Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version a revealing interview, Amanda Zivcic asks Marilyn Langlois of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF) about the country's efforts at recovery following its devastating earthquake in January, the dubious practices of foreign organisations ostensibly operating in support of the Haitian people, and the debilitating historical and contemporary role played by US policy.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: How was the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF) formed, and how connected is the HERF to ordinary people in Haiti?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund was formed shortly after the February 29 2004 coup d'état as an offshoot of our partner organisation Haiti Action Committee (both based in the San Francisco Bay area), which does political advocacy and consciousness raising about Haiti and has long-term relationships with several grassroots leaders in the Lavalas movement that represents the vast majority of Haiti's population.

Several Haiti Action Committee members have travelled extensively and lived in Haiti, and its co-founder, Pierre Labossiere, is a Haitian currently based in the US who has helped us develop close ties with a broad network of activists in Haiti who have been working for democracy and empowerment of the poor under the leadership of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The 2004 coup d'état, in which democratically elected President Aristide was kidnapped by US marines and the Lavalas government was dismantled with support from the US, France and Canada, ushered in a period of severe repression, during which our partners called on us for emergency support.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: What was the role of the HERF initially?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: In the aftermath of the 2004 coup, which was a kind of political earthquake, we realised that material assistance was urgently needed by many of our partners who became political prisoners, or were forced into hiding or exile by the extreme political repression of the coup government supported by the US marines and then the United Nations.

All Lavalas members who had been employed by the Aristide government lost their jobs and many social programmes, including a major adult literacy programme, were terminated after the coup. For that reason HERF was created as a fundraising organisation to provide support to numerous organisations, schools, women's groups and agricultural collectives to help meet the needs of people and families suffering under the coup government and UN occupation.

In the ensuing years, HERF was additionally called on for support during the major hurricanes that hit Haiti in late 2004 and 2008. The damage caused by those hurricanes was tragic, unnecessary and frustrating, because under the Aristide government from 2000 to February 2004, an extensive disaster preparedness system following the Cuban model had been put into place, but after the coup, that whole system was dismantled.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: What is its current role of HERF?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: The current role of HERF is essentially the same as it has always been, except that the scope of the need has grown exponentially, given the magnitude of the earthquake disaster. Again, it is very disheartening that six years of UN military occupation did nothing to re-establish the effective disaster-preparedness system that was dismantled after the coup.

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that the US military has been controlling the Port-au-Prince airport and aid distribution since the earthquake, only allowing a relatively small amount to actually reach the people who need it most, while huge stockpiles of food and supplies remain under guard at the airport.

For this reason, HERF has been sending funds directly to our partners on the ground so that they can purchase food, water and basic supplies for people living in many encampments and who have organised themselves to share what little they have as effectively as possible. HERF has also facilitated bringing in some medical teams and medical supplies to Haiti to work alongside Haitian doctors in makeshift clinics. HERF is funding a mobile schools project of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy in Port-au-Prince that hires older Haitian youth from the communities to go to different encampments and teach the younger children for a few hours a day.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: How would you describe the current situation in Haiti?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: The reports we get are that people are traumatised and struggling to survive, and are doing so by and large peacefully, with much sharing and community building, despite indications to the contrary in the corporate media, which consistently fails to portray Haitian people with the respect and dignity they deserve.

The trauma is certainly taking a toll, and we have had requests for therapists to travel there, as Haitian therapists on the ground are overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of people needing assistance processing the psychological impacts of the disaster. Physically, the conditions continue to be deplorable, and will only get worse as the rains come.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: Have you had any indication from the people of Haiti as to what they think should be done post-quake, both in the short term and in the long term?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: What we hear is that for the short term, massive amounts of food, water and supplies, including tents, need to be made widely available to all neighbourhoods and encampments and Haitians be allowed to distribute this among themselves. Given the amount of money donated worldwide to the major NGOs and relief agencies (in the billions of dollars), there should be no problem filling all of these short-term needs. HERF is small and can only do so much. There are a few other groups doing good work, but the vast majority of aid is either not getting to the people at all, or is being distributed in a way that is demeaning and disempowering.

Haitians continue to call for the immediate return of Aristide, especially now in this time of crisis. Aristide has the trust of the people and with his skills as administrator and psychologist, he could do a great deal to help guide the nation through the recovery and rebuilding process. To date, the Haitian government, clearly under the thumb of the US State Department, has declined to issue him a passport, and he remains in forced exile in South Africa.

Haitians continue to call for an end to all military occupations, including that of the United Nations since 2004 and the current US de facto occupation. There has been massive resistance to the past six years of UN occupation, with often lethal consequences, as on multiple occasions blue-helmet-clad 'peacekeepers' invaded poor neighbourhoods populated by vocal demonstrators in pre-dawn hours, killing unarmed men, women and children with impunity.

Another thing grassroots groups in Haiti have called for, and continue to call for, is that the Haitian government and United Nations launch a comprehensive investigation into the disappearance of human rights advocate Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances on August 12 2007, just two weeks after he led a demonstration in front of the UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince calling for an end to the UN occupation and return of Aristide. Lovinsky is a co-founder of the Fondasyon Trant Septanm (September 30 Foundation), which supports the victims of the September 30 1991 coup d'etat, which ousted Aristide seven months after his first election to the presidency, and three years of brutal repression ensued. To date neither the Haitian government nor the UN occupying authorities have done anything to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance.

In the long term, Haitians want to re-establish their democracy and determine themselves how the re-building process will unfold. The Fanmi Lavalas party must be allowed to participate in elections again. The party was banned from parliamentary elections last spring, sparking a very successful election boycott in which only 3–10 per cent of voters went to the polls in two successive elections.

Haitians want to control their own natural resources and agriculture, and put an end to policies imposed by the wealthy elites in collusion with the US and other international big-money interests that rob the Haitian people of what is rightly theirs. It has been estimated that France owes Haiti about US$21 billion, today's equivalent of the obscene restitution Haiti was forced to pay to France from 1825 to 1946 to 'compensate' for the former slaveholders' losses following the Haitian revolution. With US$21 billion and a robust democracy, Haitians could do wonders with their country.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: How would you describe the current role of the US in Haiti?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: The US has had varying degrees of control over Haiti's affairs since its inception, beginning with its refusal to recognise the new republic in 1804 for fear that US slaves might be inspired to follow suit, to the outright US occupation of Haiti by marines from 1915–34, to the US support for the brutal Duvalier dictatorships under the guise of 'anti-communism', to the US support for two coups d'état ousting the democratically elected President Aristide in 1991 and 2004.

What is particularly shocking now is how the United States' immediate response to one of the worst humanitarian disasters ever was an entirely military one, with control and containment taking precedence over basic human caring and compassion. Numerous people in Haiti have told us how bizarre it is to see throngs of armed soldiers patrolling areas where sick, injured and hungry people are peacefully trying to do what they can for each other.

There are many reasons why the US is so intent on controlling Haiti and not allowing Haitians to do their own thing. In addition to some of the exploitive economic practices I'll address in a later question, the US and US corporations clearly have their eyes on large untapped reserves of a variety of mineral resources in Haiti and just offshore, including gold, oil and natural gas.

A further indication that the US has intentions to maintain significant control of Haiti is the fact that it recently constructed a huge new US embassy just outside Port-au-Prince. This new US embassy compound in Haiti is the fifth-largest US embassy in the world, in a very small country with a population of around 8 million.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: How would you describe the current role of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) operating in Haiti?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: Most major NGOs in Haiti are not really meeting the needs of the people. They tend to be well connected with major big business and the US/UN occupiers, with well-paid staff and a carefully crafted image of doing a few projects here and there, as long as the recipients of their largesse don't get political and vocal about calling for the return of Aristide and Haitian democracy.

In the case of the Red Cross, we have heard reports that it has only earmarked about 20 per cent of the vast sums donated for earthquake relief in Haiti to that purpose, while the rest is being held for other things. Of the larger NGOs, two exceptions to these questionable practices that I am aware of and that are actually getting aid to people and supporting their needs as much as possible are Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders. It's ironic, by the way, that immediately after the quake, a Doctors Without Borders airplane carrying a medical field hospital was denied landing at the Port-au-Prince airport five times by the US military.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: Can you make any comment on Haiti’s economy, or economic development? What effect have sweatshops, agriculture and tourism had on it? What has been the US part in this?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: As I've indicated above, a major challenge for the Haitian people is that they have not been allowed to fully control their own economic development in a way to meet their needs. Shortly after the successful revolution and establishment of the Republic of Haiti, the few wealthy elites remaining in the country were quickly co-opted by their counterparts abroad to thwart efforts to take the revolution to the next level and distribute resources more equitably among all the people.

Haitian popular movements have tried reversing this course many times, most recently and powerfully with the rise of the Lavalas movement from 1994–2004, when trade unions were strengthened, the minimum wage was raised and Aristide's government resisted heavy pressure to privatise state-owned utilities. In addition, Aristide implemented a massive adult literacy programme, expanded public education and built a medical school for the poor.

Prior to and during that time, the US did much to undermine equitable economic development, including dumping US-subsidised rice on the Haitian market which put Haitian rice farmers out of business, operating sweatshops for offshore assembly of items sold duty-free in the US, and denying payment of development loans that had been granted to Haiti for entirely bogus reasons. During the 1950s, a major dam was built in Haiti's central plateau to provide electricity for a wealthy few while displacing huge numbers of farmers and peasants who ended up relocating in Port-au-Prince, forming the still impoverished slums of La Saline and Cité Soleil.

The Associated Press reported on February 22 2010 that 'in the quest to rebuild Haiti, the international community and business leaders are dusting off a pre-quake plan to expand its low-wage garment assembly industry as a linchpin of recovery … All sides agree that garment-industry wages are too low to feed, clothe and house workers and their families. Even factory owners acknowledge that reality – though they deny running sweatshops…'!

AMANDA ZIVCIC: How important is Haiti’s history (like the first slave revolt and black republic) and more recent events (such as the election and then overthrow of Aristide) to its political and social development?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: Haiti's history has played a huge role in its current political and social development. What it boils down to is this: the enslaved people of France's most lucrative colony, Saint Domingue, had the audacity to do something they weren't supposed to do and no one thought they were capable of doing in an era when European white supremacy was the order of the day. They rose up and freed themselves, defeating three major European armies (of France, England and Spain), and asserting that they, too, were full human beings intent on participating fully in the course of their own destiny. This shocked and dismayed the powers that be of the day, and Haitians have been punished for it ever since.

Haitian revolutionaries stood up and challenged an entrenched and deeply racist social structure built on the notion that poor people of African descent are less than human, to be exploited economically in good times and to be feared in times of crisis. It is a structure designed to protect the wealth of a few, at the expense of our common humanity.

Sadly this racist structure is still intact, as is apparent from the US government's response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and again much more so after the January 12 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In both instances, available and urgently needed aid was deliberately withheld from poor black people by the so-called leaders of the 'free' world.

AMANDA ZIVCIC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MARILYN LANGLOIS: HERF stands shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers in Haiti in insisting that the resources of the Earth be shared equitably and that all people have a place at the table in deciding their future. To this end we engage in solidarity, not charity.


* Marilyn Langlois, a board member of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, was interview by Amanda Zivcic for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and Green Left Weekly.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.