by Andrew Crosby and Ajay Parasram / March 1st, 2010
hours of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, Cuban doctors, Chinese search
and rescue teams and Venezuelan medical professionals were on the
ground. When the US military took control of Port-au-Prince Airport,
however, they prioritized landing soldiers instead of humanitarian
supplies, according to humanitarian organizations like Médecins sans
Frontières (MSF) and Amnesty International. The militarization of
disaster relief has led to harsh condemnation of what critics call an
American-led occupation of Haiti.
Speaking to the heavy reliance on military troops, Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez observed that “thousands of men are disembarking
in Haiti as if it were a war.” Chavez’s sentiments echoed his
counterparts in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Beleaguered with increasingly bad press about Iraq and Afghanistan,
Western armed forces have an opportunity to highlight their
humanitarian face in Haiti. But, some wonder, with what costs?
Military-led versus the civilian-oriented approach favoured by
regional countries highlights a difference in approach to disaster
relief. Fusing humanitarianism and the military, both the US and Canada
say that order must come first to prevent the descent into chaos.
Alternatively, Nicaragua told the UN General Assembly that “Haiti needs
doctors, engineers, teachers, construction materials. It needs to
strengthen its agricultural production; it doesn’t need soldiers.”
Venezuela is providing Haiti free fuel, delivered along with other aid shipments through the Dominican Republic.
Cuba and Venezuela have co-operated to deliver health services to
Haiti, according to Al Jazeera’s Tom Fawthrop. Cuban doctors are
specially trained for disaster relief and have proven themselves during
the earthquakes in Pakistan and Indonesia in 2005 and 2006. Washington
declined Havana’s aid during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
However, regional groups, states and humanitarian organizations have
had difficulty accessing Haiti. As MSF’s Francoise Saulnier explained
to Reuters, “Urgent and vital attention to the people has been delayed
(for) military logistics.” As planes and supplies are delayed or
re-routed, doctors have had to employ impromptu measures, such as
hand-operated breathing devices and saws for amputations, according to
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) was unable to secure US approval
to land in Port-au-Prince in January, even though Haiti is a member
state. Instead, they have had to form their base for disaster relief in
As the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was invoked in 2004 to
justify Haiti’s military occupation, disaster relief justifies the
current military intervention. Some 27,000 foreign soldiers are
currently stationed in Haiti.
The Canadian Forces contingent consists of 2,046 military personnel,
including the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a Naval Task
Group, six Griffon helicopters, an urban rescue and recovery team, a
detachment of military police, a field hospital, and a sizable Land
Force presence, including a light infantry battalion.
Yves Engler, co-author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority,
describes the militarized response: “Canada sent 2,000 troops while
disaster relief teams in Calgary, Toronto and other cities were told to
stay at home.” Engler sees this response as a “dangerous sign for a
continuation of long-standing policy.”
The policy Engler is referring to is the political interference in
Haitian democracy emanating from the ousting of democratically elected
president Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004: a move planned by Washington,
Ottawa and Paris. In his recently published Black Book of Canadian
Foreign Policy, Engler documents how Canadian elite JTF-2 forces
secured the airport while 500 Canadian soldiers patrolled the streets
and engaged in counterinsurgency operations against Aristide supporters.
In the post-earthquake context, the Canadian military is present in
a different capacity. Engler explains that there is “no doubt that
Canadian troops are fulfilling a humanitarian function, but troops are
not the preferable option.” Engler says doctors and search and rescue
teams should be on the ground, not soldiers.
There is growing fear from regional states that the US is
establishing a large, permanent military base in Haiti with Canadian
support. Recently on the A-Infos Radio Project, Anthony Fenton,
co-author of Canada In Haiti, said that states such as
Nicaragua and Venezuela have expressed concern that Haiti is becoming
“a launching pad for destabilization and continuing Western military
and economic hegemony for the entire hemisphere.” With a long-term
American presence in Haiti, the US can further its strategic interest
in the Caribbean/Latin American region, much like it’s doing in Iraq
US influence in Latin America has declined in the past decade,
explained in part by the strengthening of grassroots democratic
governments in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Caracas and
Havana’s leadership in establishing the Bolivarian Alliance for the
Americas (ALBA) Trade Bloc based on social issues rather than
trade-liberalization, for example, has been a direct challenge to the
US-led attempts at establishing the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
This movement, combined with the crisis in Haiti, has led analysts like
Engler to believe there is “some concern [in the US] that the
earthquake would [increase] Venezuelan and Cuban involvement in Haitian
affairs.” Increased Haitian involvement with ALBA would strengthen this
movement, which has already attracted eight states.
As Michel Chossudovsky, Editor for The Centre for Research on
Globalization and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa,
writes: “In all likelihood the humanitarian operation will be used as a
pretext and justification to establish a more permanent US military
presence in Haiti.”