Andrew Buncombe: A country so poor the people buy mud to eat

The timelines that show the slew of natural disasters to have befallen Haiti in two centuries since it secured independence from France give an indication of the vulnerability of the Caribbean nation to the forces of extreme weather.

What they obscure is the far more damaging impact of foreign intervention that has ensured the ordinary people of Haiti – the poorest country in the western hemisphere – have remained oppressed and impoverished. Such a situation has left the country shamefully ill-equipped to avoid and deal with calamities such as that which is currently faces.

Just a 90 minute flight from Miami, democracy has rarely had a chance in Haiti. Between 1956 and 1986, the country was dominated by the murderous dictators Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Baby Doc.

Four years after Baby Doc fled to France, a young, dynamic Catholic priest who spoke of equality and empowerment called Jean-Bertrand Aristide was swept to power in a democratic election with almost 70 per cent of the vote. But his liberation theology and desire to raise the wages of ordinary labourers did not go down well with the country’s small elite or their supporters in Washington; less than two-years later he was ousted in a CIA-backed coup.

Aristide was returned to power by US marines dispatched by the Clinton administration and would be later reelected for a second term. Yet, his continued efforts to raise wages in a country that had become a sweatshop for the US garment industry and resist demands of the IMF and others to “liberalise” the economy, again angered his opponents. In 2000, the US – now dispatching emergency funds – actively blocked more than $500m in international aid.

Four years later, Aristide, by then turning to the tactics of violence to try and maintain his position, was again forced from power by a coalition of business interests and former soldiers, partly funded and supported by elements of the Bush administration and the US Republican establishment.

“The US has spent a lot of energy over the last 100 years in preventing the emancipation of ordinary Haitians citizens and every time there was a chance of this it was blocked,” says academic Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood.

The blocking of Haiti’s progress is all too obvious to any visitor to the island. Lack of investment in infrastructure and agriculture has helped create a country where three-quarters of the population lives on less than two dollars a day and a full 50 per cent on just one dollar. Only sub-Saharan Africa is poorer. In the crowded markets, biscuits made of mud and salt that are backed in the sun are sold to the poorest of the poor.

Meanwhile, less than half the population of cities such as Port-au-Prince, where the poor are squeezed into notorious gang-controlled slums such as Cite Soleil or else forced to build squatter camps in ravines that are prey to flooding, have access to clean water.

Urban migration has resulted in a city that has swollen to 2m people. On the steep hillsides of the capital there is little room to build homes; those that are built are hastily and cheaply constructed, usually from concrete. They can barely withstand a tropical shower let alone an earthquake.

“The magnitude of this terrible tragedy is directly linked to the massive influx of people who have come to live in Port-au-Prince over recent decades,” says Charles Arthur, of the Haiti Support Group. “This human wave has overwhelmed the city and the rudimentary services. The result is completely unregulated construction, poor or non-existent sanitation…and the spread of poverty-stricken shantytowns. The loss of life, the potential for disease to spread... are all far greater because there are too many people living in Port-au-Prince.”

Poverty has set upon the landscape. Unlike the neighbouring Dominican Republic, less than two per cent of Haiti’s forest cover remains, having been chopped down either for export or else the domestic charcoal industry. When hurricanes struck two years ago, more than 1,000 died around the town of Gonaives, while in Cuba – where the storms struck more heavily – there were far fewer deasths. Dr Paul Farmer, who runs an organisation called Partners in Health, witnessed first-hand as an absence of trees allowed flash-floods sweep the area.

“It’s the ecological disaster that underpins the entire process. And again, the chaos and the ecological disasters are caused by humans and not the wrath of God,” he later said.

The government’s ability to respond had also been undermined by food riots. Months before the hurricane, the country’s prime minister was forced from office over soaring food prices, but ironically a failure to impose tariffs on subsidised rice from the US had helped undermine the local food industry.

In the days ahead one will read much of Haiti’s “chaotic past”, its “long-troubled history” and its effective status as a “failed state”. There are reasons for such a situation. Few of them have anything to do with the beleaguered people of Haiti.

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