Five days after the earthquake in Haiti on January 12, an air force cargo plane flew one of the first missions of the U.S. military’s aid effort. The plane flew for five hours over the devastated country broadcasting the loud, prerecorded voice of Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, in Creole:
“If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. They will intercept you right in the water and send you back home where you came from.”
The disembodied voice from the sky told Haitians, still stunned by the earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, that U.S. immigration policy toward Haiti would remain the same as it has for decades. This was despite the fact that just a few days earlier, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had announced 18 months of Temporary Protective Services (TPS) for Haitians who had been in the United States before January 12, and that all deportations in process would be stopped.
However, Coast Guard Lt. Chris O’Neil, the spokesperson for the newly formed Homeland Security task force in charge of “managing” any influx of Haitian migrants or refugees coming from the country, said simply, “The goal is to interdict them at sea and repatriate them.” O’Neil’s declaration reflects the same much-criticized immigration policy that the United States has implemented toward Haiti for dozens of years, a strategy that often corrals the blowback of U.S. foreign policy—both politically and economically.
Now, after the most devastating earthquake to hit Haiti in 200 years, the specter of 1.2 million homeless people living in the squalor of temporary tent cities, many still looking for food and water, has not escaped the attention of U.S. policy makers. This could become a hyper-sensitive political situation, especially as the rainy season looms on the horizon.
The Department of Homeland Security’s mass-migration plan, dubbed Operation Vigilant Sentry, has prepared for such possibilities by sending 16 new Coast Guard Cutters to roam Haitian waters. These ships are on the lookout for boats like the 50-foot sail freighter packed with 88 Haitians on February 17, the fourth such boat returned to Haiti since the earthquake. Though officials claim that there still hasn’t been a significant increase in migration from the country compared with other years, the Department of Homeland Security recently contracted Geo Group, formerly known as Wackenhut Inc., for “guard services” (presumably in a tent city in Guantánamo Bay) in case of an influx of Haitian refugees, despite a history of abuses by this private prison contractor. Meanwhile, more space has been made available at the Krome detention center in Miami.
This interdiction-at-sea policy, called “inhumane” by Haitian leaders in Miami, has been policy since 1981. Former U.S. president George W. Bush summed up this policy succinctly in 2004 by saying that the United States would turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shores from Haiti,” despite the contrasting policy toward Cuban migrants, who are usually accepted without many questions.
Bush’s words followed the social strife sparked by the U.S.-backed military coup in Haiti that ousted former priest turned president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, reflecting a long history of U.S. meddling in Haitian internal affairs—including the first coup against Aristide in 1991. But it hasn’t been only politics. The Washington-inspired imposition of economic neoliberalism in the 1980s, implemented with help from Haiti’s elite, unleashed massive rural-to-urban migration within the country and increased migration elsewhere. Haitian-American Katleen Felix of the organization Fonkoze told NACLA that from the 1950s to the 1970s, “Haiti had a flourishing economy; it was the second economy in the Caribbean after Cuba. People who left the country did so for political reasons, because they feared for their lives with the dictatorship. Not for economic reasons.”
Today the number of Haitians in the United States has quadrupled since the implementation of these neoliberal reforms in the country, to about 535,000. While the professional “brain drain” in Haiti has been a problem for quite a while, neoliberalism slammed Haitian farmers. The double whammy of cutting both price guarantees and investment for Haitian rice farmers, and opening up the country’s markets to foreign subsidized rice imports, wreaked havoc on the Haitian countryside. In 1987 Haiti produced 75% of its rice for in-country consumption. Now “Miami rice,” as subsidized rice from the United States is known, constitutes three quarters of the some 400,000 tons of the rice consumed in the country each year. This shift has cost at least 830,000 jobs, provoking an exodus of farmers out of the Haitian countryside into the cities. According to Felix, during this period “the country stopped investing in infrastructure in rural communities such as schools, health clinics, and other essentials,” leaving people to fend for themselves. The situation was typical of the aftermath of economic structural adjustment programs all over Latin America and the Caribbean.
Shantytowns around Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, swelled, like Cité Soleil, which became the largest slum in the Caribbean. Known for its poverty, unemployment, and lawlessness, Cité Soleil, in the economic-speak of U.S. Agency for International Development, also became representative of Haiti’s potential: a vast and cheap labor pool for factories, primarily the garment industry. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2009 followed this logic by talking about the creation of “good jobs for the people of Haiti,” as she promoted a plan to expand free trade zones as the economic solution for the country while speaking at one such factory.
In Cité Soleil, the workers’ homes reflect the $3–a-day wage cornerstone to this U.S.-promoted economic development plan, houses built with whatever material is at hand—scrapboards, tin, and metal from cars. This unlivable wage offered by the garment industry, along with almost no local investment, has helped create slums with no running water, no sewer systems, and no electricity, integral features of neoliberal economics’ flimsy and fragile infrastructure, collapsing easily when the earthquake leveled the country.
“The houses are piled up in slums, built dangerously on ravines, with little to no infrastructure to protect them,” Felix said. “One of the biggest problems is that Port-au-Prince has a population of 3 million, but only can really support 1 million.”
The condition of Cité Soleil not only explains why the devastation hit Haiti so hard, but also testifies to the ongoing disaster of poverty that drives people out of the country. Between 1982 and 2009 the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 114,716 Haitians who were braving the 600-mile dangerous journey to the United States, often overcrowding small, sometimes homemade boats that are easily prone to capsizing.
Just after the earthquake, hundreds of these undocumented Haitians crowded into a small community center in Brooklyn, New York, to learn about the TPS offered by the U.S. government. Some jumped right in to quickly sign up, hoping to find work a little bit more easily, at least for the next 18 months. Others simply wanted to ask questions, perhaps a wise choice given the U.S.-Haitian immigration policy’s unpredictable nature.
Remittances generated by Haitians living abroad range from $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion per year. These numbers are so significant that Dilpa Ratha of the World Bank says TPS could generate an additional $300 million this year, and if the TPS were extended, which Ratha says will almost surely be the case, this could generate an extra $1 billion. Georgetown professor Michael A. Clemens contends that “it might seem strange that the best solution to Haiti's [earthquake] woes lies outside its borders, but migration and remittances have been responsible for almost all of the poverty reduction that has happened in the island country over the past few decades,” considerably more effective than humanitarian aid.
In Haiti the international community’s long-term plan continues to be increased free-trade zones taking advantage of the “labor costs that are fully competitive with China,” according to United Nations analyst and Oxford professor Paul Collier, who is credited with designing Haiti’s current development plan. At an investor’s conference in Port-au-Prince in October 2009, Bill Clinton summed up what this really meant: “100,000 jobs” could be created with a revitalized garment industry.
When Hillary Clinton, on an official visit to Haiti in January, called this a “legitimate plan,” she only mentioned “international donors” and the United Nations as participants in the plan, forgetting to mention that Haitians too might want to have a say in their future. A Haitian farmer recently interviewed by Al Jazeera had another vision: “The first thing we need to do is spend money on agriculture,” but he wasn’t referring to the other part of Collier’s plan, exporting mangoes to wealthy countries. “The people need food now. Not aid. We’re talking about money so we can work the land better.” The farmer envisions a self-sufficient Haiti, not with overcrowded cities; not with Haitians on overcrowded boats trying to avoid U.S. Coast Guard cutters; not with 51% of the population telling pollsters that they would live permanently elsewhere if they could.
Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate.