Disaster News: The Earthquake in Haiti
The recent earthquake in Haiti has brought that small Caribbean country back into the news with stories and pictures of devastation. West Michigan news agencies are even giving airtime or print space this story, with a particular emphasis on humanitarian responses.
WOOD TV 8 spoke with a Haitian refugee, whose family does mission work in Haiti, WZZM 13 aired stories about local churches sending people to help with relief work and others who are praying for the dead and dying, and Fox 17 is featuring a story on way people can help in response to the devastation brought about through the earthquake.
The Grand Rapids Press also ran a story on page 2 of Wednesday’s paper about an East Grand Rapids photographer who was documenting a Christian mission’s work in Haiti, as well as another article about West Michigan connections to Haiti. All of these stories featuring devastating pictures and commentary about the loss of life and the anticipation others are feeling as they await word about the status of loved ones.
This type of coverage is certainly understandable, given the urgency of gathering information brought about by the earthquake. Unfortunately, it is generally the case that once the urgency of the devastation is over Haiti will fall out of news coverage, particularly with local news agencies.
A second problem with the current disaster-focused reporting is that it doesn’t provide any historical context for which people can judge current events. One reason why the suffering in Haiti is compounded from the earthquake is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world. People are already weak and malnourished. Add the devastation of an earthquake and it only increases the intensity of the daily suffering.
Another problem is that Haiti’s government infrastructure is weak, due in part to decades long corruption, but also because as a country they have been forced by the World Bank and IMF to adopt neo-liberal structural adjustment policies. These policies required Haiti to adjust its economy to benefit foreign investors, but it also meant that Haiti’s government reduced or eliminated social service programs.
The Grand Rapids Press did run a front-page story yesterday, attempting to provide some historical context to the current devastation. The Associated Press article was headlined, “More misery for suffering nation.” The story does mention some important aspects of Haitian history. The AP writer acknowledges that Haiti has the first successful slave rebellion in 1804, that the country lived under the lengthy dictatorship of both Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc.
What the article failed to point out is that the numerous US administrations provided financial, military and diplomatic support to the Duvalier dictatorship that last from 1957 until 1986, when Baby Doc was forced to leave the country because of a popular rebellion. (see The Uses of Haiti, by Paul Farmer)
The AP story says, “Political turmoil prompted US Marines to occupy Haiti from 1915 to 1934.” Political turmoil in this instance meant that US interests were being threatened and it does not honestly explain what a 19-year US military occupation actually meant to the people of Haiti. The AP version of this history omits the fact that US troops killed thousands of Haitians during the occupation.
The AP article goes on to say that Haiti had its first democratically elected President in 1990, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest, overwhelming won the election. Again, the Associated Press article fails to mention that the US was anti-Aristide and had back a candidate that was willing to do the biding of Washington. CIA-backed death squads known as the Tonton Macoutes ousted President Aristide in a coup in 1991.
The AP article states that, “President Clinton sent 20,000 US troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide.” This is only a partially true statement, since it does not mention that this was only under the condition that Aristide adopt IMF/World Bank policies.
The AP article makes one final misleading statement by saying that after Aristide was re-elected in 2000, his party was accused of “rigged legislative elections, pocketing millions of dollars in foreign aid and sent gangsters to attack opponents.” This is the version that the US State Department and the Bush administration put forward, but this is not based in historical fact.
Investigative reporter Amy Goodman interviewed Aristide shortly after the US backed 2004 coup in Haiti and Aristide makes in clear that the US was deeply involved in the ousting of the popular president. Many other investigations contradict the US government’s position on the 2004 coup.
The Associated Press article is a serious distortion of US policy towards Haiti over the past century and only feeds into this perception that US citizens who are in that country – as missionaries & NGO workers – are there merely to help the poor. As long as mainstream media continues to do disaster news and refuses to ask fundamental questions, like why people in countries such as Haiti are perpetually poor, US news consumers will never see anything beyond the missionary point of view.