Stateside: Haiti earthquake

By: Rosalea Barker
January 15, 2010

What would Cuba do?

I learned about the earthquake in Haiti very shortly after it happened. A workmate has been monitoring the US Geological Survey website all this week, following a 6.5 earthquake off the coast of Northern California at the weekend. The Sunday quake occurred deep in the ocean at a point where three tectonic plates meet, so, obviously, that coastal region is prone to tremblors. But this one was the strongest in decades.

No one was injured; things fell off shelves, and some buildings suffered minor damage. Still, when you live in quake country as we here in the SF Bay Area do (there had been several minor earthquakes in the South Bay before the Sunday one hit 280 miles to the north of us) it always brings on thoughts that another Big One will hit very soon.

On Monday evening, I’d watched the PBS Newshour and it had included a report about the efforts of UN Special Envoy to Haiti, President Clinton, to get US businesses to invest there. The report is part of the Fragile States series, which can be found here at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Clothing manufacturers are eager to invest in Haiti, where factory workers consider themselves lucky to be getting paid $3 a day. The reporter, Kira Kay, also interviewed Yolette Etienne, a longtime grassroots organizer in Haiti:

YOLETTE ETIENNE: Everything should be done to improve the land and to see how that can be used and that can be developed in more a rational way.

KIRA KAY: Etienne says she wants to make sure the tougher, but ultimately more promising area of agricultural development doesn’t get sidelined in favor of quick-fix garment jobs.

YOLETTE ETIENNE: It will be important for the international community and the government to negotiate or to give more priority to more sustainable job creation.

All of which came to mind when I received an email today from the US organization known as Act Now to End War and Racism (ANSWER). As it does every year, the ANSWER Coalition has called for a mass national march and rally in Washington, DC, on March 20 to oppose the wars and occupations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. “We will also demand an end to the foreign occupation of Haiti and reparations to Haiti for the vast wealth that has been looted from the country by foreign imperialist countries,” the email said.

ANSWER’s website has a potted history of Haiti on its website here. The statement that the history is part of also reads:

As CNN, ABC and every other major corporate media outlet will be quick to point out, Haiti is the poorest country in the entire Western hemisphere. But not a single word is uttered as to why Haiti is poor. Poverty, unlike earthquakes, is no natural disaster. The answer lies in more than two centuries of U.S. hostility to the island nation, whose hard-won independence from the French was only the beginning of its struggle for liberation.


The unstable, makeshift dwellings imposed upon Haitians by Washington’s neoliberal policies have now, for many, been turned into graves. Those same policies are to blame for the lack of hospitals, ambulances, fire trucks, rescue equipment, food and medicine. The blow dealt by such a natural disaster to an economy made so fragile from decades of plundering will greatly magnify the suffering of the Haitian people.

Such statements from ANSWER are not unexpected; it always takes advantage of any situation in which Ye Olde “class struggle” can be brought into focus without using those actual words. But their website’s statement on Haiti makes interesting reading, especially if you’ve also read the Newshour transcript. ANSWER’s claim that “Haiti has been under a U.S.-backed U.N. occupation for nearly six years” seems validated by Kira Kay’s Newshour observation that the United Nations peacekeeping force “won’t stay here forever. So, it’s focusing on rehabilitating and expanding Haiti’s police force to one day, perhaps soon, take its place.”

Ever since I learned of the earthquake, long before I got the ANSWER email, I’ve been wondering how one of the nation’s closest neighbors—Cuba—has responded. Cuba is famous throughout Latin America and the Caribbean for its healthcare infrastructure, including its disaster readiness. It’s often struck by the same hurricanes as Haiti is, but far fewer people die.

Cuban field hospitals in Haiti have already treated hundreds of people, according to an early report on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything in the US media about Cuba’s role. All the headlines are along the lines of “US spearheads international earthquake response.” Yet Bill Clinton himself praised Cuba’s (and Venezuela’s) aid to Haiti in a report he presented to the Americas Conference in Miami in October, 2009.

Cuba’s medical diplomacy with Haiti began in 1998, and in a report on the Council on Hemispheric Affairs website published in 2006, COHA Senior Research Fellow Julie M. Feinsilver says there are approximately 400 Cuban medical professionals working in Haiti on two-year assignments in 110 of the 164 communes across the island. Her report is entitled Cuban Medical Diplomacy: When the Left Has Got It Right.

It will be travesty upon tragedy if the Obama Administration—which just recently (and ridiculously) included Cuba in its list of sponsors of international terrorism—chooses to ignore the humanitarian role that country is playing in Haiti.