Haiti’s Earthquake and the Politics of Distribution
- Emergency Planning & Recovery;
- Latin America and the Caribbean;
- Poverty & Inequality
If all natural disasters are simultaneously social and political, Haiti’s current earthquake crisis drives the point home with tragic force. As we are reminded of Haiti’s dire poverty and misery—the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, literacy rates below fifty percent, deteriorated infrastructure, inadequate health services, and the egregious inequality between rich and poor—we can only wonder where Haiti lies on the Richter scale of sociopolitical cataclysms. The combined natural and political debacle has proven to be a double indemnity as Haiti’s hapless leadership flounders in the chaos, scarcely visible or audible in its desperate appeals for international assistance. And even with help and resources at the gates, Haiti remains paralyzed by its limited capabilities; unable to free survivors from rubble, disinter the dead, distribute supplies, or sustain basic transport and communications systems.
It is too easy to blame the victims, and that is not my intention here despite the serious culpability of Haiti’s political class. Haiti’s chronic poverty and political violence, careening between oppressive dictatorships, states of emergency, bloody elections and military coups are rooted in the logic of a particular system, historically determined to be sure, subject to change and variation, but locked into a self-destructive cycle that seems impossible to break. If ever there was a leader up to the task it was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose lavalas movement “from the parish of the poor” built its momentum from a truly popular base.
But as Aristide would discover, the system he set out to transform got the better part of him, culminating in political assassinations, nepotistic plundering and domination by decree. Not that the “system” acted on its own, since Haiti is a nexus of regional circuits and global forces including transnational capital controlled by elites, Haiti’s “tenth department” living abroad, the manifold forms of US occupation (including the detention and deportation of “illegal” immigrants, the war on drugs, even the rise and fall of Aristide himself) and fluctuating flows of international aid. However, what I would like to bring out in this brief rumination is the structural logic of the earthquake disaster—not of geological fault lines and tectonic plates, but of elite control over the means of distribution. Haiti’s inability to manage international relief is not merely a logistical problem, but a political problem with a long economic history.
Today, Haiti is paradoxically a “low wage” and “high cost” producer because if labor is cheap, doing business is expensive. Like many entrepôt countries that impose duties on commodities flowing through their gates, Haiti’s gross domestic product is largely extractive, siphoning off cuts by licensing agents when money and commodities cross boundaries and trade hands. What does Haiti actually produce and export? Major agricultural exports include mangos and coffee, whereas manufacturing exports include textiles and apparel. These industries are concentrated in the hands of an oligopoly that preys on foreign capital through tightly controlled channels of distribution. If Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, it has the highest port fees in the Western hemisphere, discouraging outside capital investment. Furthermore, the profits that do accrue within Haiti remain with the elites, who indulge in luxury spending and shopping sprees abroad while supporting a patronage system that keeps them protected within gated communities. The “trickle down” of such wealth to the masses is minimal, maintaining drivers, gardeners, bodyguards and domestic servants on the merest margins of subsistence, while leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Thanks to the 1991-4 embargo which devastated Haiti’s agricultural sector, and the dumping of US agricultural surpluses tied to humanitarian aid, Haiti must import flour and rice to meet its subsistence needs. Moreover, rural poverty has led to massive deforestation as desperate Haitians cut trees to make charcoal, further eroding the agricultural base by destroying the ecosystem. To be sure, the informal sector of recycled cast-offs, religious goods and services, and narco-trafficking keeps families alive and makes some people rich, as has the growing flow of remittances from Haitians living abroad. The bustling commerce of local markets keeps people afloat on precariously narrow profit margins. But here again, distribution trumps production in the political economy of daily survival.
One of the ironies of Haiti’s earthquake is the leveling effect it has had on the nation, bringing together rich and poor within a common community of death and destruction. When the elite’s control of the channels of distribution collapsed into rubble , the state virtually withered away, having lost its raison d’être as a mechanism of extraction and domination. But if in this chaos lies a window of opportunity to rebuild Haiti along more viable lines, and thus break the cycle of crises generated by the politics of distribution, the moment will quickly pass. On January 16, 2010, Hilary Clinton flew into Port-au-Prince on a military plane to meet with president René Préval, and announced: “We are here at the invitation of your government to help you. As President Obama has said, we will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead.” The reporter of this meeting noted that “the sound of helicopters and airplanes coming and going was heard in the background,” as if setting the stage for the next US occupation and the restoration of the status quo ante.
As Haiti rebuilds with international assistance, all partners in the effort should work toward a productive and progressive transformation, one that decreases Haiti’s dependence on imports and handouts, builds a sustainable infrastructure within Port-au-Prince and throughout the nation, restores agricultural productivity, and rebuilds the environment. A tall order to be sure, but necessary for Haiti to break the vicious cycle of political, economic and ecological devastation. Clearly the solution must be collective, inclusive, multi-national and multi-pronged, with Haitians intimately involved in the process. I would recommend a green agenda, starting with the construction of a solar power grid and solar cookers that would bring clean energy to all communities and households, improve self-reliance, offset the need for charcoal, and put Haiti at the forefront of sustainable “third world” development. As the money for rebuilding comes in, the politics of distribution count more than ever before.