In Haiti, Corporations Profit While People Suffer

Jordan Flaherty

One year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, much of the promised relief and reconstruction aid has not reached those most in need.  In fact, the nation's tragedy has served as an opportunity to further enrich corporate interests.

This article is cross-posted with permission from Monthly Review Magazine.

One year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, much of the promised relief and reconstruction aid has not reached those most in need.  In fact, the nation’s tragedy has served as an opportunity to further enrich corporate interests.

The details of a recent lawsuit, as reported by Business Week, highlights the ways in which contractors — including some of the same players who profited from Hurricane Katrina-related reconstruction — have continued to use their political connections to gain profits from others’ suffering, receiving contacts worth tens of millions of dollars while the Haitian people receive pennies at best.  It also demonstrates ways in which charity and development efforts have mirrored and contributed to corporate abuses.

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Lewis Lucke, a 27-year veteran of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was named US special coordinator for relief and reconstruction after the earthquake.  He worked this job for a few months, then immediately moved to the private sector, where he could sell his contacts and connections to the highest bidder.  He quickly got a $30,000-a-month (plus bonuses) contract with the Haiti Recovery Group (HRG).

HRG had been founded by AshBritt, Inc., a Florida-based contractor who had received acres of bad press for their post-Katrina contracting.  AshBritt’s partner in HRG is Gilbert Bigio, a wealthy Haitian businessman with close ties to the Israeli military.  Bigio made a fortune during the corrupt Duvalier regime and was a supporter of the right-wing coup against Haitian president Aristide.

Although Lucke received $60,000 for two months’ work, he is suing because he says he is owed an additional $500,000 for the more than 20-million dollars in contracts he helped HRG obtain during that time.

As CorpWatch has reported, AshBritt “has enjoyed meteoric growth since it won its first big debris removal subcontract from none other than Halliburton, to help clean up after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”  In 1999, the company also faced allegations of double billing for $765,000 from the Broward County, Florida school board for clean-up done in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.

AshBritt CEO Randal Perkins is a major donor to Republican causes and hired Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s firm, as well as former US Army Corp of Engineers official Mike Parker, as lobbyists.  As a reward for his political connections, AshBritt won 900 million dollars in Post-Katrina contracts, helping them to become the poster child for political corruption in the world of disaster profiteering, even triggering a congressional investigation focusing on their buying of influence.  MSNBC reported in early 2006 that criticism of AshBritt “can be heard in virtually every coastal community between Alabama and Texas.”

The contracts given to Bush cronies like AshBritt resulted in local and minority-owned companies losing out on reconstruction work.  As Multinational Monitor noted shortly after Katrina, “by turning the contracting process over to prime contractors like AshBritt, the Corps and FEMA have effectively privatized the enforcement of Federal Acquisition Regulations and disaster relief laws such as the Stafford Act, which require contracting officials to prioritize local businesses and give 5 percent of contracts to minority-owned businesses.  As a result . . . early reports suggest that over 90 percent of the $2 billion in initial contracts was awarded to companies based outside of the three primary affected states, and that minority businesses received just 1.5 percent of the first $1.6 billion.”

Alex Dupuy, writing in the Washington Post, reported a similar pattern in Haiti, noting that “of the more than 1,500 US contracts doled out worth $267 million, only 20, worth $4.3 million, have gone to Haitian firms.  The rest have gone to US firms, which almost exclusively use US suppliers.  Although these foreign contractors employ Haitians, mostly on a cash-for-work basis, the bulk of the money and profits are reinvested in the United States.”  The same article notes that “less than 10 percent of the $9 billion pledged by foreign donors has been delivered, and not all of that money has been spent.  Other than rebuilding the international airport and clearing the principal urban arteries of rubble, no major infrastructure rebuilding — roads, ports, housing, communications — has begun.”

The disaster profiteering exemplified by AshBritt is not just the result of quick decision-making in the midst of a crisis.  These contracts are awarded as part of a corporate agenda that sees disaster as an opportunity, a tool for furthering policies that would not be possible in other times.  Naomi Klein exposed evidence that, within 24 hours of the earthquake, the influential right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation was already laying plans to use the disaster as an attempt at further privatization of the country’s economy.

Relief and recovery efforts, led by the US military, have also brought a further militarization of relief and criminalization of survivors.  Haiti and Katrina also served as staging grounds for increased involvement of mercenaries in reconstruction efforts.  As one Blackwater mercenary told Jeremy Scahill when he visited New Orleans in the days after Katrina, “This is a trend.  You’re going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations.”

And it’s not just corporations who have been guilty of profiting from Haitian suffering.  A recent report from the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) describes a “significant lack of transparency in the disaster-relief/aid community,” and finds that many relief organizations have left donations for Haiti in their bank accounts, earning interest rather than helping the people of Haiti.  DAP director Ben Smilowitz notes that “the fact that nearly half of the donated dollars still sit in the bank accounts of relief and aid groups does not match the urgency of their own fundraising and marketing efforts and donors’ intentions, nor does it covey the urgency of the situation on the ground.”

Haitian poet and human rights lawyer Ezili Dantò has written,

Haiti’s poverty began with a US/Euro trade embargo after its independence, continued with the Independence Debt to France and ecclesiastical and financial colonialism.  Moreover, in more recent times, the uses of US foreign aid, as administered through USAID in Haiti, basically serves to fuel conflicts and covertly promote US corporate interests to the detriment of democracy and Haitian health, liberty, sovereignty, social justice and political freedoms.  USAID projects have been at the frontlines of orchestrating undemocratic behavior, bringing underdevelopment, coup d’etat, impunity of the Haitian Oligarchy, indefinite incarceration of dissenters, and destroying Haiti’s food sovereignty essentially promoting famine.

Since before the earthquake, Haiti has been a victim of many of those who have claimed they are there to help.  Until we address this fundamental issue of corporate profiteering masquerading as aid and development, the nation will remain mired in poverty.  And future disasters, wherever they occur, will lead to similar injustices.

Commentary Human Rights

Have We Evolved in Our View of Transgender People?

Debbie McMillan

Twenty states now have laws prohibiting gender discrimination against LGBT people. However, that still means that 30 states do not.

Like most people, the sum of who I am is much more than my individual traits. However, there is one fact about me that puts me way outside the mainstream. It’s that I’m a tran-sgender woman.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Massachusetts judge ordered prison officials to provide sex-reassignment surgery for a murder convict. 

The piece started by talking about a transgender woman who used to meet in dark parking lots with other transgender people for support. “How things have changed since then for transgender men and women in America, who have made great strides in recent years toward reaching their ultimate goal: to be treated like ordinary people,” the piece noted.

I agree, strides have been made. But “great” grossly overstates the reality. Discrimination and misunderstanding is still rampant. I frequently feel that I’m assigned to a class of sub-humans. Even the judge who ordered the surgery said it was to treat “gender-identity disorder.” As a society, we still view transgender people as being against the natural order and place the blame on our minds, rather than where the real problem is: our incorrect bodies.

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A recent article in the New York Times Magazine would indeed lead sympathetic readers to believe things are not so bad for transgender people and that there’s really just left over misunderstandings to clear up. The piece told honest, compelling, sometimes gut wrenching stories of good people trying to navigate the world for and with their gender non-specific children.

Consider that it was only in April of this year that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission ruled that that discriminating against an employee or potential employee based on their gender identity is in violation of the Civil Rights Act. Forty-eight years after that Act passed Congress!

Twenty states now have laws prohibiting gender discrimination against LGBT people. However, that still means that 30 states do not.

I work with transgender people every day. Many of them have trouble finding housing or jobs, no matter what the laws say. Many of them are drug users driven to it, in part, because by living with the constant, unrelenting stigma we feel. It’s almost palpable.  

I went to the street alone at 14 because I thought it was the only place for someone like me. I became a commercial sex worker because I believed it was the only occupation available to me. I looked around and saw that no one was going to give me a job.

Though I lived as a woman and looked like one, when I was arrested for solicitation, I was sent to the men’s prison. After one arrest for prostitution, I was thrown in the wing with the felons. When I inevitably contracted HIV, the doctors I sought continually called me by my birth name. When you have HIV, you want medical personnel who understand that your entire life changes the instant you get that diagnosis. Not someone who doesn’t bother to look in your eyes and see the very basics of who you are.  

To be fair, these events happened to me 20 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have the word “transgender” and I was considered an effeminate gay boy. Things are different now but believing that there is significantly less discrimination because some people allow their sons to wear dresses is like thinking that because we have a black President, racism in America is gone.

Analysis Family

Inter-country Adoption: Steep Declines in International Adoptions by U.S. Parents Reflect Mixed Record

Karen Smith Rotabi

For many committed to intercountry adoption, it is unfortunate that since the year 2004 the practice has declined more than 50%. An important question is: what is happening? The answer is complex. To begin with, the unfortunate reality is that intercountry adoption has a mixed history. 

Most Americans have been touched by adoption and many would agree that inter-country adoption is important and even an embodiment of our nation’s commitment to children and humanitarianism. Since World War Two, approximately one million children have been internationally adopted; leaving their country of origin and placed with adoptive families in other nations. Because US families have received at least 50 percent of these children we have been called an “Adoption Nation.” Children have arrived from a variety of countries, including Korea, Vietnam, China, Russia, Cambodia, and Guatemala. Recently, Ethiopia, with at least 5 million orphaned and vulnerable children, has become a popular source for adoptive children.

For many committed to inter-country adoption, it is unfortunate that since the year 2004 the practice has declined more than 50 percent. In sheer numbers, this means that we reached an all-time high of receiving 22,991 children that year and six years later, in 2010, we only had 11,058 children arrive in the US as international adoptees. The 2011 data indicates another decline to 9320 children sent to the US as adoptees.

An important question is: what is happening? The answer is complex. To begin with, the unfortunate reality is that inter-country adoption has a mixed history. On the positive side: many children have impressive developmental gains once they begin living in a family setting rather than a child care institution. Also, medical problems are may be addressed in the US and some children receive life altering if not lifesaving medical care. Overcoming disability and extreme deprivation is one part of the inter-country adoption story.

Even with so much good, there has been a dark side to adoption. It is a practice which has more than its fair share of scandals. The 2010 case of the young boy sent back to Russia unaccompanied with nothing more than a note requesting adoption “annulment” is a good example. Then, there was the Russian girl named Masha Allen who was adopted by a pedophile and he proceeded to sell her sexual abuse photo images into Internet pornography. Her case was eventually heard before US Congress when Masha testified about the abuse and asked “why didn’t anyone come to check on me?” Her question is a direct one for the adoption ‘professionals’ who handled her case. When you look deeper, those involved were anything but professional in practices. They flagrantly disregarded their responsibilty to investigate the adoption placement to determine if it was appropriate and then, in follow-up visits with Masha, to verify her health and safety.

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Other problematic history includes allegations of child abduction. It is hard to forget that during the 2010 aftermath of the Haitian earthquake that a faith or mission group from Idaho attempted to illegally remove or traffic children into the Dominican Republic for the purpose of inter-country adoption. International press eventually identified that most of the children were not ‘orphans’ and their families believed that the children would be cared for and that their families would be able to visit with them and retain relations. When you think about it, families living in extreme poverty could so easily be led to believe such a thing and in a moment of desperation and hope. Allowing your child to leave with a stranger from the U.S. who promises of food and an education may be the only sense of salvation in the moment of disaster chaos. The desperate act eventually plays out as a decision made in haste and with a misrepresentation of intent. Legally such a scenario it fits international child abduction definitions when poor families are unable to retrieve children and then the children enter into adoption schemes.

There have been cases like Cambodia where an American adoption ‘facilitator’ orchestrated child ‘adoptions.’ Rural and mainly illiterate Cambodian families were often given a small sum of money and a bag of rice in exchange for their signature on critical legal documents. Again, these children were not orphans but they were desirable children—relatively young and healthy children who were easily matched with eager US families willing to pay $20,000 or more for the adoption. Investigators found that some of these Cambodian families were led to believe that their children were going to boarding schools overseas. The facilitator was eventually arrested by U.S. Federal Marshalls and she served time in prison for tax evasion, among other charges. Before she was stopped, she earned millions of dollars with her child trafficking scheme and U.S. families were devastated to learn that their children were not orphans.

More recently, the most notorious adoption nation with profound problems has been Guatemala. Approximately 30,000 children departed as inter-country adoptees from 1999-2007. Human rights defenders agree that abuses within this system were profound and while there were legitimate adoptions, there were also an unknown number of adoptions with serious irregularities and illegalities. Problems ranged from birth mother payments to induce adoption arrangements to actual child abduction for adoption. Recently, UN investigators found patterns of organized crime and the highest profile adoption attorney in Guatemala is now serving a 26-year prison sentence. She is linked to a range of problematic cases, including high profile child abduction cases.

Sadly there are three mothers in Guatemala who have taken to hunger protests for their individual daughters return from the U.S. One of those three women now has a Guatemalan court order for her daughter’s repatriation as a victim of abduction. The U.S. family in question, living in Missouri, has thus far ignored the court order with the exception of making a nationally-televised statement that they do not believe such a return to be in the best interests of their daughter. A resulting debate is brewing about rights, responsibilities, and the best interests of the child. No doubt it is difficult to remove a child from a family with which she has lived with for more than three years. In the long run, it may be even more difficult for the U.S. family to one day justify how they became complicit in abduction by ignoring a desperate mother’s search and a Guatemalan court order.

At the end of the day, Interpol has reportedly been contacted and our diplomats have no choice but to get involved because as a nation we have signed the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption. This international private law is implemented in the US with the year 2000 Inter-country Adoption Act which requires the US Department of State’s involvement in matters of child sales and abduction under the guise of inter-country adoption. To date, a resolution on this particular abduction case has been fleeting. Internationally recognized Guatemalan human rights defender, Norma Cruz advocates on behalf of this and other cases. Cruz reminds us that child abduction is the cruelest violence of all against a woman as it brings about “eternal suffering.” She has dedicated considerable time and resources to bring a resolution to this case and she reports that she will not rest until justice is served.

While we await resolution on these Guatemalan cases, we are ultimately left with an unfortunate history of inter-country adoption scandals which has led to the decline in the practice. Russian adoptions have slowed down considerably and a moratorium on Cambodian and Guatemalan adoptions is now in place. This is also true for Vietnamese adoptions as that country too has a history of fraud related to questionable child abandonment. Other countries such as China have slowed down considerably due to a variety of factors. And, while Ethiopia has taken off as an adoption nation, there are indications of serious problems in that nation too. In sum, the decline is significant and families who have hoped to adopt internationally are left an uncertain future. And, at the end of the day, this is unfortunate for all who stand to gain from family building via ethical inter-country adoption.