Haiti's future must lie in its own hands

Campaign News | Tuesday, 2 February 2010

by Natasha Hickan in the Morning Star

Haiti and Cuba are separated by just 50 miles of Caribbean Sea, yet even before the earthquake the contrasts for people born in the two countries could not be starker.

For many in Latin America, Cuba is a beacon to what human beings can achieve when they have opportunities for health care and education and a say in their future. Haiti, meanwhile, is a harrowing picture of the human suffering caused by years of economic policies moulded to benefit elites, multinationals and foreign economic interests and imposed on a people from the outside.

The deaths of so many people in Port-au-Prince on January 12 cannot solely be attributed to aching poverty. Blame also lies squarely at the feet of the international community - especially the US.

While press reports focus on the humanitarian disaster caused by the quake, they do a disservice to the Haitian people by not exposing the policies that caused the poverty and exacerbated their suffering in the first place.

Thirty years ago, the country was self-sufficient in rice. But the International Monetary Fund bullied the government into accepting loans which slashed import duties on the crop. Local agriculture and livelihoods were decimated as the island became a dumping ground for heavily subsidised US rice. Haiti's Arbonite valley, once home to thriving communities of farmers, now has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the country.

Impoverished families have had little choice but to leave their homes and move en masse to the overcrowded capital. Here they live cheek by jowl in makeshift dwellings, trying to eke out a living in a country where 50 per cent of the population earn less than two dollars a day. Port-au-Prince's population has mushroomed, exacerbating the scale of the current disaster.

Haiti has never been forgiven for the 1804 slave rebellion that won it independence from French rule. Debt, US-backed dictators, coups and military intervention have been a constant in the last 200 years.

The country's first democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice removed by US-backed coups and troops, most recently in 2004.

Today the role of US troops on the island is again under scrutiny. Aid agencies have complained that precious hours were wasted in the wake of the quake while the airport was closed to allow US forces to land more troops, evacuate US citizens and prepare for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit. There is no doubt that people died as a result.

There are now 13,000 US troops in Haiti. Quenching their needs will no doubt be the prime concern for the US air operation. And it is not paranoia to view this militarisation cynically.

Last year Colombia handed over seven military bases to the US and president Zelaya of Honduras was removed in a US-supported coup. It may come as no surprise to hear that oil reserves have been found in Haitian waters.

Haiti undoubtedly needs immediate aid and long-term support to rebuild itself, but the Haitian people should control it. Aid should come without soldiers or strings attached.

Cuba began supporting public health initiatives in Haiti in 1998. Over the last 12 years, 6,094 Cuban doctors have volunteered in the country, treating 14 million people and saving 230,000 lives.

Four hundred Cuban doctors working in Haiti lived through the terror of the quake and emerged from the ruins within hours to set up field hospitals in the rubble, treating more than 2,000 people a day.

They are now administering 400,000 tetanus jab vaccines donated by the Cuban government. A further 60 specialists with experience in similar international catastrophes arrived within 24 hours carrying drugs, medical supplies, food, serum and plasma. Today they are working to save lives alongside 400 Haitian doctors - all graduates of Cuba's Latin America Medical School (ELAM).

This support will continue long after the TV crews have moved on. In Cuba today, 640 Haitian students are on scholarships, 570 training to be doctors at ELAM.

With the exception of excellent early video reports on CNN, Cuba's support has been at best ignored and at worst distorted by the media. Fox News ran an early story chastising Cuba for doing nothing to help, while the Evening Standard ran a scurrilous story suggesting that Cuban medical brigades were needlessly amputating the limbs of survivors.

Those with the facts, like Pan American Health Organisation director Dr Mirta Roses, tell a different story. "It was an enormous advantage that they were already here before the quake. They know the situation, the Health Ministry, the Haitian people ... theirs is an enormous contribution."

Just as Cuba is supporting Haiti, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign is supporting British efforts with a Concert for Haiti tomorrow to raise funds for the TUC Aid Earthquake Appeal at Congress House.

Aid is needed in the short term but we must also call for an end to the US military occupation, for the country's debt to be dropped and for respect for Haiti's sovereignty.

Visit www.concertforhaiti.co.uk for details of Wednesday's Concert for Haiti, which takes place at 7pm at TUC Congress House. Featuring Billy Bragg, Cuban band Son Mas, Benjamin Zephaniah, Omar Puente and award-winning British actors Alan Rickman and Tom Wilkinson plus special guests. Entrance by advance ticket only - available on (020) 8800-0155.

Direct donations to Cuba's Haiti Medical Brigades can be made via the Cuba Solidarity Campaign at www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk or on (020) 8800-0155.

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