An interview with Robert Roth by Johnny Van Hove

“Two months after the devastating earthquake, the situation in Haiti is downright criminal,” says Robert Roth. According to the spokesperson of the activist network Haiti Action Committee, major western players such as the US are more interested in defending their own geopolitical interests in Haiti than truly helping the hard-hit Caribbean country.

DeWereldMorgen: Haiti has disappeared almost completely from the front pages. Since you are in close contact with a number of Haitian grassroots organizations via the Haiti Action Committee, could you describe how the situation down there is at the moment?

Robert Roth: The situation is a catastrophe. At this point about 230,000 people have died and 3,000,000 people are still left homeless. Hundreds of thousands of people have no shelter whatsoever and are literally sleeping outside. Under sheets, not in tents. In many, many areas there is no water, no tents, no healthcare. One to two million people are in internal refugee camps that are now dotting Port-au-Prince. They were set up by international aid agencies, but they are in terrible shape.

The lack of housing is truly astounding. We have been getting numerous requests from the poorest communities in Haiti for funds for tents. With the rainy season coming, there is a very grave danger of the spread of typhoid, measles, and dysentery. It could be one these situations in which the aftermath of a disaster is even worse than the disaster itself. The situation was and is truly criminal.

Considering the hundreds of international aid organizations working in Haiti, how could it have come to this situation?

The total amount of financial support that has gone through aid groups is close to one billion dollars. Haiti is truly flooded with aid organizations and yet very few aid goods have been distributed. Most goods have been sitting at the airport or in big warehouses. People who were pulled out under the rubble by Haitians could not receive medical aid because it was not distributed efficiently.

You have to distinguish among the aid groups, of course. Two groups which have been very consistent in distributing aid goods are Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders. On the other hand, the Red Cross has been mostly invisible in the poorest communities in Haiti. There have been protests directly at the Red Cross warehouses and offices, demanding that the aid be distributed. The effectiveness of a number of the aid agencies has been astonishingly weak. And when a country has been occupied, when its democratic organizations have been repressed, and when community-based organizations are marginalized, earthquake relief just will not immediately get into the hands of the people.

What is the role of the UN and the US – which have been major players in Haitian history – in the current catastrophe?

The UN and the US have looked at their role as a security measure. Their concept of aid has been militarized, which means that they have not been diligent in handing out aid to communities. The US military has eleven thousand soldiers down there, the UN nine thousand. Six thousand UN troops have been there since the coup against the democratically elected president Aristide in 2004 and they have been a repressive force, an occupying army in Haiti. In the wake of the earthquake, the US and UN armies have been essentially patrolling Haiti. I am not saying that there has been no help. They háve started to distribute food, tents, health supplies. But it has been much more limited than you would expect. There have been many reports from various communities about how armed vehicles just drove by their communities without helping them.

What were the effects of the “militarization” of the relief aid by the US, amongst other countries – Canada and Japan sent hundreds of troops too, for instance? The American/Haitian activist Marguerite Laurent suggested on her blog that humanitarian aid was blocked in favor of military equipment after the US took over the Haitian airports in the first few days after the earth quake.

The militarization of the relief aid really delayed the distribution of food, water, and particularly medical aid. One of the effects was that in the first few days after the earthquake, five cargo planes of Doctors Without Borders were turned away and rerouted to the Dominican Republic. Partners In Help estimated that about 20,000 people died each day that aid was delayed.

Is the lack of security in Haiti an explanation for the heavy emphasis on sending in forces? Numerous media reports after the earthquake suggested that insecurity, rapes, and violence erupting during foreign aid handouts were mounting.

The images of insecurity in the media are not accurate at all. There are always security issues in any country. But what is remarkable is the discipline, the non-violence, the resilience, the creativity, and the cooperation that Haitians have exhibited in the face of this catastrophe. Even days and days and days after not receiving aid, the US and UN could not point to any major security issues.

If Haiti has not been as insecure as hinted at in the media, how can the massive military response of the US be explained?

The primary fear of the US was popular, political unrest. Haiti truly has a very politically conscious population which has never gone down easily. After the coup in 2004, thousands of people were killed and thousands more imprisoned and held without charges. Every member of the Lavalas government – from high level ministers to local officials – was removed from office. Others were forced into exile.

Still, there has never been an end to grass roots organizing. Labor unions protested the price of gas and the privatizing of the phone company. There were major demonstrations demanding Aristide’s return.

Just recently, there was a very successful electoral boycott because the Haitian government denied Lavalas the right to participate in the election, even though it is the most popular political party in Haiti.

The US is still not comfortable with the popular movement in Haiti. You can see this in the continued banishment of former President Aristide from Haiti. While the Obama Administration has called on former Presidents Clinton and Bush – who was responsible for the 2004 coup – to help coordinate aid, it opposes the return of a former democratically elected president who wants to return as a private citizen to aid in the reconstruction efforts.

Surely, there must be other reasons to justify the militarization of the aid relief? 

There is clearly a major geopolitical and economic interest in Haiti, most prominently by the US. There is a long history of US intervention in the area, including a direct US occupation from 1915-1934. This occupation created the Haitian military and led eventually to the Duvalier dictatorships. In 1991, the US overthrew Aristide and then again in 2004. So the US is clearly opposed to the social program of Lavalas and to its example in the Caribbean.

Haiti is also strategically located close to both Cuba and Venezuela. Haiti is rich in minerals, such as marble, uranium, iridium, and oil. Big corporations, such as the Royal Caribbean Lines, are creating a tourist center in the north which could have an enormous value for the tourist industry in the Caribbean area. And Haiti is looked at as a source of cheap labor. There is a long history of garment assembly in Haiti. Cherokee, Wal-Mart, Disney, and Major League Baseball all had relationships with Haiti. If the US plan for Haiti is implemented, the numbers of sweatshops in Port-au-Prince will surely increase.

Naomi Klein suggested that “disaster capitalism” is striking in Haiti. Would you agree?

Absolutely. This is disaster capitalism on steroids. Number one, you have had an earthquake that ravaged the infrastructure of a country which has been made poor over the centuries. Secondly, you have more than 20,000 troops and massive amounts of capital circulating there. Plus, the Haitian government has been a very passive partner in the aftermath of the earthquake. That is a perfect recipe. The reconstruction conferences in Montreal and Miami are indicating that Haiti will be rebuilt along the lines of the organizations attending them: the US, Canada, the World Bank, the Clinton Foundation, the IMF, major business corporations such as the Royal Caribbean Lines, the Soros Foundation. Haiti is like a blank board in their minds. It is going be a feeding frenzy soon.

The Haitian government was attending the reconstruction meetings too, though. What is its role in the current crisis? 

What was remarkable throughout the crisis was the invisibility of the government. There are two reasons for that. First of all, the government really seems to have lost its connection to the Haitian people. President Preval has been major disappointment since he was elected in 2006. He has basically been an arm of the occupation forces of the UN. Secondly, the government of Haiti has been starved for years and years by the international lending organizations, including USAID. Even now, the government does not receive true support. It literally gets only one cent for every dollar spent on Haiti. That really creates a dependency on international aid agencies. When a crisis such as this happens, the government is underfunded and the aid agencies take over. All in all, the invisibility and compliance of the Haitian government is a token for the fact that the US, the UN, and the NGOs have taken control of the country.

Since the relief agencies are not performing efficiently, who has been providing aid at the grassroots level in Haiti?

What is happening in Haiti is that local communities are helping themselves. The mainstream image of Haitians is that they cannot help themselves, that they are dysfunctional and violent. The truth could not be more different. Haiti is a very well organized country at the grassroots level. There are community committees in every one of the poor neighborhoods, which have been organizing protests in order to get the aid goods distributed. They have also been contacting international organizations they know they can trust and started distributing the aid goods to their local communities.

An organization which has been very important is the Aristide Foundation, which has been setting up aid programs, especially in the refugee camps. They have created mobile schools, they have developed local health clinics, and they are also setting up a big health center at the foundation’s site. Partners in Health has continued to provide important support as well. The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund is funding community projects that are not getting aided by the big relief organizations.

According to Marguerite Laurent in the current issue of the American magazine The Progressive, the people that could be saved were saved mostly by Haitians “frantically using their bare hands to dig through the rubble and lift pulverized concrete in the immediate forty-eight hours after the earthquake.” Does that give an accurate image of how the digging and rescuing took place?

Laurent is absolutely right. The chair of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, for instance, was in Haiti with his family at the time of the quake, and they saw first hand how Haitians were working day and night to save their families and friends. That was basically the story in Haiti: Haitians saving themselves and bandaging and housing each other. They waited for aid that never came and that is why so many people have died unnecessarily.

Nevertheless, Haiti cannot rebuild itself without external help. The Haitian diaspora will keep on sending close to a billion dollars to their homeland every year. But what role can international aid agencies play? Who should be supported in order to help Haiti? 

You can’t talk about disaster capitalism and then donate to the big NGOs. If you donate to the Red Cross, for instance, some help will go to Haiti. At the same time, you are also donating to a system which is not designed to empower Haitians. So if you are progressive, if you want democracy in Haiti, and if you have some faith in the Haitian people, you should be looking for the groups most closely related to, and working with, the grassroots organizations. Hopefully, people can donate to organizations like the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund that are doing just that.

(This interview with Robert Roth was first published in DeWereldMorgen, March 9, 2010)