The social and historical roots of the Haiti earthquake disaster

Jeff Lassahn

Contributing Writer

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” Georges Sassine, president of Haiti’s manufacturers association, told the Washington Post. “This is what the earthquake is today—an opportunity, a huge opportunity,” added Reginald Boulos, described by the Post Monday as the owner of a “small empire” of supermarkets, a hotel and a car dealership. “I think we need to give the message that we are open for business. This is really a land of opportunities.”

Vultures are descending on Haiti, feeding off of the “opportunities” of the catastrophic earthquake that struck the country on January 12. Long term plans by foreign powers to reorganize the Haitian political system are now seen as possible. Investors plot that the desperation for jobs will allow for the lowest wages in the hemisphere. The U.S. Government, above all else, has decisively taken control of the small island nation.

The mass media has presented the U.S. response to the earthquake in the most flattering light, claiming it is a generous humanitarian mission. Indeed, the American population has been generous, donating millions in genuine sympathy for the suffering of Haitians.

The response of the Obama Administration has been quite different. Long before substantial aid was distributed the U.S. military landed thousands of troops, took control of the main airport and seaport, and locked down borders. International Aid organizations have bitterly complained that the military was given priority over aid efforts, even stating that the delays of critical food and medical supplies caused hundreds of needless deaths.

Even now tight control of supplies has led to food spoiling and massive under-distribution of existing resources, such as tents, tarps, and medical supplies.

Aside from the criminal mismanagement of relief, the abysmal conditions of Haiti prior to the earthquake served to make the devastation more profound. There are now estimates of over 1.5 million left homeless, but many barely had homes before the earthquake. Building codes to withstand a shock were practically nonexistent. Poverty was and is immense; Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Behind all this is a notoriously corrupt political system that serves to prop up the immense inequality.

As usual, media coverage has lacked both history and critical analysis. The intrusion of over 13,000 U.S. troops can only be called humanitarian if Haitian history is ignored—for the U.S. has already occupied the nation twice, suppressing unrest and propping up murderous dictatorships. Prior to that, the 1804 slave rebellion that created Haiti immediately brought hostility from major (slave-owning) world powers, causing a continued lack of economic development.

International Students for Social Equality, a socialist group at VCU, will host a presentation Haiti at 5:30 p.m. in the Forum Room of the VCU Student Commons. Bill Van Auken, a reporter for the World Socialist Website,, will examine the complex economic, social, and historical issues raised by the disaster, and pose how such a tragedy can be avoided in the future. Discussion will follow. We welcome all those concerned.

Jeff Lassahn is a member of International Students for Social Equality.

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