Monday, April 5, 2010

"The Quake"– Haiti Through The Distorted Lenses of PBS' Frontline


Marc Bazin: former Haitian Prime Minister
and U.S. candidate for Haitian Presidency in 1990.
If Americans watched the PBS/Frontline documentary "The Quake" last Tuesday, they would have learned that nearly half of all Americans contributed to the Haiti relief effort in the wake of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti on January 12, 2010. According to Hilary Clinton, the amount donated was over $700 million dollars. So, with such a potentially vast American audience, it would have been great if the writers and producers of "The Quake" had offered a documentary that was not only representative of the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake, but was also an accurate historical, political, and economic perspective on what has made Haiti so desperately poor and vulnerable to this "natural" disaster. Instead, Fronline chose to spotlight among others, former World Bank executive, Marc Bazin. Bazin was Washington's candidate in the December 1990 Haiti presidential elections. Bazin was trounced by Jean-Betrand Aristide, who won an easy victory with two-thirds of the vote. Marc Bazin came in a distant second with 14%.


Neoliberal Economist Paul Collier on his UN
role of finding "strategies that gov'ts
would find helpful" in Haiti.
Speaking of elections, perhaps the producers were unaware that Haiti has a popular political party with representatives that they could have tapped to speak on the political issues that this "documentary" attempts to tackle. It is at the very least symbolic that Fanmi Lavalas was also barred from the April 2009 elections and again from this year's rescheduled February elections.

In this regard, Frontline is in line with the U.S. government, which learned a lesson from the 1990 elections. The lesson was that allowing a free election may result in the election of a populous, liberation theology Priest who may advocate for modestly higher sweatshop wages, for building the country's infrastructure and institutions (Aristide founded Haiti's first medical school) and who would want vital services like electricity, mill and cement factories and telephone companies to remain nationalized, not privatized, in order to benefit the local economy and people.

Raymond Joseph, is Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. He was
appointed by U.S. backed interim puppet gov't of Gerard LaTorture.
Joseph, who is the uncle of rapper Wyclef Jean, spoke of Haiti's
"proud" and "opulent" heritage during the period of slavery – when
Napoleon Bonaparte's sister had her palace in Port-au-Prince.

If Aristide and Lavalas' plans for Haiti had gone forward, who knows, perhaps the scope of the earthquake disaster would have been lessened. But, rather than include Lavalas's voice as a counter balance to the colonial and "entrenched" narrative, Frontline chose to provide a bully pulpit for Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki Moon, Edmond Mulet, Raymond Joseph, Jean-Max Bellerive and to trumpet the "economic opportunities" and "very low income area" that is Haiti –– by such luminaries as neoliberal Oxford economist Paul Collier. In Collier's view Haiti is a land of opportunities, no, of course he doesn't mean in the same sense as America is known as "the land of opportunity;" as in people will be flocking to Haiti for a better life, where they will succeed in their chosen field, where they can raise and educate their children to have a promising future. Be for real! What Collier, Bill Clinton and his "twenty" heads of companies and CEOs see is opportunity for the multinational corporations in "agriculture, tourism and especially in manufacturing." The privatization of Téléco (the telephone Co.) it turns out, isn't working out too well and labor organizers say that managers "mismanaged the company in order to justify its break-up." As for the plans for Haiti by the "international community," they are just more of the same.
"In a March 2009 New York Times op-ed, Ban Ki-moon outlined his development plan for Haiti, involving lower port fees, “dramatically expanding the country’s export zones,” and emphasizing “the garment industry and agriculture.” Ban’s neoliberal plan was drawn up [by] Oxford University economist Paul Collier. (Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff admitted, in promoting Collier’s plan, that those garment factories are "sweatshops.")

Collier is blunt, writing (PDF), “Due to its poverty and relatively unregulated labor market, Haiti has labor costs that are fully competitive with China." His scheme calls for agricultural exports, such as mangoes, that involve pushing farmers off the land so they can be employed in garment manufacturing in export processing zones. To facilitate these zones Collier calls on Haiti and donors to provide them with private ports and electricity, “clear and rapid rights to land," outsourced customs, “roads, water and sewage," and the involvement of the Clinton Global Initiative to bring in garment manufacturers.
Revealing the connection between neoliberalism and military occupation in Haiti, Collier credits the Brazilian-led United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) with establishing “credible security,” but laments that its remaining mandate is “too short for investor confidence.”

Dr. Mitchell Shuster works on the foot of Enis Turneau ValBrun,
a sixteen year old who lost his foot when he fell into a hole
while attempting to rescue his sister. Tragically, Enis' sister died.
By the way, that medical school that Aristide founded in 2003 was shut down by the U.S. after the coup they orchestrated against Aristide. The shutting of the school undermined Haitian healthcare and "set the stage for the disaster." The existence of a medical school and trained Haitian doctors would have mitigated the misery and death toll from the disaster. The Haitian medical students who were left stranded by the closure were accepted by Havana’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM). These former students came back and reportedly worked "tirelessly" during the earthquake emergency. The Cubans were the first to set up triages and medical camps to care for the victims of the earthquake. Cuba has a tri-lateral agreement with the governments of Haiti and Venezuela to train medical students. The students are pledged to work in areas where they are most needed in their respective countries.

This Frontline "documentary" relied on the same old colonial narratives. Accordingly, they represented that the "corrupt" Haitians "resisted change," whereas the "reformist," as seen by Frontline, were those bent on instituting harsh structural adjustment and neoliberal policies in Haiti. If you believe Frontlines' rethoric, this heroic "reformist" bunch, have tried unsuccessfully time and again to bring Haiti kicking and screaming into the light of civilization to no avail. Frontline's premise begs the conclusion that Haitians are unable to govern themselves without the benevolent aid and support of the "international community." Half-way through the "documentary," the audience is presented with old footage of the brutal U.S. occupation of Haiti that lasted 19 years. From the old black and white footage, one is left with the impression that the pictures are supposed to represent old and abandoned interventionist U.S. policies, but realistically, was there ever a period in Haiti-U.S. history when Haiti was left to make decisions without the intervention of the U.S. government, its representatives or its allies in the international community?

It is Frontline's version of the political situation in Haiti that some will take the most issue with. In the "documentary" they address the future of Haiti only in terms of what the international community will do for Haiti, but neglect to explore the fact that Haitians are quite capable of determining their own course and finding the path to healing and recovery themselves. This paternalistic attitude is characteristic of the colonial narrative.

If Fanmi Lavalas is barred from any more elections, there will be another boycott and consequently political tension will escalate. Since the earthquake, there have been more than 50 protests. Most have been to protest the inadequate response to the crisis, but many have called for the return of president Aristide. The people want Aristide restored. They want Fanmi Lavalas to take part in any free and fair election. When Fanmi Lavalas was barred last April, the polls were pitifully empty of voters. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) could avoid tensions by reversing their course and allowing real elections to take place.

Frontline may have avoided mention of Fanmi Lavalas, but the program did not sidestep political discourse regarding Haiti. Minutes into the narrative, Frontline explains: "There have been a lot of promises made about Haiti in recent weeks, but Haiti has a history of frustrating reformers, absorbing aid and resisting change" Who are these heroic reformers, you may well ask? Some will assume they are those who had just intoned dutifully supportive remarks on behalf of Haiti.
Obama: "To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction: you will not be forsaken; You will not be forgotten."
Ban Ki Moon: "We are with you. We will help you to recover and rebuild."
Hillary Clinton: "We will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead."

These international figures speak a good game, but can they walk the talk? Why are Haitians today not rejoicing and enjoying in the bounty of opportunities, the raised standards of living, safe infrastructure and functional institutions that one would expect is the agenda of "reformers?" Could it be that this was not the goal of neoliberal policies that the U.S. forced the Haitian government to accept? Ironically, Frontline time and again brought up how weak the Haitian government is, but the core purpose or result of neoliberalism is to weaken a government which is subjected to its policies. A weak government will not put up any trade barriers or restrictions to protect its industries. A weak government will be forced to allow the multinationals to flood their markets with imports that destroy the local economy and industry. A weak government will allow the privatizing of local services, even such vital services as safe water, electricity and communications. Did the structural adjustment programs of the IMF, World Bank, IDB and World Trade Organization intend to "reform" Haiti? Yes, but not for the benefit of Haiti, it's government, economy, infrastructure, industries or people. Bill Clinton recently apologized for supporting trade policies which destroyed rice farming in Haiti. The policy led to the loss of an estimated 830,000 rural jobs according to Oxfam. Read more about U.S. trade policy and rice farmers in Haiti at "Harvest of Hunger."
"Shocking though they may appear, the latest round of impoverishing policies are part of a historical continuum in Haiti. Indeed, the presence of U.S. troops in Haiti is not new. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines into what turned out to be a nineteen year occupation. Both the 1915 and the 1994 U.S. invasions were ostensibly about restoring democracy and stability. But both were in typical U.S. fashion very much about U.S. geopolitical and economic interests. The interests of Haiti's poor majority have consistently been damaged by U.S. military intervention and by U.S.aid programs."
"This and the decimation of the invaluable Creole pig (because of fears of an outbreak of African swine fever), led to displacement of the peasantry into urban areas, along with the promise of urban jobs, fueled rural migration into flimsy shantytowns. It’s hard not to conclude that these development schemes played a major role in the horrific death toll in Port-au-Prince."
Neoliberalism benefited the Robber Barons, not the Haitian people. Once they buy up a national industry, prices doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Instead of investing in the local economy, these leeches take their profits and go home. What they leave behind are higher costs of living, and worse conditions for people who were living in desperate poverty to begin with. The one notable exception being Digicel, which employs a lot of Haitians and provides dependable cell service in Haiti. So with rare exceptions, these were the detrimental "reforms" that the U.S. wanted Aristide to institute, and when he didn't do it fast enough, the U.S. slapped an aid embargo against a country that their State Department routinely describes as the "poorest in the Western Hemisphere." Heroic wasn't it, to deprive the Haitian people of infrastructure, clean water, and basic social services! After Aristide's government was weakened, the U.S. concluded their orchestrated dismantling of Haiti's democracy by forcing him and his family onto a U.S. plane in the dead of night. They brought him half-way around the world to the Central African Republic, a former colony of France against his will. Later when Aristide was to receive asylum from Jamaica, in direct violation of international law, the U.S. warned him to stay out of the Western Hemisphere or risk "violence."

Watching the section where Paul Farmer briefly spoke about the consequences and misery brought on by a series of unprecedented hurricanes in 2008 in Haiti, particularly in Gonaive, one wonders what he would have said if he was asked to explain as he did in his book "The Uses of Haiti," the U.S. role in Haiti's bitter fate. Unfortunately, Dr. Farmer seems to have lost his voice since he was made Bill Clinton's U.N. Aide. The fact is punctuated when you see the images of Bill Clinton with his arm around Dr. Farmer's shoulders. Clinton's gesture seems to say, see this is my boy now! Dr. Farmer probably couldn't tell you "Who removed Aristide," even if he wanted to.


Was this the same Paul Farmer who wrote:
"[…] the Haitian poor know from long experience that they are not supposed to care about democracy. Perhaps post-coup Haiti's symbolic utility is chiefly as a warning to those who dare to care what democracy is. The coup is a warning to those who think that a country's wealth ought to be equitably shared among the people who live there.

Such was the plan of the Aristide government. From the perspective of the Haitian poor, The Aristide presidency, and not the coup, was a rupture with the past. Throughout his adult life, Aristide has made it clear that he thought the uses of Haiti should be altered in radical ways. Inspired by the idea of "an option for the poor. Aristide wanted, at a minimum, to provide a "decent poverty" for the majority of Haitians. This would require, he felt, greater popular input into decision making: it would require an end to the most flagrant injustices and the redistribution of some of Haiti's wealth. The Council of Hemispheric Affairs, noted that Aristide's victory "represented more than a decade of civic engagement and education on his part," heralded lavalas as "a text-book example of participatory, 'bottom-up' and democratic political development."

Constrained by a new world order that was more concerned about making an option for the rich, and constrained too, by his cabinet of moderates, Aristide's government was less about socialism or anti-imperialism than it was about a modest, reformist nationalism. His eight months in office saw significant reforms against tremendous odds. But, as Noam Chomsky has noted, it is precisely such dangerous notions as reform that are most likely to bring down the wrath of the international elite."
-- "The Uses of Haiti" p.195 by Paul Farmer
From Dr. Farmer's take on the situation back in the 90s, to the tea parties, and cries of "you lie," at Obama's first Senate address, to accusations of socialism and even Nazi symbols that purport to describe the current American President, there are a lot of parallels between the claims being made against the Obama administration and similar baseless accusations that were made against President Aristide. Ironically, both men are not extremist, instead they advocate for modest reforms to a corrupt system. Also, similar to Obama, Aristide angered and ignored his base. For Aristide, it was to lead to his downfall. Time will tell with President Obama whether his pandering to the Republicans and right-wing elements will truncate his time in the American presidency.


There were some good moments in the documentary. The rescuers and medical personnel were authentic and real. Their actions were heroic and they often went beyond the call of duty and showed real leadership and heart. Witlet Maceno, a Haitian-American nurse volunteer was tenacious, gutsy and energetic in seeking out life giving blood for a pregnant woman in distress. Maceno is symbolic of the heros and heroins who volunteered in Haiti and who performed to the best of their abilities with the limited resources they had. Maceno finally found the blood he needed at the Haitian Red Cross in Port-au-Prince. Which is significant, since that particular resource is in-country, and came through for Maceno when others like the Red Cross, and the UN did not.

In fact the UN in the aftermath of the quake failed Haitians miserably. The heroes were those who worked tirelessly on the ground to help the victims, Haitians helping Haitians and those countries which responded quickly, like Cuba, Israel and individuals and international aid agencies from around the world.

Most striking were the statements made by the UN Head of Mission Edmond Mulet. Mulet in effect said that the UN threw up it's hands and "deliberately decided not to coordinate aid. "How can you coordinate, I mean… the border was open with the Dominican Republic. Thousands of volunteers coming in. Airplanes landing. Imagine if the government of the UN or any other organization tried to coordinate that. We would have bureaucratized the process. And I think it would not have been effective. Martin said (perhaps incredulously?), "It would have prevented aid from getting through? Is that what you're saying?' Mulet acknowledges; "We didn't have the capacity to really organize the whole thing. Such good will and generosity from everywhere and I think it would not have been effective."

Mr. Mulet, how effective was the alternative?


It was instructive to see a photo op in the documentary where the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was with President Preval. The faces on both individuals showed the stress and tension each felt towards each other. Frontline's Martin Smith asked Mrs. Clinton about the relationship.

"Is Preval a reliable partner?" asked Smith.

"He is a reliable partner, but he is a partner with very serious challenges when it comes to capacity."

Smith: "What do you mean by capacity?"

Clinton: "Well, that the government has a political structure, and a social structure which is very entrenched in the way it does business."

No kidding. This is coming from a woman who went up against the Washington lobbyists for the health care industry and blinked.

The interview cuts off at this point. I guess the rest is "off the record" as they say? The disembodied Narrator takes his cue from Clinton's remarks:

"What Clinton is talking about is Haiti's entrenched elite. A handful of families who control everything. From the local economy to many key ministries. And while Preval is not considered corrupt himself. He is weak. And many think unlikely to survive Haiti's fall elections."

Good summary Narrator, but not exactly a surprise since Preval has already announced that he would not be seeking another term as president of Haiti.

Since Clinton knows from experience about battling entrenched power structures, why isn't there more cooperation and empathy between President Preval and Secretary Clinton? Probably because "entrenched" power structures isn't the real issue.

What was a surprise was the admission by Frontline, that Preval is not corrupt--deviating from an oft-stated mantra throughout the presentation. They conclude that it is an "entrenched" system, (which is not unlike the system which exists in the U.S. and worldwide when you think about it) where a few well connected families control most of the wealth, industry and power.


During the presentation, Frontline made a point of noting the negative graffiti that abounds in Port-au-Prince about Preval. A popular one reads: "Preval = K K" – meaning Preval equals excrement. What Frontline cameras did catch, but predictably ignored, underscoring the problem with this skewed "documentary," was the graffiti off to the side. The one that read, "Aristide Wa [King]."

The Quake can be viewed online at the PBS Frontline website.

UPDATE 04.06.2010: The transcript of the Frontline interview with Hillary Clinton is on the State Department website.

UPDATE 04.06.2010 8:02pm:
Haitian Prime-Minister Bellerive revealed this week that Haiti has oil. Contracts have been signed and investments have been made by the World Bank and IMF. "For a project worth billions of dollars."
"Bellerive and a consortium of well-known Haitian figures such as Reginald Boulos, worked on a document concerning the economic future of Haiti. The text does not explore the amazing opportunities offered by the exploitation of Haiti’s mining and oil resources, nor does it mentioned any of the serious studies done on the subject. Instead it presents agriculture as the main alternative to resolve’s Haiti’s problems. By ignoring the question of Haiti’s natural resources, it is as if the message was: there will be looting, pillage but we will give you a little piece of bread. Even more deceiving is that they managed to get the help of left wing Michel Chancy, to caution this masquerade. The paysans may only receive little leftovers from the NGOs but at least they will eat bread…. One bag of rice against one bag of Gold."

UPDATE 04.06.2010 9:16pm:
Statement of Cuban Foreign Minister. H.E. Bruno Rodríguez Parilla,
Minister of Foreign Affairs | Republic of Cuba at UN Donors Meeting on Haiti | UN Headquarters, NY, March 31, 2010
"The international community has a tremendous debt with Haiti where, after three centuries of colonialism, the first social revolution on the American continent took place, an act of boldness that the colonial powers punished with close to 200 years of military dictatorships and plunder. Its noble and hardworking people are now the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

[...] The program for the reconstruction and strengthening of the Haitian national healthcare system, drawn up by the Haitian government and Cuban governments, with the cooperation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and other countries and humanitarian organizations, will guarantee wide health coverage for the population, in particular the low-income sector.

[...] From almost immediately after the earthquake, Cuban specialists have been dedicating their attention to the population affected. To date they have seen 260,000 patients, performed more than 7,000 operations, delivered close to 1,400 babies, and administered close to 100,000 vaccinations. More than 50,000 patients have undergone rehabilitation therapy and more than 75,000 children have received psychosocial therapy, in the presence of some of Cuba’s most eminent professionals.

A total of 783 Cuban and 481 Haitian doctors, plus 278 health professionals from 28 countries – all of them graduated in Cuba – are working on this program.

[...] During the 11 years of work prior to the earthquake, the Cuban medical brigade, which has a presence in 127 of the 137 Haitian communes, saved 223,442 lives, treated 14 million people, performed 225,000 operations and delivered 109,000 babies. Via the Operation Miracle program, 46,000 Haitians have had their sight restored or improved. During the same period, 165,000 Haitians have become literate in Creole.

If we evaluate the medical services provided in these 11 years and the training of medical personnel in Cuba, it would represent $400 million throughout the period.

The medical program that we are proposing, in its entirety, will benefit 75% of the poorest population of the country at a minimum expense.

We invite all governments, without exception, to contribute to this noble effort. For that reason, we attribute particular importance to this conference, and aspire to its success.

Thank you very much."


thezenhaitian said...

Just to clarify a point about "entrenched interests" and the families who have a vise-like grip on the power and money in Haiti. When I said that between Hillary Clinton and Rene Preval that is not the issue -- I don't mean that it is not an important or even vital issue.

Bill Clinton was in Haiti walking around with these folks that Hillary Clinton is criticizing as "entrenched" and they fully expect and evidently stand to get the lucrative contracts for the rebuilding effort.

Packer said...

FYI. As for the interview being cut-off with Sec Clinton. The full text is printed on State Department's website.

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