From Thieves of Baghdad to Pirates of the Caribbean?
My wee brother gave me a book for Christmas, one I’d been meaning to read for a while. It led me to realise something: In the build up to the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their allies were known as the “hawks”. If the book is to believed, a more appropriate description would have been “vultures”. The book – Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” looks at the rise of ‘disaster capitalism’.
As she explains, the decision by Paul Bremmer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, to suspend elections after the invasion was last minute. The U-turn choice to instead appoint Iraq’s leadership seemed strange, particularly when this meant replacing some who had already been elected.
Perhaps it had something to do with a new poll which seemed showed the mass privatisation Bremmer had planned was not popular. Klein argues that he knew that allowing elections in these circumstances would defeat much of the point of the war: opening up Middle Eastern markets.
Vast swathes of the state owned economy were then sold off to western companies – often for much, much less than they were worth. As Bremmer was famously failing to prevent the looting of Iraq’s ancient museums, he was working hard to ensure corporate contracts could not be overturned once the people were eventually allowed to vote.
The day after the Asian tsunami, Klein tells us, tourism companies sent in armed security guards to rope off areas of land they had long coveted. Parents were physically stopped from entering their homes to collect the corpses of their children. Similarly, Bush pounced on Katrina as a chance to privatise schools and social housing in New Orleans – with residents complaining that these unpopular policies were imposed on them while they were too distracted to fight back.
Klein’s argument is that radically free markets haven’t taken over the world hand in hand with democracy. Rather, she gives examples from nearly every continent to show that they have been forced on countries while their populations were in shock.
I was just about to finish the book when a tectonic shift ripped Haiti apart. So I thought I should mug up on a country that I hadn’t heard about since the coup in 2004 – or maybe since I worked as a ‘chugger’ (street fundraiser) for Concern Worldwide in 2003?
Here’s my quick run through:
Haiti’s slave population won their liberation in 1792 in a struggle entwined with the French Revolution. Napoleon regretted this, and Haitians fought a bloody war to defend their freedom. This saw thousands buried or boiled alive, fed to insect nests and, some claim, killed in early gas chambers.
Britain, America and France then imposed a trade embargo. This was only lifted when, in 1825, the first black republic agreed to pay 150 million Francs in exchange for France’s lost ‘property’ (read ‘slaves’). The resulting debt was not paid off until 1947.
Haitian politics never recovered from the legacy of debt, slavery and war. In 1915, President Wilson sent in US marines to protect the investments of American banks. They stayed for 19 years, and the US kept control of Haiti’s external finances until 1947.
After years of kleptocratic dictatorship, mainly from the infamous Papa Doc & Baby Doc father and son duo, Haiti elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide. He promised a series of anti-poverty measures. But while these were popular with the vast majority, neither the US government nor Haiti’s elites in the military were keen. He was deposed in 1991 in what most of the people I tend to trust call “a US backed coup”.
After a mass uprising, and bloody violence, Clinton helped return Aristide to power. Aristide claims () that they did so on the condition that he implement right wing economic reforms – a classic use of crisis to force through unpopular policies – the exact opposite policies from those for which he’d been elected.
Once he had returned, the US slashed aid, funded pro-privatisation ads and Aristide’s political opponents. The economy choked finally leading to another coup in 2004 – which Aristide claims was organised by the US. Some claim that Aristide was highly corrupt. This has never been proved in a court of law, and I’m not sure what to believe (The US have admitted to spreading these lies about Latin American lefties so many times, it’s hard to know when its true).
All this in mind, I set up a Facebook group – “No Shock Doctrine for Haiti”. If Klein is right, I thought, then there is every risk that the vultures she describes in her book will prey on Haiti.
What was left of their country lies in ruins. The people of Haiti need help. They need food, and water, and medicine. When they are ready, they must come together to work out what kind of country they want to build from the rubble. We must give them the help they ask for in doing this. But these decisions are for them to make.
And, in the mean-time, we must hold back those who would use this as a chance to prize open what’s left of the Haitian economy, and like Iraq, New Orleans, and Sri Lanka, gut what remains of a country that’s too long suffered from colonial rule.
As I write, the Facebook group has more than 15,000 members – 5,000 of whom joined yesterday alone.
And please do give. Partners in Health, for example, are reputed to be excellent.