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CARIBBEAN: US AWOL on disaster aid

Most analysts consider the "humanitarian" amounts disbursed and requested by the Bush administration a pittance, compared to the extent of the storms' damages.

Most analysts consider the "humanitarian" amounts disbursed and requested by the Bush administration a pittance, compared to the extent of the storms' damages, writes JIM LOBE*

WASHINGTON (4 October 2004) IPS -- WHEN far-away Bangladesh was devastated by a deadly cyclone just after the Gulf War in 1991, George W Bush's father dispatched a US task force of 8,000 troops, 30 giant CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and four Hovercraft to urgently deliver thousands of tonnes of emergency aid over a period of several weeks.

The humanitarian operation launched by then-president George HW Bush, like similar deployments of US troops to provide relief aid after natural disasters -- such as the one to Honduras and Nicaragua that followed Hurricane Mitch in December 1998 -- not only saved lives and helped restored vital infrastructure, it also won Washington considerable goodwill.

That is why most Latin America and Caribbean analysts have been appalled by what they describe as the almost total failure of the current Bush administration to respond to the series of calamitous hurricanes that have swept through the Caribbean over the last two months, levelling 90 per cent of the buildings in Grenada, creating hundreds of millions of dollars in losses in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and killing more than 2,000 people in Haiti and rendering at least 300,000 more there homeless.

Some analysts believe Washington's response -- one congressional aide called it ''AWOL'', or absent without leave -- will inevitably add to the growing impression that the United States has become indifferent to the region and will also fuel rising anti-Americanism.

''I think it's an embarrassment that our administration supposedly supports the interim government in Haiti but has done so little to help it in a time of great need''
The most common word used by Latin America advocates to describe the administration's performance is ''shameful'', particularly with respect to Haiti, where US troops intervened earlier this year to ease its democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, into exile and maintain a semblance of order until a United Nations force took over earlier this summer.

''I think it's an embarrassment that our administration supposedly supports the interim government in Haiti but has done so little to help it in a time of great need'', said Rachel Farley, a Haiti specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human-rights group that is pressing Congress to appropriate half a billion dollars in emergency and reconstruction aid for the Caribbean.

''The country is in a state of extreme crisis, and here we are spending one billion dollars a week for Iraq, and the administration says it can only scrape up 50 million dollars for the entire Caribbean. That's shameful considering the extent of devastation,'' she added.

''It's pretty shameful'', Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank, told IPS. ''This is, after all, an area where the US has a tremendous amount at stake, especially in Haiti, where so much has been invested by the US over time. And when it's completely devastated, our response is minimal at best''.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) insists it has been generous by providing nearly four million dollars in hurricane-relief aid for the entire region to date, with eight million dollars more to follow. Most of the aid is being channelled through private relief organisations.

In addition, the administration has asked Congress for 50 million dollars in funding as part of a 10-billion-dollar emergency bill targeted almost exclusively on relief for Florida and other US states hit by an almost unprecedented series of four hurricanes.

But most analysts consider the amounts disbursed and requested by the administration a pittance, compared to the extent of the storms' damages. While damage assessments for Haiti and Grenada have not been completed, estimates for Jamaica and the Bahamas are that losses amount to 350 million dollars and 250 million dollars, respectively.

''To talk about a total package of 50 million dollars is just not reality'', according to Lawrence Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). ''One has to talk in terms of 500 million dollars to talk about any meaningful impact. These countries have not only lost infrastructure; in some cases, they've lost their ability to export''.

Grenada, for example, lost virtually all of its famous nutmeg trees, which take some 15 years to grow to maturity. The vast majority of its 100,000 people have lost their homes on the island, which Washington invaded and occupied in 1983 in order stop an alleged takeover by radical elements of the ruling party.

The administration initially offered only 50,000 dollars in emergency aid, a stark and embarrassing contrast -- not only to the costs of the invasion 21 years ago but also, and more currently, to the one million dollars offered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who dispatched a naval task force with relief supplies to both Grenada and Jamaica.

As noted by the director of IAD's Caribbean programmes, Daniel Erikson, Chavez was already wooing the English-speaking Caribbean with 80,000 barrels per day in premium oil shipments and was setting up PetroCaribe, a joint oil venture to develop an integrated energy policy between Venezuela and a dozen Caribbean states, including Grenada, Jamaica and Cuba.

The South American nation already provides a range of technical assistance to its Caribbean neighbours.

Apart from strictly humanitarian reasons, according to Erikson, Washington should be providing much more assistance if for no other reason than ''to prevent the Caribbean from drifting further into the arms of Cuba and Venezuela''.

''Chavez is getting a generation of goodwill out of this, and it will translate into very strong backing in the Organisation of American States (OAS) and other international fora where Washington is increasingly isolated'', COHA's Birns told IPS.

The situation in Haiti, where the poor security situation since Aristide's ouster has greatly complicated relief efforts, has been much more dramatic.

With only 3,000 troops, the Brazilian-led peacekeeping operation is at less than half strength, while civilian police are even more depleted. Even before Hurricane Jeanne destroyed much of Gonaives, the country's third-largest city, about one-half of Haiti was under the control of armed gangs, many of them led by ex-soldiers from the banned armed forces.

So far, only 750 peacekeepers have been sent to Gonaives, where they are mainly guarding supply depots.

''Before the hurricane hit, no action had been taken to disarm (the former soldiers and other armed groups), and that is now exacerbating the impact of the storm, because it's increased the level of insecurity'', said WOLA's Farley. ''Some of the aid is getting hijacked, and there's been violence at distribution sites. There's a real lack of personnel''.

While both Birns and Farley say the deployment of US forces would have been a sensitive political issue in Haiti, given their role in Aristide's exit, there is little question that Washington could have done far more than it did, even if it was confined to ferrying desperately needed supplies to shore, as US helicopters did in Bangladesh in 1991.

''Sending armed troops could be provocative to the region, given the bitterness of (the response to) US actions in Haiti and Iraq''
''Sending armed troops could be provocative to the region, given the bitterness of (the response to) US actions in Haiti and Iraq'', noted Birns. ''But sending in engineering battalions and National Guard troops specialised in civic action would have been an enlightened act''.

In particular, roads need to be built urgently so that emergency supplies can be delivered to isolated communities; at the moment that is not happening.

Shifter said he believes Washington will pay politically for its AWOL status. ''I think it reinforces the perception that this region is not important and that the US doesn't care.

"It's another piece of this wider picture of disengagement or very selective engagement on a very narrow agenda, which now doesn't even seem to include these kinds of humanitarian catastrophes."

On the web:

Washington Office on Latin America

Inter-American Dialogue

Council on Hemispheric Affairs

*Jim Lobe is Washington correspondent for InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS). [c]

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