This year, Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday occurred just three days after a massive 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. The devastation caused by this earthquake and multiple aftershocks was massive and the true extent of that damage is still to be determined. However, image after image broadcast from Haiti shows us a country struggling to deal with recovery, digging through rubble with their hands, their resourcefulness a necessity due to limited availability of equipment and supplies to help cope with the death and destruction.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas with an annual per-capita income of $560. It ranks 146th out of 177 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index. More than half its population lives on less than $1 a day and 78 per cent on less than $2.
More than 30 countries, including the United States, responded to the crisis by sending relief workers and humanitarian aid and supplies. The United Nations will be sending 3,500 more peacekeepers in addition to the approximately 9,000 peacekeepers already in Haiti since the coup of 2004.
According to a January 21 article in Politics Daily, written by David Wood, U.S. officials predict that our military force in Haiti will grow to approximately 20,000. The article also reports that due to this military build-up, there are endless lines of military Humvees, wrecker trucks, all-terrain vehicles, ambulances, flat-bed cargo trucks, generator trucks, communications vans and paratroopers. Apparently, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been diverted from deployment to Afghanistan to join the forces committed to Haiti. When deployment is completed, the U.S. will have the largest military presence in Haiti. And according to some in the military, the intention is to keep these troops and this heavy equipment in Haiti for a very long time.
Members of NJ Peace Action question why so many troops were being sent to Haiti. They wonder what their role in Haiti would be and how the Haitians would perceive their presence. They are also concerned about the cost of such deployment and wonder whether that money could be better spent on providing medical supplies, food, water and other pressing needs of the Haitian people.
And why isn't the United Nations taking control of the airport runway and the distribution of humanitarian aid, instead of the U.S. military? UN Peacekeepers are already stationed in Haiti. Wouldn't it make sense to utilize them to help regulate the flow of planes and aid into Haiti?
The Doctors Without Borders/Me'decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res (MSF) website reports that a cargo plane carrying 12 tons of medical equipment, including drugs, surgical supplies and two dialysis machines, was turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday night, January 16th, despite repeated assurances of its ability to land there. This 12-ton cargo was part of the contents of an earlier plane carrying a total of 40 tons of supplies that was blocked from landing on Sunday morning. Since January 14, MSF has had five planes diverted from the original destination of Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic. These planes carried a total of 85 tons of medical and relief supplies. Can someone please explain why?
"The Haitian people have such inner strength and spiritual resilience," said Bloomfield resident and nurse, Karen Long. Karen Long is a Board member of the Bloomfield-based NJ Peace Action. She has traveled to Haiti four times, the most recently being November 2009. "The hospital where I worked was built by Haitians, one brick at a time. This was after the Haitians removed the stones from the mountains, ground the stones into powder, mixed the powder with cement and made each brick. It is my hope that out of this terrible tragedy, the world will help lift Haiti out of poverty, while enabling them to remain a free and independent country."
This will not be automatic. The history of U.S.-Haitian relations has been politically tense since the formation of Haiti in 1804. The United States even occupied Haiti for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934.
More recently, in the 1990s, Aristide ran afoul of then President Bill Clinton and the U.S. government when he wanted U.S. corporations based in Haiti to raise the minimum wage for Haitian workers. The United States has already removed the tariffs from the export of some articles of clothing from Haiti to the United States. While this is a good thing, it should be for the service of Haitian based companies, not U.S. multinationals.
George W. Bush recently admonished the world to keep "politics out of Haiti," something that, unfortunately, he and his administration could not do in 2004. At that time, the democratically elected Aristide was removed from Haiti and taken to South Africa, where he remains today. Aristide has claimed that the U.S. had something to do with his removal.
Yes, let's keep the politics out of Haiti. Can the media stop calling Haitians seeking food and water "looters" with the understanding that after days of going hungry, people are simply trying to survive?
It is likely that in February, President Obama will present Congress with two measures related to military spending. He will request $33 billion in supplemental funding primarily for the war in Afghanistan and to purchase additional attack drones. He will also present the defense budget for 2011. At approximately $708 billion, this will be the largest defense budget in history.
Are these military expenditures truly serving the needs of the people, both here in the United States and in the countries where our soldiers are deployed?
It seems to me that we should take to heart some words of Dr. Martin Luther King, from his speech Beyond Vietnam: Why I Oppose the Vietnam War, given on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination. Today, 43 years later, these words still ring true:
"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."
Let these words guide the efforts in Haiti in the weeks and months ahead.