Haiti's vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor--by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank.
Aside from the reasons for this, after the devastating earthquake, Haiti has become the locus for this gigantic media blitz:
Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin: ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.
I’m talking, of course, about those members of the mass media whose misrepresentation of what goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a second wave of disaster. I’m talking about the treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol. They still have blood on their hands from Hurricane Katrina, and they are staining themselves anew in Haiti.
The issue referred to here is the media's use of the word "looter" and the juxtaposition of Western (U.S./Australian/Euro,etc) "angels" helping pull survivors out in various "miracles" to the Haitians' crimes, gangs and absence of "effective government". This sort of reporting only serves to reinforce preconceived notions about the people of Haiti, whose survival and help for each other is the most amazing and underreported story here, as well as the massive loss of life as it overwhelms the rare survival story.
At the same time, Western financial powers are back at business-as-usual when it comes to Haiti:
To great fanfare, the IMF announced a new $100 million loan to Haiti on Thursday. In one crucial way, the loan is a good thing; Haiti is in dire straits and needs a massive cash infusion. But the new loan was made through the IMF's extended credit facility, to which Haiti already has $165 million in debt. Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low. They say that the new loans would impose these same conditions. In other words, in the face of this latest tragedy, the IMF is still using crisis and debt as leverage to compel neoliberal reforms.
Creating and perpetuating debt in Haiti to "Western" powers and financial organizations takes power from Haitians to govern themselves, make a living, provide services and infrastructure, and form a coherent, functioning society. Instead of that, they become essentially slaves to their creditors. Now to property-obsessed Westerners, it may seem unfair to let Haiti "get away with" unpaid loans. But in the real world, where human beings actually live, Haitians originally owned the land and it was basically usurped by the French and others, who also stole free labor from the Haitians by enslaving them. That's much worse than an unpaid loan.
And now in the aftermath of the earthquake, the West again puts property over human values. Even in media reporting, as Rebecca Solnit so eloquently discusses, the use of the word "looting" should be banned, because it criminalizes what any rational person under the circumstances would do to survive. Not to mention that the emphasis on "security" takes resources away from the very people they are supposed to help, by presuming "chaos", "panic" and "looting" are a huge threat, a threat to property, while the many stories of Haitians cooperating and showing great altruism go largely unreported.
They also deploy the word panic wrongly. Panic among ordinary people in crisis is profoundly uncommon. The media will call a crowd of people running from certain death a panicking mob, even though running is the only sensible thing to do. In Haiti, they continue to report that food is being withheld from distribution for fear of “stampedes.” Do they think Haitians are cattle?
The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control -- the American military calls it “security” -- rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a "stampede" and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.
To know how the West really adds insult to injury, one must understand something about how debt and slavery produced the disaster area that is Haiti today. After the French enslaved them, Haitians fought back and won their liberty - no small feat. But due to economic conditions imposed by the West (France & the US among them), the Haitians in 1825 agreed to pay 150 million francs to the French in reparations for having been freed! To do this, they borrowed heavily from France, the U.S. & Germany. The debt was finally repaid...in 1947 - 122 years later! Imagine the interest the West collected on that. But that's not called "looting", is it?
Ah, but then...
In 2003, then-President Aristide called on France to pay restitution for this sum--valued in 2003 dollars at over $21 billion. A few months later, he was ousted in a coup d'etat; he claims he left the country under armed pressure from the US.
Nothing like a little political strong-arming to get those nasty backwater states off your financial back, eh? Right. If France - and actually due to their complicity, the U.S. too, and maybe Germany too - owe Haiti over 21 billion dollars in reparations, now that would really help Haiti out. So why not pay now?
No, they only fork over another 100 million bucks as a loan - to keep them down, where they want 'em. So who's looting whom?? And how precious, how kindly, the West is to help poor little ol' Haiti, who can't even get their act together... or can they??