Friday, January 7, 2011

Disaster Profiteers Continue to Seek Wealth in Haiti's Suffering

As Haiti approaches the one-year anniversary of their massive earthquake, the country is still in crisis. It’s clear that – as with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - much of the promised relief and reconstruction aid has not reached those affected by the disaster.

The details of a recent lawsuit, as reported by Business Week, shed some light on the ways in which contractors – including many of the same players who profited off of Katrina-related reconstruction – have continued to use their political connections to gain profits at the expense of those most in need, receiving contacts worth tens of millions of dollars while the Haitian people receive pennies at best.

Lewis Lucke, a 27-year veteran of the US Agency for International Development (US AID) 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 was the name adopted 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 the GB Group, a conglomerate run by one of Haiti's wealthiest men, Gilbert Bigio.

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.

Ashbritt CEO Randal Perkins is a major donor to Republican causes, and hired Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s firm, as well as former FEMA chief 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.”

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.

This massive disaster profiteering exemplified by Ashbritt is not just the result of sloppy and quick decision-making in the midst of a crisis, or work given to large companies with the most experience. These contracts are awarded as part of a corporate agenda that sees disaster as an opportunity, and in fact a tool for furthering policies that would not be possible in other times. Journalist and author Naomi Klein exposed evidence that within 24 hours of the earthquake, the influential right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation was already seeking to use the disaster as an attempt at further privatization of the country's economy.

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 U.S. 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."

Jeremy Scahill and Bill Quigley both commented on the ways Haiti and Katrina both served as staging grounds for increased involvement of mercenaries in reconstruction efforts. As one Blackwater mercenary told 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." It's likely we haven't seen the last of Ashbritt either.

Photo Above: Randal Perkins, CEO of AshBritt.

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