International responses to American relief efforts in Haiti prove that no good deed goes unpunished.
Americans have opened their hearts and wallets in the days following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in Haiti, donating more than $470 million to help ease the suffering there. The United States loosened its immigration policies for Haitian nationals living here by granting even illegal Haitian immigrants temporary protected status. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security worked to accelerate the adoption process for American families who adopted Haitian children.
And the U.S. military, already stretched thin by two wars on the other side of the world, is providing security and manpower for relief operations.
But there's the rub: In responding rapidly and overwhelmingly with troops, America has opened itself to charges that its relief efforts are the start of a U.S. occupation of the country, which stems from previous American occupations of Haiti, from 1914 to 1935 and again in the mid-1990s.
Helping at Gunpoint
Many of these charges have predictably come from leaders who harbor deep-seated animosity toward the United States. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez claimed on Jan. 17, “I read that 3,000 soldiers are arriving, Marines armed as if they were going to war. They are occupying Haiti undercover.”
The dictator even went so far as to accuse the United States of causing the earthquake in Haiti with a secret weapon, which the Irish Times later dismissed as a “wild rumor.”
Chavez reiterated his point less than a week later, and added that the US “brazenly occupied Haiti without consulting the UN or the OAS (Organization of American States).”
“They started with the airport,” the dictator offered as evidence. “If you want to go inside the destroyed presidential palace, you'll find US Marines standing in your way.”
Cuba's Fidel Castro picked up Chavez's theme and opined over this past weekend that “Amid the Haitian tragedy, with no one knowing how or why, thousands of (US Marines) and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and other military forces have occupied Haitian territory. Even worse, neither the United Nations nor the (US government) has offered an explanation … of this movement of forces.”
Bolovian president Evo Morales, noted on Jan. 20, “It's not right the United States should use this natural disaster to invade and militarily occupy Haiti,” as reported by the Agence France Presse news organization. “If you have all these problems with the injured and the dead from the earthquake, you have to go there to save lives, and you don't do that from a military standpoint.”
Besides never explaining why the U.S. would want to take over a nation that is the poorest in the hemisphere, bereft of natural resources, infrastructure, social, legal and financial stability, these leaders ignore the fact that the Haitian government handed over control of the Port-au-Prince airport to the U.S. military. Not only that, but it's the U.S. military ship, the U.S.N.S Comfort, that's providing medical care for hundreds of injured and ailing Haitians.
European news organizations have also picked up on this theme of questioning the motives behind America's assistance to Haiti.
Agence France Presse referred to America's efforts as “Washington's muscular role” on Jan. 19, implying that the US military took control by force.
Suddeutsche Zeitung, a German center-left news organization fueled the notion of an American occupation by calling the U.S. efforts “invasion of mercy” on Jan. 18. Why not “mission of mercy” or even simply “aid” or “assistance?” (Full disclosure: TIME magazine also described the effort as a “compassionate invasion.”
“The humanitarian superiority of the US has already raised suspicions,” the paper further claimed. “France has criticized the abrasive way the Americans at the airport have taken command, as the completely helpless government in Port-au-Prince abandons control to the US soldiers.”
And despite the article's insistence that “no one can help more at the moment than the superpower,” Suddeutsche Zeitung warned Americans to expect more condemnation of its efforts, saying “This kind of criticism will only increase as soon as thousands of GIs go on patrol in order to provide temporary security.”
A Jan. 22 Irish Times article by Ruadhan Mac Cormiac reported that Edmond Mulet, the Guatemalan diplomat who took interim charge of the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti after the former head of the mission, Hedi Annabi, died in the earthquake, labeled the logistical problems of bringing in aid, “a nightmare” and implied that America had other motivations in Haiti aside from being a good neighbor.
“At the beginning, we didn't know what their [US military] mandate was,” explained Mulet. “But we have established a constructive and respectful working climate with the American ambassador and the generals on the ground, who say they are here to support us. I think their support is genuine,” he added, betraying a lingering distrust of American motives.
The German paper Der Spiegel cautioned, “America Must Tread Carefully in Haiti” on Jan. 18. “While planes and ships are descending on the country to provide relief, the US-controlled airport is proving to be a bottleneck and the ports cannot be used because of quake damage,” explained reporter Siobbhan Dowling. “Some aid groups have been critical of the US management of the Port-au-Prince airport. Doctors Without Borders called on the US military to be 'clear on its prioritization of medical supplies and equipment.”
Those Belligerent Yanks …
Even in reporting the truth about U.S. relief operations, foreign journalists couldn't help but reinforce the hackneyed image of the U.S. as a militant superpower too ready to go to war.
Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times labeled the US-led efforts in Haiti “America's feelgood war on natural disaster in Jan. 21 article. “It's a pleasure to cover a US military operation that is, for once, all sound and no fury,” she wrote in the article headlined, “Relief Efforts boosts image of a kinder, gentler America.”
Der Spiegel and the UK's Guardian both went out of their ways to report that the US troops were not in Haiti to “fight.” The Jan. 21 Der Spiegel headline read, “American Navy 'Here to Help, Not to Occupy,” and detailed the efforts carried out by the Americans sailors.
The Jan.18 Guardian article by Ed Pilkington, despite the headline that proclaimed, “We're not here to fight, US troops insist,” still argued, “You can't move such numbers of US soldiers into a sovereign country without it looking slightly, inevitably, like an invasion. But that's an impression that Americans are hypersensitive about countering.”
“The desire to avoid any semblance of invasion is understandable, given the past few years in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Pilkington explained. “But there's also a local sensitivity, born of wave upon wave of American interference in the internal affairs of Haiti. Interference that Haitians have put behind them, but that they will never forget.”
The Irish Times' Marlow reported approvingly on Jan. 22, “With 12,000 US troops now in Haiti, President Barack Obama has shown himself sensitive to fears of US domination. He told ABC News he's being 'very careful' to work with the Haitian government and the UN.”
Obama explained his balancing act to ABC. “I want to make sure that when America projects its power around the world, it's not seen only when it's fighting a war. It's got to also be able to help people in desperate need. And ultimately that will be good for us. That will be good for your national security over the long term.”
BBC reporter Robin Lustig went so far as to ask if Haiti is now the 51st state of America, an assertion made earlier by TIME magazine's Mark Thompson. Lustig determined in his Jan. 22 post, “All right, perhaps joining the US isn't such a good idea. The gobbling up of other people's lands is no longer as fashionable as it once was.”
Lustig then asked if Haiti's becoming a protectorate of various nations would be better but mused that it would not be easy to coordinate because of the United States. “There's no shortage of candidates,” he claimed. “Brazil has been running the UN peace-keeping force there since 2004, and does not take kindly to the idea that now the US is about to take over.”
Of another possible candidate, France, Lustig wrote, it's “a former colonial power, and is just as unimpressed by the idea that the Americans have an automatic right to run the place.”
Other countries might be concerned about the perceived “occupation” of Haiti by American forces. But who is better equipped to assist Haiti in their time of immense need than Americans, in particular the United States military?
“Only U.S. warships have the capability to generate up to 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day from seawater…Only the U.S. military has the wide variety of vessels and aircraft to utilize those fields and ports, including air-cushioned vehicles capable of ferrying 60 tons of supplies from ship to shore at 40 knots,” detailed TIME's Thompson.
Yet to the international community, these symbols of the American spirit to help a neighbor in need, no matter what the cost or how sustained the effort, is continually misinterpreted as “occupying” another nation.
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