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Floods and mudslides killed over 1000 people this past weekend in North and Northwest Haiti as Tropical Storm Jeanne brushed by the nation on September 18. Tens of thousands are left homeless and destitute, their shops, livestock and crops swept away.
The cities of Gonaïves and Port-de-Paix, as well as smaller towns like Gros Morne and Chansolme, were particularly hard hit when rivers overflowed their banks. The death toll is sure to rise by hundreds in coming days as authorities begin to count those killed in the teeming countryside's hamlets, where medical and rescue crews have yet to arrive.
And the worst is yet to come. As the muddy, stagnant flood waters recede, they will leave behind sewage, corpses and a host of diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue fever. These after- effects will be less noticed but more lethal.
Floods washed away entire towns and killed some 3000 in southeastern Haiti last May, capturing world attention and sympathy. Today, many can only wring their hands and shake their heads at what they think is Nature's wrath and Haiti's bad luck.
But, in reality, the devastation wrought on Haiti is anything but natural and chance. It is the inevitable result of the policies set down by Haiti's local and international ruling groups over the past 200 years.
Mistaking a symptom for the cause, mainstream analysts have pointed to deforestation of Haiti's mountains as the culprit, saying implicitly or explicitly that ignorant peasants are to blame for cutting down trees to make charbon, the cooking charcoal used in the cities. This facile simplification distorts historical and current realities.
First, the primeval forests that once carpeted the island and prompted Columbus to name it Hispaniola Little Spain were razed in the 17th and 18th centuries by French colonists to fuel their booming sugar mills. Then during the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of acres of precious wood, principally mahogany, were cut down to satisfy foreign appetites for furniture and tourist carvings.
But in the past 30 years, Haiti's deforestation has accelerated at the same rate that hundreds of thousands of Haitian peasants have been forced into the cities. Most were ruined because Port- au-Prince governments followed two neoliberal dictates from Washington. One, to lower tariff barriers to allow cheaper foreign products, like agribusiness-produced U.S. rice or Dominican plantains, to muscle out Haitian farmers growing those foods. And, two, to grow cash crops like coffee, sugar and cocoa. The same advice was being given to every other Third World country, resulting in a worldwide glut and price collapse for such crops.
In some countries, peasants remaining on the land have turned to growing more profitable crops like drug-producing coca or poppies. In Haiti, they have turned to charbon.
Peasants use wood to cook. The refugees in Haiti's sprawling slums, devoid of any services or infrastructure, rely on lighter- weight charbon. But charcoal provides about half the energy of wood. So what a rural family cooks with one tree requires two in the mushrooming cities.
Haiti's bourgeoisie, in concert with the U.S. State Department, has capitalized on the giant urban labor pool to set up industrial parks of sweatshops paying pennies a day to assemble everything from baseballs and brassieres to high-heels and calculators for export. They have appropriated Haiti's principal dam at Peligre, to produce hydroelectric power for their factories rather than to provide irrigation and flood control (its original purpose) to the now flooded Artibonite Valley.
The February 29th kidnapping and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by U.S. Marines has only made matters worse. The government of de facto Prime Minister Gérard Latortue has proven unable to provide any concrete response to this week's flooding, just as it provided none to the floods in May. All it has done is decree three days of mourning and that flags be flown at half mast.... and begged for foreign aid. At the 57th U.N. General Assembly in New York, de facto President Boniface Alexandre appealed for the "solidarity of the international community" saying the country faced the "grave situation of a humanitarian catastrophe."
The European Union is sending $1.8 million in aid, while Venezuela is sending $1 million along with food, water, tents and rescue workers. Washington has anted up a mere $60,000.
One has only to look at the preventive measures taken by neighboring Cuba to see what difference a political system makes. In late 2002 in the space of 11 days, Cuba was directly hit by two hurricanes Isidore and Lili. Although there was great property damage, only one person died as the result of a landslide. Over a million people were evacuated during the storms, with 77,000 housed in shelters.
Although Haiti was not directly hit by any of the monstrous storms crisscrossing the Caribbean during this greenhouse-gas fueled hurricane season, it has had the region's highest death toll. While it might not have matched Cuba's pro-active preparations, Haiti's constitutional government surely would have been better able to respond to this year's disasters, if only because it enjoyed popular support, participation and enthusiasm.
After Hurricane Gordon in November 1994 and in May of this year, U.S. occupation troops only grudgingly and briefly used their helicopters to airlift food and medical supplies to flood victims. Brazilian, Chilean and Argentinian surrogates have largely replaced them now, but the foreign occupiers' primary mission remains to prop up the de facto regime rather than provide flood relief.
Haiti's rain-induced floods are devastating because the country has been already ravaged by a flood of cheap imports, weakened by coups and despair, and neglected by a greedy bourgeoisie intent only on its own enrichment, not its compatriots' welfare.
Democracy is a prerequisite for the development that can result in better infrastructure, housing, irrigation, reforestation, and governmental disaster preparation and relief. By overthrowing the popularly elected government, Washington, Paris and the Haitian ruling class made this year's disasters worse. The government chosen by and answerable to the Haitian people was removed, and in its place is one chosen by and answerable to Washington. This prevents the Haitian people from not only protecting their interests but also their lives against Nature's onslaughts.
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