Haiti and the Myth of Violence

January 20, 2010

This is an important posting on the Guardian’s website, and it would be lovely if the paper published it in its print edition, but that seems unlikely. Journalist Inigo Gilmore is in Haiti, and says that, “it’s with a sense of alarm and astonishment that I’ve witnessed how some senior aid officials have argued for withholding aid of the utmost urgency because of sensational claims about violence and insecurity, which appear to be based more on fantasy than reality.”

Gilmore, who has been in Haiti since last week, has “not witnessed anyone wielding a gun, a machete or a club of any kind” and, which is the key point here, he argues that “it’s not a war zone; it’s a disaster zone – and there appears to have been little attempt to distinguish carefully between destructive acts of criminality and the behaviour of starving people helping themselves to what they can forage.”

So, the deployment of thousands of heavily armed (and expensive) U.S. marines, and UN peacekeepers is diverting resources from vital aid, exacerbating an erroneous image of pervasive violence and raising tensions, leading to the potential for violence in the near future. Yet aid agencies are withholding the distribution of food and medicines based on an image of violence. As Haitian-American David Pierre-Louis put it to Gilmore, “People are hungry and needy and yet they’re being portrayed as savages. Aid is not getting there quick enough and that’s sad because the solution is right there and we have the power to do it.”

There can be no doubt that aid has been stymied by reports of violence and looting. There is also no doubt that the aid effort has been a fiasco. Elderly people just 1km from the airport are dying. Medicins Sans Frontieres has had to divert an inflatable clinic to the Dominican Republic after being denied landing clearance at the U.S. controlled airport, where thousands of marines are busy deploying. It’s disgusting.

Also disgusting is the media’s propensity to play up what violence is occurring, and to downplay the general atmosphere of stability. The Guardian is as culpable as any in this respect, with its correspondent Ed Pilkington reporting luridly on the return of 3,000 gang members to the slums of Cite Soleil, and vigilante gangs forming to lynch them. Pilkington reports that the UN has the place under lockdown. “I have a military force that is far superior to that of any gang” says UN commander Florianao Peixoto, with his subordinate Italo Monsores adding that “We know the area and we have it under control.”

Yes but, you piece of &**! you really don’t. You can’t control how the people are dying, but you can control property.

Down the road a long line of women was queuing with buckets at a water tanker. There was scuffling and shouting at the front – unsurprisingly as Cité Soleil has been without drinking water for days. We were taken to see the central water tower, which had keeled over.

You can’t control the water supply. But you can make sure that shop owners, with their “balloons, brooms, salami, lollipops and other random items” remain safe behind their grilles as the poor waste away, gangs or no gangs.

As Colin Dayan warns us in a lucid editorial for the Boston Review, “History keeps repeating itself. So let us be wary of the U.S. media coverage of looting, violence, and chaos in Haiti. The exaggerations serve a purpose: rationalizing the militarization of aid, pushing for a new status for Haiti, that of U.S. protectorate, like Puerto Rico.” Quite so. The barrage of stories detailing largely mythical violence is doing a great deal of work for the U.S. military and diverting attention away from the woefully inadequate aid effort, just as the mythical murderers did in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

The truth is far from “savagery.” As Bob Braun reports from the scene, “Remember this if you read, hear, or even see accounts of violence or looting. We were all over this city — from Petionville on the mountain to the ghetto of Belair and the shanty town of Cite Soliel — and we did not witness one act of looting or violence.” Braun adds that Haiti has a murder rate well under half that of New Jersey.

So let’s get away from the scare stories. Let’s focus not on militarization, but on humanitarianism, on food, medicines, shelter, water. This is utterly absurd.


One Response to “Haiti and the Myth of Violence”

  1. […] are literally cheering the arrival of U.S. Marines.” (readers of this blog should know how sickening that statement […]

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