Haitian Lessons to Warn Nepalese: Beware Disaster Capitalists in Humanitarian Clothes

[As the horrifying death toll continues to fise to many thousands, amid the collapse of much of the home, business, and cultural structures in Nepal — the result of milleniums of colonial domination, oppression, and plunder — the enormous need for international rescue and reconstruction is a plaintive appeal to the good intentions of people everywhere.  But the aid will come with many conditions by the powers who bear gifts.  It is instructive to study the experience of the “aid” and “recovery” of Haiti from the devastating earthquake of 2010.  The US turned Haitian earthquake aid into neo-colonial, militarized occupation.  The struggles of people to control their own recovery has been an ongoing fight in Haiti, and now in Nepal.  The following except from a chapter in the important new book Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Humanitarian Imperialism makes this Haitian experience hauntingly present in the streets of Kathmandu today.  —  Frontlines ed.]

US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti 

Keir Forgie, from Maximilian Forte’s new book: Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Humanitarian Imperialism
 At 4:53 PM, on Monday, January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shocked Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was the most devastating earthquake the country had experienced in over 200 years, with estimated infrastructure damage between $8 and $14 billion (Donlon, 2012, p. vii; Farmer, 2011, p. 54). This is particularly astounding considering that Haiti is recognized as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 70% of individuals surviving on less than $2 US per day (Farmer, 2011, p. 60). The quake’s epicentre was located 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, which is the most heavily populated area in all of Haiti (Donlon, 2012, p. vii). Approximately three million Haitians, one third of the country’s population, live in Port-au-Prince and every single individual was affected by the disaster: the Haitian government reported 230,000 deaths, 300,600 injured persons, and between 1.2 to 2 million displaced people (Donlon, 2012, p. vii). The country presented a “blank slate,” with all manner of political, economic, and social services in absolute ruin—an ideal circumstance to exercise the arms of the new (US) imperialism: notably, NGOs, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the militarization of humanitarian aid, and disaster capitalism.
US hegemonic globalization is the current world order—it is the new imperialism. The breadth of US influence across the globe in terms of politics, economics, and military are unparalleled across history, affording the nation the means to orchestrate geopolitics in its favor through coercion, masked by rhetorical altruism (Moselle, 2008, pp. 1, 8). However, the US is currently challenged by a state of economic decline and shifting international relations. In an effort to maintain its dominant position, the US must implement a number of novel strategies. As such, the “new imperialism” is distinguished by certain contemporary characteristics: notably, war in the pursuit of dwindling natural resources, the militarization of the social sciences, war corporatism, the romanticization of imperialism, and as a central focus to this paper, the framing of military interventions as “humanitarian,” legitimized through rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and the right to intervene. In truth, the militarization of humanitarian aid serves to facilitate the imposition of neoliberal economic policies through the exploitation of weakened states—a
strategy known as “disaster capitalism”.

Disaster capitalism is a defining feature of US imperialism. It is used to exploit nation states during times of crises and to implement neoliberal corporate policies that favor US capitalism. Apocalyptic events present the ideal opportunity of a “blank slate” on which free-market economics and US-style “democratic” systems can be established to replace what has been temporarily incapacitated. These exploitative transitions are possible because nations in
turmoil, desperate for aid, are not in a position to negotiate the terms of that aid; theref
ore, controversial policies are passed while the victimized nation and its people are emotionally and physically shocked and collectively dependent (Klein, 2007, p. 17).
The US imposes its imperial will upon Haiti via military intervention, US-funded NGOs, and the US-sponsored UN-mission, MINUSTAH. The US has repeatedly used its military and the CIA to intervene in Haitian politics and guarantee neoliberal commercial interests. MINUSTAH has contributed to the country’s state of ontological insecurity, preventing democratic organization and fair representation. In addition, US-sponsored NGOs have undermined the authority of the Haitian government locally and on a global political scale, which facilitates the implementation of US interests in Haiti. Combined with Haiti’s history of colonial oppression, these injustices help explain the economic and structural vulnerability of the nation leading up to the earthquake of 2010. Haiti may be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, in dire need of assistance (and fair political relations) from more developed nations. However, not all assistance is created equal—given that altruistic rhetoric and appeals to humanitarianism are used to mask US intentions of conquest, the focal point of any analysis of US imperialism in Haiti must be the political and economic conditions that result from US impositions, not the propaganda used to foster a favorable international appeal for foreign aid. Claims of good intentions do not negate imperial outcomes that prevent independent development and exacerbate indebtedness.
US imperialism and disaster capitalism in Haiti are enforced by military intervention, US-funded NGOs, and the MINUSTAH occupation of Haiti, all of which have undermined Haitian governmental autonomy, societal structure, and economic development. Furthermore, the militarization of humanitarian aid within Haiti following the cataclysmic earthquake of January 2010 facilitated US-style disaster capitalism. Taken together, militarization of aid and disaster capitalism are the exemplars of the new imperialism. The US capitalized upon the crisis to pursue its own politico-economic interests under the guise of altruistic rhetoric. These actions are imperialist because of the coercive methods used to usurp the power of national decision-making in relation to infrastructure development and economic policy, which ultimately subverts Haiti and reduces it to the status of a US means of production and a sponge for capital overflow.
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