The earthquake shook Haiti’s National Palace to its core. The moment tremors hit on 12 January 2010, the iconic building swayed and partially collapsed. Video footage shows the chaos and destruction of a structure that symbolised both the centre of Haitian political life and its dysfunctional relationship with Washington.
When I visited the site earlier this month, it was the day actor Sean Penn’s NGO J/P Haitian Relief Organisation removed the dome section of the palace during a lightning storm. Penn has become one of the most high profile Americans working in Haiti and is now the country’s ambassador, going around the world supporting the presidency of Michel Martelly in its efforts to rebuild the country.
The New York Times positively reported on the demolishing of the palace by Penn’s group, barely acknowledging the deep unease that many Haitians feel that an American-run organisation is once again running the show in their nation. Sovereignty is outsourced.
I travelled around Haiti to investigate the role of the American government, NGOs, foreign corporations and the Haitian authorities in keeping the country deliberately on its knees, dependent on outside forces, economically weak and politically insecure.
Armed UN forces still patrol the streets around Port au Prince though there’s little evidence that the security situation requires it. "Haiti is controlled by foreign powers", long-time activist and former politician Patrick Elie told me.
After seeing Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Afghanistan this year, Haiti defines the toxic reality of disaster capitalism. It’s an ideology that operates largely out of the public eye and with stunning efficiency. The political and media elites sell it as "development", a helping hand for poor nations that just happens to enrich multinationals.
What I saw in Haiti I also witnessed in the other places: the uncanny ability of NGOs to exaggerate a situation to ensure a never-ending flow of donor aid and weak, local politicians who are still adjusting to a quasi-democratic reality after decades of US-backed dictatorship.
The influence of Washington remains deep, evidenced by a strange press conference in March where President Martelly produced eight passports that he claimed proved he was a Haitian and not American citizen (leaders must only be the former). The then American ambassador, Kenneth H Merten, confirmed in Creole that this was true. A local journalist told me that this was despite the fact that some of the passports were fake and evidence remained that Martelly was still an American citizen.
A culture of US-backed complicity hangs in the air. It’s surreal driving past the home of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the hills overlooking Port au Prince knowing that there’s little international pressure to prosecute him for years of brutality and human rights abuses during his 1971 to 1986 rule. He returned to Haiti in 2011 after years of exile in France and lives in carefree luxury. Duvalier, unlike many African despots targeted by The Hague, remains a friend of the West and is therefore untouchable.
A key mantra of the Martelly government is the phrase "Haiti is open for business". When Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe appeared in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July, American "leadership" was praised as essential to the country’s future. Clinton’s "love" for the Haitian people was mentioned. "The US is doing a lot of good things in Haiti", Lamothe told the press conference. Haiti has just celebrated 150 years of independence from America but the relationship today has mostly changed in rhetoric not reality.
Lamothe acknowledged that, "Haiti’s government in the past have made a lot of bad decisions as well about governance that created a situation where Haiti depends on international assistance for just about everything".
Today the situation is different, he says. "The northern industrial park is a development model we want to replicate and that we want to support."
The Prime Minister refers to a massive US-led initiative in the town of Caracol near the country’s second largest city, Cap-Haitian. With unemployment hovering around 50 per cent, Lamothe said that "over 100,000 to 200,000 people will benefit from that park."
After a nearly nine hour drive through the country on crumbling roads through spectacular mountains and tiny, hill villages, I arrive in Caracol to find a modern structure with only one working factory. It’s run by the South Korean company Sae-A, accused of serious labor rights violations in Guatemala and underpaying staff. Hundreds of workers come streaming out after a long day at work and a few say that they’re upset to be only receiving US$4 per day, half of which is spent on travel expenses and food. The Haitian minimum wage is US$5.
The New York Times published an investigation into the park in July that accused Bill Clinton’s organisation, the Clinton Foundation, the Haitian government and American authorities of ignoring the countless warnings about the sustainability of the industrial park but going ahead anyway. Anything to show "progress" in the country.
The Clinton Foundation’s record is already compromised, accused of sending to Haiti the same kind of toxic trailers used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that were found to have worrying levels of formaldehyde. I met virtually nobody in Haiti with a kind word to say about Clinton himself, a man seen as enriching his friends and himself at the expense of developing projects that bring true independence to Haitian business.
I walked around the industrial park, after being told by a senior Haitian manager, Alix Innocent, that all locals in the area support the project and any environmental issues have been sorted. He told me that the Inter-American National Development Bank is currently working out a master plan to manage any environmental problems. This is happening after the project is nearing completion.
The vast majority of factories are currently empty shells, soon to be production houses for clothes destined to sell at The Gap and other foreign clothing outlets. I briefly glimpsed the sole operating factory before being asked to leave by a security guard. It didn’t look like the cramped sweatshop I was expecting.
Instead, union organiser and human rights activist Yannick Etienne told me this is a new form of slavery. Haitians have been told they must embrace a "new form of imperialism" that pays poorly, isn’t sustainable and ignores worker’s rights.
Anthropologist Timothy Schwartz, a man with vast experience both inside and outside the aid sector, understands the dependency that is forced on Haiti, principally by the US government and USAID. Many of the USAID people he knows — including some very close to Hillary Clinton in the State Department, he told me — only know one model for a place like Haiti: foreign, corporate investment.
Caracol is just the latest example of this. Even though it hasn’t worked in the country for decades, the same policies are simply repeated because the USAID people on the ground only stay for a few years and then they’re moved to another place. "The plant at Caracol was decided by Washington, the Haitian government had nothing to do with it", Schwartz says.
Schwartz is also a ferocious critic of the NGO industry in Haiti — he alleges the UN and many NGOs continue to inflate numbers of dead and homeless since the earthquake in order to continue receiving international support — and demands a far more accountable system is put in place.
It’s hard to disagree after visiting the centre of Port au Prince, the epi-centre of the earthquake’s fury. Half demolished buildings sat precariously above workers selling used shoes, and fruit. Water runs through the streets. Rubbish and the smell of faeces fills the air.
At a massive refugee camp in the city, Sou Piste, I spoke to many Haitians who have been languishing in squalor since the earthquake and only given flimsy tents by USAID. They’ve seen no help from the government or international bodies. They asked me where all the billions of pledged aid has gone. A small amphitheatre, originally designed to host sporting events, is now where people relieve themselves. The odour was pungent with children running around barefoot. Men play make-shift checkers and sit and stand around while women carry young infants.
The site, and countless others around the country, is a damning indictment of the UN, NGOs and international governments. Rubble from the earthquake still sits in many parts of Port au Prince despite Sean Penn’s group and others beginning the task of removing it. I was refused access to the refugee camp that Penn runs in the capital.
It’s yet another example of the feeling of powerlessness conveyed by many Haitians, a sense that they don’t control their own country, that outside forces, some of whom may mean well, are doing little to empower locals to make Haiti truly independent again.
After all, this country was the first in history to fight a slave rebellion and win.