Roslyn Cassells: Soldiers and police prioritizing "security" over survival in Haiti

By Roslyn Cassells

I have worked in aid projects in the south, and watch with mounting alarm the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, which went from severe to unimaginable following the recent earthquake and subsequent tremblers.

Widespread media reports have shown that .U.S military control of the only airport in Haiti has resulted in prioritization of "security" over life. Well-known and respected organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have been refused landing access at the Port au Prince airport despite former approval. Other humanitarian aid shipments of food, water, medicine, and urgently-needed water purification systems are being held back, while soldiers and guns and other military paraphernalia are let in first.

Aid agencies agree that the security problems will only increase the longer the Haitian people are denied basic survival supplies. One can only imagine the desperation and despair they are feeling as armed guards and armoured trucks filled with supplies drive past their outstretched arms and ignore their pleas for help, their crying, dying children and family members lying on the street. Their dead and decomposing bodies are unceremoniously dumped in mass graves, with no attempt made at identification.

It is clear that a second wave of deaths—this one avoidable—has begun. One of the greatest dangers to the survivors of disasters comes from the very organizations and institutions that are supposed to help them. This is due to the attempt, often unwelcome by the local community, to re-assert state and police control over the people. In this case the state is the USA, and the policing, in particular the decision making, is mostly U.S. military.

In a time of complete societal collapse—where the entire infrastructure has been affected—survival scavenging is the only way to survive. There is no money, no functioning credit for credit cards, no banks, and no accessible aid for days, maybe weeks, on end. If people can find a few scraps of food or shelter materials in the wreckage of their destroyed community, it may be the difference between life and death for them, their family, and their community.

Soldiers and police are clearly prioritizing "security" over survival when they hog-tied a man in Haiti for "looting" a tin of milk, and shot dead another man for "looting" a bolt of fabric. The man was probably taking the milk for survival reasons, maybe for a family member, a baby perhaps, one of the many who have not received basic food aid or water, and who are living without shelter. The second man may have been killed trying to provide shelter from the boiling sun to his family and community. Many survivors are pulling cloth and sheets from under the rubble to use as protective roofs against the hot daytime temperatures, where they sit suffering on the hot pavement with no water to drink, no food to eat, and no medical treatment for dying loved ones. One can only imagine the suffering in our worst nightmares.

Sociologists and anthropologists agree that most people tend to work compassionately and cooperatively to achieve the common goal of survival in the face of disaster. Most "authorities", however, do not. In disasters, all the usual societal structures are not functioning, and there are many instances when governments, police, army, and other institutions behave aggressively in a failed attempt to reassert their control over the situation.

Over 300 people were murdered by authorities in San Francisco for survival scavenging following the earthquake there. After the horrific earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, authorities responded with callousness and corruption, while the local people formed teams that rescued people and fed and cared for them as best they could. The Mexican experience resulted in the local communities working together democratically and empowered them to continue after the quake. It led to the emergence of a housing rights movement and other socially progressive organizations which are still in existence and have served the people better than any government since.

In New Orleans people and aid were not allowed into the city and surrounding areas, and the survivors were not allowed out. Civilian patrols were responsible for the deaths of many African-American people who tried to walk out of the disaster zone but were shot dead by vigilantes. Others were shipped off to distant cities and never resettled in their home communities nor reunited with their families. It is still not known exactly how many people died in New Orleans following the flooding, but what is known is many of those deaths were avoidable, and some were deliberate.

There are no easy or quick solutions to the many problems facing the Haitian people. Until the people of Haiti regain their sovereignty, they will be unable to effect any political change in their own country. Short-term, however, it is incumbent on the media and the citizens of the world to keep their eyes focused on the international response to the earthquake. We must keep our Haitian sisters and brothers in our hearts and minds in their most difficult hour.

Roslyn Cassells is a B.C.-based social justice activist, Canada's first elected Green party candidate, and an ardent advocate for animals, human rights, and self-determination. She has worked in education and human rights in Latin America and continues to teach, write, and campaign for positive social, economic, and ecological change everywhere.




Jan 21, 2010 at 4:14pm

American militarization of aid to Haiti and the refusal of help from doctors without borders is a crime against humanity.


Jan 21, 2010 at 4:19pm

And here we have your typical social activist at work. Criticize what is currently being done without providing any concrete solutions.

Cassels in the air

Jan 21, 2010 at 5:09pm

While it is true that a plane earlier this week was turned away three times, and another two were diverted to the Dominican Republic, "MSF has successfully landed five planes with a total of 135 tonnes of supplies in Port-au-Prince". This from the MSF website. From today's news brief at the site: "Teams of Médecins Sans Frontií¨res (MSF) medical staff have been working through the long queues of patients waiting for treatment and surgery, even as Port-au-Prince was shaken again by a very substantial aftershock this morning."

Roslyn Cassells

Jan 22, 2010 at 7:04pm

"A Paradise Built in Hell, the extraordinary communities that arise from disaster" is an excellent book written by anthropologist Rebecca Solnit. Her interview is available in CBC podcasts section, she was on The Current on January 19 on CBC with the amazing Anna Maria Tremonte. Also check out the writings of Cynthia McKinney, US congresswoman speaking with her heart and mind on Haiti from the belly of the beast.


Jan 23, 2010 at 2:14pm

Thanks Roslyn for bringing forth the other story well hidden by our mainstream media.

I can't help but wonder how we would respond or react if and when our region is struck by an earthquake scientists have said could be 200 times the strength of the one that hit Haiti. (Refer to the earthquake that hit this area in 1700 and the others that seem to hit every 300 years)

We are told that we have less than a week's worth of food supplies in our urban region, water mains broken and fresh water not available...just what would we do?

Perhaps in cases of these emergencies, the first distribution of food and water could come from the stores, even damaged stores, in the affected zones. Distributing these and repaying the store owner with the aid dollars would be a way to avoid the militarization of disaster zones.

In Cuba they have the CDR, or something like our block watch program but far more active and effective. In terms of hurricanes, Cuba is able to warn and move the most vulnerable out of the path of the hurricane. Of course with a hurricane you have some advance notice. But in Cuba it doesn't take long for the government and its CDR or block watch captains to respond and look after its people.

I witnessed the well planned operations of the Cuban government and its CDR's during a hurricane in 2003. Officials (the people) took 3 hours to marshall an incredible amount of resources to move its citizens out of the path. Crops and houses were damaged and destroyed but not one person perished!

We unfortunately are witnessing something similar to the US response in New Orleans during the hurricane and flood (Katrina) and it begs the question...Do democracies focused on market based systems become less and less able to respond to crises? Is the value of human life diminished to such a degree that sending in the troops trumps vital medical and food aid.

I request that folks send a note to our Prime Minister and the President of the US indicating displeasure and disgust with the military response to this disaster.

We should also give little of our attention to the mainstream media, eager to keep you tuned to them, when they blow out of proportion "violence" and "chaos". It was a US Rear Admiral in Haiti recently that was quoted as saying, "...there is less violence now than pre-earthquake".

If the mainstream media wishes to continue to manufacture stories to justify the heavy US and Canadian military presence in Haiti, then tuned them out...hopefully for good! Remember these same media outlets brought you the uncontested lies from a previous USA administration that eventually went in and bombed Afghanistan and the Iraq...bringing chaos to those people. This media later apologized but I see nothing different in their current coverage.

Most people know now that there are many alternatives to this trash media masquerading as networks.

As the disaster moves towards the discussion of rebuilding, I certainly hope this takes place in Haiti with all Haitians involved ...a conference on some other foreign soil is adding insult to injury.

Let's hope any reconstruction focuses primarily on empowering Haitians to rebuild their own country in their vision and not the US or Canada's. Jobs and training are needed now to those not suffering from injuries. If people have no way to contribute to their own future they will turn to violence.

My sympathies to all those families in Canada who have lost members of their families in Haiti.

Tim Schwartz

Jan 23, 2010 at 2:49pm

I just got back form walking around Cite Militar, Cite Simon, and other parts of Cite Soley--which, fortunately, since they are getting zero aid, are not as destroyed as other parts of the city. And I hung out at the old airport talking to people who were standing in a 400 meter line waiting for food (when they got to the end of the line they were given a liter of oil and a little radio--that in itself would be enough to cause Americans to riot). I have literally touched every part of the destroyed downtown. I am white, blan... and I am on foot and motorcycle and am still trying to figure out what the security issue is. Everyone I meet is as pleasant as they always are, and less demanding than usual, something perplexing in itself. Exactly what is it that the military and aid agencies are supposed to be afraid of? The escaped prisoners? That in itself is absurd. Why would escaped prisoners try to start firefights when there are 10,000 heavily armed foreign soldiers two miles away? When I mention that the Americans and aid agencies are afraid for their security I am met with universal disbelief. For those who want the solutions, the Haitians I spoke with, all of them, said why don't they just pass the stuff out to each tent.... The problem is not the Haitians, its that the aid agencies are distributing in only a few places, drawing literally tens of thousands of people into single lines or crowds.