Haiti: Survivors shackled by huge debt and poverty

Haiti’s earthquake survivors – overwhelmingly poor before the disaster struck – now homeless and unemployed.

Many continue to have no access to water, food, medical attention and shelter as the international relief effort, administered by a huge US military force, trickles out of Haiti’s main airport near the flattened capital of Port-au-Prince.

A senior Italian official criticised the badly organised relief effort, describing it as a "vanity parade". "Lots of people go there anxious to show that their country is big and important", he said, adding, "it’s completely out of touch with reality".

Disaster leaves many homeless

It is becoming clear that the purpose of sending thousands of US troops, in addition to the existing UN contingent already in the country, is to protect US strategic interests and the position of the local political elite. The troops are there to stop unrest amongst Haiti’s poor, protesting over their inhuman conditions.

The US authorities are determined to stop any possible exodus of Haitians fleeing to the US in the coming weeks and instead are moving the survivors out of the capital to transit camps. The US coastguard has stepped up its patrols to stop any boat refugees reaching America’s shores.

Meanwhile the US state department has been denying many seriously injured people in Port-au-Prince visas to be transferred to Miami for surgery. According to the dean of medicine at the university of Miami, Dr O’Neill, "it’s beyond insane".

Up to 22 January, only 23 Haitians had been allowed to enter the US for medical treatment according to the department of homeland security.

Needless to say, the US state department has not suspended its visa requirements for Haitians fleeing the disaster. However, this has not prevented religious groups and adoption agencies prematurely sending orphaned Haitian children to the US for adoption.

Cancel the debt

For Haiti’s survivors the economic prospects look bleak. Damage to the country’s already poor infrastructure has crippled imports and exports. This has resulted in a massive hike in prices for basic goods such as food, fuel and even candles (there is no electricity supply).

Jobs in the sweatshop textile industry, which accounts for 90% of export values and is run by the rich Haitian elite and western companies, have been destroyed along with many factories. Tragically over 500 workers were killed at the Palm Apparel tee-shirt factory, located near the airport, which was destroyed during the earthquake.

Money, including remittances sent from abroad, is in short supply. The UN has said that it will inject cash into the economy by employing several hundred Haitians to clear the debris from the capital for a limited two-week period. They will pay Haitians only $3 a day but even this pitiful amount compares favourably to the $2 a day most people before the earthquake had to survive on.

Charities are urging the World Bank, the UN and relevant countries to write off the $900 million in loans which Haitians are saddled with. International capitalist financial institutions like the IMF say that much of this has been written off and that debt repayments have been suspended for the next five years.

But many debts to private banks and countries such as Taiwan and Venezuela remain. Moreover, interest charges are still demanded and the IMF, which has extended loans to Haiti, has told the government of René Préval not to increase the wages of public sector workers. The capitalists are using this crisis and Haiti’s debt burden to insist on a continuation of neo-liberal austerity measures.

Haitians are relying on their own efforts to survive rather than the bureaucratically stifled international aid effort. They have suffered decades, if not centuries, of exploitation and repression by the rich elite and its western backers. Some 5% of the Haitian population own around 80% of the country’s wealth.

Reconstruction therefore, if it is to be based on social justice, must involve removing the oppressive capitalist system that uses politically motivated violence against the poor majority and entrenches inequality. Only by Haitians taking control of the economy and government through a socialist movement can they begin to rebuild their lives free from poverty and injustice.

Article taken from this week’s edition of The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales)

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January 2010