Public Comment

Hurricanes, Earthquakes, and Private Profit

By Michael Bishop
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:31:00 AM

Like Hurricane Katrina that ripped the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular, the earthquake that shook Haiti and Port-au-Prince is not simply a “natural disaster.” The death unfolding on a scale impossible to imagine is not simply the result of an “exceptional set of circumstances.” Rather, powerful impacts of this event are in large part due to past actions of the United States, uncovering the poverty that lurks just below the surface from Alexandria to Oakland. 

Yes, give generously to the Haitian people. Their immediate needs are great. But please consider whether giving money to reconstruct the previous unjust social system is more valuable than taking action to prevent the wholesale disempowerment of a people—and how this current tragedy underscores the failures of our own country in the face of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

In 2005 thousands of students responded to the man-made disaster in New Orleans, a result of the failed levee system that could not withstand even the Hurricane 2 winds (at landfall) of Katrina. Decades of cuts to education and social services, and a general failure of responsibility of the government to provide for its people revealed an underclass that had been there all along, now exposed by the flood waters. 

The disaster in Haiti last week comes with Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide once again deposed, this time in 2004 with the direct involvement of the US. The US State Department now controls the borders of Haiti, barring select countries from entry to the country through the airport. Borders are a sovereign issue. Was the Haitian government involved in this decision? Plainly, it should determine every step of its own reconstruction. It is all too likely that without global outrage the voices of the people of Port-au-Prince will be shut out entirely form the recovery and rebuilding process. The poor and working-class people of New Orleans, dispersed as they were by FEMA (the stories of one-way bus tickets are true) continue to be shut out of the reconstruction of their city. The National Guard entered New Orleans as an outside, occupying force, whose explicit message (guns, soldiers, troop transports) was violence, and which implicitly demanded “order” over “justice.” This “order” in the form of military presence was maintained long enough for the school system to be partitioned into three, and healthcare and housing further privatized. 

In “Ten Things the US Can and Should Do for Haiti” Bill Quigley, a voice for social justice in New Orleans urged the international community to de-militarize the humanitarian relief bound for Haiti. In the long term this “militarized aid” in the form of austerity measures and structural adjustment demands that the public commons, those things useful to all—schools, public health, housing for the elderly and sick—fall into private hands and bring profit to a few. 

Which neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince and New Orleans did the military secure first? Once these questions are asked, is it any wonder that survivors seek to address their own physical needs? Wouldn’t you? Despite the media’s racist portrayal of “violent” “looters,” would this same term be used if the survivors were white? New Orleans again provides a useful example, and as we saw white folks in New Orleans were not labeled this way. 

The Obama White House looks no different than the Clinton administration in its embrace of neoliberalism. The repressive right has its own ways to come to the defense of the neoliberal model. In “The Underlying Tragedy” David Brooks agrees with much written above. “Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism.” Brooks fails to include that inconvenient detail about much of all three being the responsibility of the US. Both religious zealots and ideological conservatives agree that there is a problem—that problem of course being the deficit within the working-class, darker-skinned people themselves. Brooks admits “This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story,” but then quickly redirects. His solemn conclusion is, “We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.” 

Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson stated more bluntly, “[S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French…And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’ …And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’” This statement of Robertson’s is no different than similar statements in reaction to the flooding of New Orleans public housing, perfectly habitable but ultimately destroyed nonetheless by Mayor Ray Nagin’s bulldozers. Instead this time it was Richard Baker, a Congressman from Baton Rouge, who said: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” The parallels between the tragedies in New Orleans and Haiti are not a coincidence, or due to the culture of a people. 

The BBC states that “Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state when it threw off French colonial control and slavery in a series of wars in the early 19th century.” And Craig Guillot writes, “French Creoles immigrated to New Orleans in large numbers after the Haitian revolution of 1804 and brought their own food, music and culture. These free people of color, along with those who came from Cuba after 1809, prospered in New Orleans throughout the 19th century.” 

So yes, as far as Haiti is concerned, “Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti’s people and public institutions.” But also ask, what of New Orleans? What of the state of our own communities that require only a tragedy like an earthquake to pull back the veil of poverty to see the sum of our misguided priorities? 


Mike Bishop is an Oakland resident and a member of the Katrina Solidarity Network,