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Disaster News: The Earthquake in Haiti

January 14, 2010

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. 

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Henry permalink
    January 14, 2010 4:03 pm

    Here’s a little more historical perspective………'s_tragic_history_is_entwined_with_the_story_of_america/

  2. Craig Brainard permalink
    January 14, 2010 7:13 pm

    The thing I find puzzling about the whole story about Haiti is that Haiti is only one half of the island of Hispaniola- the other half being the nation of the Dominican Republic. I have to assume that the D.R. also suffered a devastating earthquake. And yet we have no report of catastrophe from there.
    Of course, the answer is that the devastation was so complete in Haiti because Haiti was so poor and distressed before the earthquake, and their government so corrupt and ineffectual. They got hammered by four huge hurricanes last year, with lots of damage and deaths, but we heard very little about that. They have not yet “recovered” from those hurricanes, in fact it could be argued that recovery is not even possible, given their prevailing poverty and governmental chaos.
    In “An Inconvenient Truth” there is a photo taken from space that shows a section of the border between Haiti and the D.R., and it’s a perfect contrast between a tropical rain forest (D.R.) and a clear-cut desert (Haiti). Again, poverty and lack of a functioning government is driving environmental destruction in Haiti, too.
    Some feel it is enough to decry the US government’s involvement in creating the current situation in Haiti, and that is surely a story that needs to be told to all Americans, to point out our moral responsibility. But it is not enough.
    I would suggest that all our well-meaning efforts in years past have not provided any lasting relief to Haiti’s persistent problems. Maybe it’s time to look for a different type of more permanent solution.
    How about this? We offer the people of Hispaniola U.S. statehood- Haiti and the Dominican Republic together in the great state of Carribea. It’s been 50 years since the U.S. added any new states. I think the Dominicans would jump at the chance; they have been advocating for statehood for over a century- they are already a U.S. territory and vote in our elections.
    Statehood would provide the Haitians with a permanent solution in the form of stable and effective government, and we all would gain a new tropical vacation destination which could be a veritable paradise- and would certainly be an incomparable investment draw for hotels and casinos and the usual capitalist crooks- the new Miami Beach.
    Of course, the conventional wisdom says that this could never happen, because nobody here wants to take on responsibility for the poorest and (racially) blackest part of the Western Hemisphere. And so Haiti must continue to be our American disgrace- a one-week horror story every year or two, quickly forgotten afterwards. Too bad for them- and for us, as well.

  3. January 14, 2010 7:37 pm

    Thanks Craig for your thoughts. I for one would be opposed to making Haiti/Dominican Republic a State since it would be another way of co-opting a history of imperialist US policies that are at the root of Haiti’s current national problems.

    The US is not and has never been motivated by improving conditions for Haitians. Haiti was seen by Presidents as far back as Jackson and Lincoln as an insult to slave owning nations, since Haiti’s slaves rebelled to gain their independence. When President Wilson sent Marines to Haiti in 1915 he also sent FDR who was in Wilson’s administration FDR re-wrote Haiti’s constitution with the specific intent of making it more receptive to foreign (read US) investment and ownership of land.

    When the CIA-backed coup occurred during Aristide’s first term as President in 1990 and the country was big run by thugs, thousands of Haitians fled the island and sought refuge in the US. Bush Sr. and then Clinton both made it policy to turn them away or send them to Guantanamo.

    If there is to be justice for Haitians then the US would be subject to international law and tried in court at the Hague. The US would no doubt have to pay massive reparations for the devastation that this government’s policies have wrought for a century. This is not likely to happen since most of us are not even familiar with Haitian history only with pictures of poor black children that causes us to send donations to some charity in order to make us feel good.

  4. girbe Eefsting permalink
    January 15, 2010 10:35 pm

    Thanks for the great information and background to Haiti.

  5. Joe Walker permalink
    February 22, 2010 5:35 pm

    Thanks Jeff.

    Your Recoil article (Page 17, Vol. 10, Issue 2, Feb. 2010, certainly is consistent from other histories of Haiti that I have studied. The USA has been a follower and supporter of everything France, Spain, Canada, NGO’s such as the IMF and World Bank, as well as and Chaquita’s and other business interests have done to corral Haiti’s peasants or serfs using means of starvation, torture and murders by death squads, along with the other abominations they have experienced for centuries.

    You also well illustrate how mainstream media sources such as the Associates Press omit information that might anger the Establishments’ corporate advertisers. That is exactly why I have written, thus far to no avail, to Paul Keep of the Grand Rapids Press. Mr. Keep trusts the AP, whereas I believe the Press needs to use its own investigative reporters to inform staid West Michigan about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in its news articles. Otherwise, The GR Press should limit itself strictly to community news.
    I applaud the charitable works of mercy the USA’s government, churches and NGO’s have been doing in Haiti, and yet I close with the words of a prominent Latin American: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
    — Eduardo Hughes Galeano

  6. October 22, 2010 10:44 am

    What is happening in Haiti reminds many natural disasters that happened in my country (Indonesia). Instructions for emergency response for countries that are in natural disaster-prone zones like Haiti and Indonesia is required. So as to minimize casualties.


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