Why did U.S. aid focus on securing Haiti rather than helping Haitians?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 21 2010 1:39 PM

Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?

Here are two possibilities, neither of them flattering.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the deadly Haiti earthquake. See a Magnum Photos gallery on Haiti as it was.

US. Troops in Haiti. Click image to expand.
U.S. troops in Haiti

By the weekend, it was clear that something perverse was going on in Haiti, something savage and bestial in its lack of concern for human life. I'm not talking about the earthquake, and certainly not about the so-called "looting," which I prefer to think of as the autonomously organized distribution of unjustly hoarded goods. I'm talking about the U.S. relief effort.

For two days after the quake, despite almost unimaginable destruction, there were reasons to be optimistic. With a few notable exceptions—Pat Robertson and David Brooks among them—Americans reacted with extraordinary and unhesitating generosity of spirit and of purse. Port-au-Prince is not much farther from Washington, D.C., than, say, New Orleans, and the current president of the United States, unlike his predecessor, was quick to react to catastrophe. Taking advantage of "our unique capacity to project power around the world," President Barack Obama pledged abundant aid and 10,000 troops.

Troops? Port-au-Prince had been leveled by an earthquake, not a barbarian invasion, but, OK, troops. Maybe they could put down their rifles and, you know, carry stuff, make themselves useful. At least they could get there soon: The naval base at Guantanamo was barely 200 miles away.

The Cubans, at least, would show up quickly. It wasn't until Friday, three days after the quake, that the "supercarrier" USS Carl Vinson, arrived—and promptly ran out of supplies. "We have communications, we have some command and control, but we don't have much relief supplies to offer," admitted Rear Adm. Ted Branch. So what were they doing there?  

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"Command and control" turned out to be the key words. The U.S. military did what the U.S. military does. Like a slow-witted, fearful giant, it built a wall around itself, commandeering the Port-au-Prince airport and constructing a mini-Green Zone. As thousands of tons of desperately needed food, water, and medical supplies piled up behind the airport fences—and thousands of corpses piled up outside them—Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out the possibility of using American aircraft to airdrop supplies: "An airdrop is simply going to lead to riots," he said. The military's first priority was to build a "structure for distribution" and "to provide security." (Four days and many deaths later, the United States began airdropping aid.)

The TV networks and major papers gamely played along. Forget hunger, dehydration, gangrene, septicemia—the real concern was "the security situation," the possibility of chaos, violence, looting. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of on-the-ground accounts from people who did not have to answer to editors described Haitians taking care of one another, digging through rubble with their bare hands, caring for injured loved ones—and strangers—in the absence of outside help. Even the evidence of "looting" documented something that looked more like mutual aid: The photograph that accompanied a Sunday New York Times article reporting "pockets of violence and anarchy" showed men standing atop the ruins of a store, tossing supplies to the gathered crowd.

The guiding assumption, though, was that Haitian society was on the very edge of dissolving into savagery. Suffering from "progress-resistant cultural influences" (that's David Brooks finding a polite way to call black people primitive), Haitians were expected to devour one another and, like wounded dogs, to snap at the hands that fed them. As much as any logistical bottleneck, the mania for security slowed the distribution of aid.