Haiti Teach-in Focuses on US Role


Originally published for the Twin Cities Daily Planet

January 29, 2010

On January 28, students, teachers, and citizens gathered for “An Unnatural Disaster: A Panel Discussion on the Earthquake, Neo-colonialism and Resistance in Haiti” at the University of Minnesota to analyze the political and social implications of the recent earthquake in Haiti.  The focus was on the role of the United States in Haiti, both historically and in response to the earthquake.

Joëlle Vitiello, a professor of Haitian literature and culture, recently returned from Haiti and was an eyewitness during the earthquake.  Though she couldn’t attend the discussion, in a prepared statement she addressed common misconceptions of the immediate aftermath.  Despite a dominant story in the news about “looting” and “scavenging”, Vitiello reports that solidarity amongst Haitians was instant, and she saw no violence.

Regardless, the desperate lack of food and water calls for Haitians to do what they can to survive, said Ruben Joanem, speaking to a packed auditorium.  Joanem is a Haitian immigrant and graduate student at the university. “After one week?  If there’s water, I’m going to get it.  These people are not looters. They are survivors,” he said.

Local activist Teddy Shibabaw addressed the problem of private contractors and the potential riches in rebuilding Haiti.  French professor April Knutsen spoke of Haiti’s troubled history with the United States, about the slave rebellion leading to Haiti’s independence, and the current economic policies contributing to the overwhelming poverty of Haiti.

Throughout the evening, the United States was a major point of discussion but rarely contention.  All of the panelists agreed that the United States and other world powers hold a large responsibility for both the physically vulnerable circumstances of the land (such as international agencies using subsidized agriculture in Haiti as leverage for loans), as well as the inadequate humanitarian response.

August Nimtz, a political science professor, discussed the large Cuban presence in the Haitian medical community.  Almost a quarter of Haitian doctors were trained in Cuba, which was the first country on the scene immediately after the quake.  Nimtz said the militant U.S. reaction to the earthquake was foreshadowed by a similar response to Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, there are ties between New Orleans and Haiti.  Cuba also offered to send 1,600 doctors following Hurricane Katrina, an offer which was rejected by the U.S. government and FEMA.   “The U.S. response [in both events] was criminal. We should be outraged, but we should not be surprised,” Nimtz said.

-Joe Shansky


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