasury. Against a background of political unrest in Haiti, President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to Haiti to “protect U.S. national interests” in 1915. For the next 19 years, American advisors backed-up by American troops effectively ran Haiti. As a result of this connection, a steady stream of Haitians has escaped to the “capitalist paradise” of the United States. Some estimates have it that the Haitian population in the U.S. is as high as 1 million people. Part of the policy of the United States today is to prevent a flow of so-called illegal immigrants, in reality those fleeing the monstrous social conditions spawned by capital’s rule, to the U.S. At present, over 200 flights a day enter and leave Haiti, but the majority are military ones.
In the aftermath of the quake, over a billion dollars in debts have been forgiven, yet Haiti still owes about $891 million. Two days after the quake, the IMF triumphantly announced, it would lend Haiti a further $100 million; however, he who pays the piper calls the tune: the loan came through the IMF’s extended credit facility and had conditions which included raising electricity prices, freezing, and keeping inflation low. New York Times columnist David Brooks, while correctly noting this is not a natural disaster story it is a poverty story, called for “intrusive paternalism” as a solution. In other words, Haiti could be the recipient of restructuring which would likely allow the economy to “develop” and a cruel exploitation to emerge. Barack Obama’s use of Bill Clinton and George Bush, the architects of America policy in Haiti over the last two decades, as point men shows how little things will change. In fact, Clinton has been pitching Haiti as a tourist destination, once the infrastructure is rebuilt, no doubt with fat contracts for connected companies. Perhaps Batista’s Cuba is the historical model awaiting Haiti.
Could it be different? Is it possible to rebuild Haiti, to construct quake-resistant structures, to re-forest and re-vitalize the devastated agricultural sector, to make life fundamentally different for the people of that nation? The know-how and talent exists. The technology exists too. But stronger than them, is the obligation to valorize, to create a profit. Within the social and economic system in which we are trapped, disasters like Haiti make sense. The economic system, the system of value production, has disaster and destruction built into it. Capitalism, not “nature,” stripped Haiti of its forests, and its agricultural land. Capitalism reduced it to a vast urban shantytown, blocking the most elementary efforts to reduce the danger of natural disasters. Capitalism needs “natural” disasters like Haiti: to destroy value, to impose its will. The millions of dollars promised to Haiti from governments, individuals and aid agencies all cover up this disturbing fact: If in fact Haiti does have a curse, it is not a supernatural one. The curse is the curse of capitalism
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