Haiti: history and the shock doctrine

I made a welcome appearance on National Radio’s MediaWatch programme this morning to discuss the recent coverage of Haiti with TV3’s Mike McRoberts and MW host, Colin Peacock.

MediaWatch 31 January – on coverage of Haiti – MP3

MediaWatch 31 January – on coverage of Haiti MediaPlayer

The initial prompt for the chat was the rash of stories about TV reporters rescuing survivors and getting them to medical aid – without which they faced an uncertain, if not shortly to be fatal future.

But I also was keen to make the point that, for me a real problem with the coverage was context.

Why is Haiti one of the poorest nation’s on earth? Why did the TV reporters keep referring to Haiti as “doomed” and “blighted”?

My argument is that without this context, it just seems like the reason is the “foreignness” of the Haitians. They’re black and they don’t speak English and when we see them on television they are either “victims”, or they’re criminalised into some large, organic faceless mob that has to be kept in line by the blue-helmeted UN troops wielding riot shields and pepper-spray.

UN blue helmets pepper spray hungry Haitians

This leads to a situation in which the Haitians are seen as “animals”, as this report from the Australian ABC suggests, quoting a UN soldier:

A UN trooper, who declined to be named, struggled to hold back the jostling crowd with a hard plastic shield.

“Whatever we do, it doesn’t matter – they are animals,” he cried in Spanish, when asked why the peacekeepers were not trying to explain anything in French or Creole.

Troops waved pepper spray into the queue’s front line. Others standing atop a grubby white UN armoured vehicle fired off steady rounds of rubber bullets into the air.

Well actually, the hungry people demanding food and shelter are not animals. They are human beings whose dignity has been stripped away from them in the aftermath of an awful tragedy. An earthquake is a natural disaster, but the humanitarian disaster that is now affecting Haiti so badly is of human design.

What we are seeing today in Haiti is the application of what Naomi Klein has christened the “shock doctrine”. This is the policy of taking advantage of natural disasters in order to impose some kind of austerity programme, or other unpopular measure, on a civilian population that is too traumatised to resist. Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine devastatingly demonstrates how this has been done time and time again-particularly by the Americans-in Latin and Central America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Most recently we’ve seen it used internally in Burma and in China.

Evidence for the application of the shock doctrine in Haiti is really all around us – particularly in the actions of the US military and the UN troops on the ground in Port-au-Prince, but it’s not a story you’ll hear, see or read in the much of the mainstream media.

Instead, you will have to seek out alternative sources, such as this great backgrounder from the Australian Socialist Alternative news website, which makes the point that the $US 100 million pledged by Obama to help Haitians is less than 0.1 per cent of the 2010 budget to continue the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This highlights the real priorities of American imperialism.

There are mountains of cash to spend on killing and on bailouts for obscenely rich bankers. But when it comes to saving lives, Obama is one of the world’s great cheapskates.
Yet the question that has to be asked of even this paltry figure is how much of the aid is directly benefiting the population? To this point, reports have overwhelmingly indicated that the answer is very little. Instead of a legion of aid workers and health professionals, Obama has delivered an army of occupation.

Also on 18 January, the White House announced that over 11,000 military personnel “are on the ground or afloat”. The UN was sending 4,000 more troops and police to join the 13,500 who were occupying the country prior to the quake. Yet in the very same press release, they revealed that they had only 265 medical personnel in the country.

The US is not only keeping aid from getting in, it is preventing desperate people from getting out. Writing in the American Socialist Worker, Rachel Cohen and Alan Maass describe a “ring of mighty warships” that surrounds Port-au-Prince. Their purpose is not to provide aid, but to intercept refugees:
“To underline the point, a US Air Force transport plane spends hours in the air above Haiti…broadcasting a radio statement in Creole from Haiti’s ambassador to the US, Raymond Joseph… ‘If you think you will reach the US and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water, and send you back home where you came from.’”

At the time of writing, troop numbers on the ground and in boats offshore total around 20,000. The US government claims that the military presence is needed because of “security concerns”. Riots, lawlessness and violence are spreading. Without the military presence, they say, all attempts to provide aid would prove futile. [US imperialism strangles Haiti]
The article continues that argue that there’s an element of racism in the US (and world) response to Haiti and I made a similar point on MediaWatch. If the reporters on the ground and the editors back home are not giving us any context for what’s happening, and no historical timeline to explain the situation today, it does look like black mobs and unruly “criminal elements” are attempting to take advantage of the chaos. In fact, the opposite is true.
Racist lies. This is the standard line that has been used to send shivers down backs ever since the liberation of the territory in 1804: “There’s blacks down there – and ain’t no-one controlling them!” The reality is – as you would expect in a situation where people need to band together to survive – much different.
Evan Lyon, a doctor with Partners in Health described in an interview with CommonDreams.org how, in the area where he operates, “There’s no UN guards. There’s no US military presence. There’s no Haitian police presence. And there’s also no violence. There is no insecurity.”
Christian Science Monitor has reported how, immediately after the earthquake struck, makeshift camps for the homeless were constructed spontaneously. As the rich left the city, the poor organised themselves. At one such camp, Primatur Gardens,
“a self-appointed organising committee has completed a census of the camp…and created a crude camp ID card. Volunteers have been rounded up to perform everything from the menial – litter clean-up – to the specialised, like the nurse and medical student manning the camp’s makeshift clinic. When petty theft became a problem, a citizens’ patrol was set up and a 10pm curfew was set.”

One participant in the camp related their mood: “This is state property and we respected it… But once there was a disaster and the government vanished, it became the right of the people to occupy this property and use it.”
In fact, Haiti’s people have a proud history of struggle against oppression and imperialism, but you won’t get any of this news in your daily paper, or on television. It’s something beyond the experience of most journalists who are parachuted into a disaster zone, to get the daily story that’s right in front of their noses.

Political organising in the makeshift camps is a threat to imperialism's interests in Haiti

Unfortunately the world’s media is mostly caught up in the story and unwittingly in the plans of US imperialism in the region. This is how, in a nutshell, the shock doctrine works.
So important is Haiti to US plans, and so fearful is the US ruling class of losing control of the country to the aspirations of its own people, that the fifth-largest US embassy in the world was constructed there after the 2004 coup against Aristide. It is little wonder, then, that the tragedy of Haiti has been seen primarily as an opportunity to settle unfinished business.
The pattern is the same wherever the US tries to settle accounts. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Haiti, public pronouncements of benevolence and humanity have been followed by the negation of all things decent. And bodies left crushed under the dead weight of imperialism. [US imperialism strangles Haiti]
Instead the news media concentrates on individual acts of humanism and heroism by reporters, some of them medically-trained doctors. This was canvassed on MediaWatch and some of the material and people we talked about are listed here for you to follow up if you wish.
HealthNewsReview: Gary Schwitzer makes great use of the Potter Box method to analyse the ethical dilemmas facing doctor-journalsts in Haiti.
“What disturbs me about the media doctors is that they are basically pulling telegenic people out of the queue and giving them exceptional resources,” says Dr. Steven Miles, a medical professor and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota.

4 Responses to Haiti: history and the shock doctrine

  1. ConorJoe says:

    Heard yr interview bro, good work Martini –
    this shock doctrine, woah… reading now

  2. […] you want US Marines and racist UN troopers occupying your neighbourhood for the foreseeable […]

  3. […] UN blue helmets pepper spray hungry Haitians. “A UN trooper, who declined to be named, struggled to hold back the jostling crowd with a hard plastic shield. ‘Whatever we do, it doesn’t matter – they are animals,’ he cried in Spanish, when asked why the peacekeepers were not trying to explain anything in French or Creole. Troops waved pepper spray into the queue’s front line. Others standing atop a grubby white UN armoured vehicle fired off steady rounds of rubber bullets into the air.” […]

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