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Obama Follows Reagan-era Blueprint After Earthquake in Haiti

In response to the Haitian earthquake, one of the costliest natural disasters ever to strike the Caribbean, President Obama took immediate action.  After promising an initial commitment of $100 million to earthquake relief, the President insisted that further U.S. action in Haiti would be necessary, stating “this investment will grow over the coming year”.  Not surprisingly, right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh voiced his disapproval of the President’s decision.  “We've already donated to Haiti, it's called the U.S. income tax," grumbled Limbaugh, creating a firestorm of controversy that he most certainly welcomed.

While Mr. Limbaugh was likely aware of the inflammatory nature of his comments, he may not have known that the framework of American humanitarian relief policy was put in place by a man he frequently cites and admires– former President Ronald Reagan. 

Faced with an ambitious slate of Cold War objectives, a war-weary American public skeptical of military intervention, and a flagging U.S. economy, Reagan officials turned to disaster relief in the early 1980s, not just as a humanitarian afterthought, but as part of a foreign policy strategy that pursued political and developmental goals.  Beginning in 1984 with the Ethiopian famine, the Reagan administration made a major financial commitment to disaster relief, investing over $500 million as part of a plan that would both feed starving children and weaken Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam’s socialist regime.  Since the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance had few people on the ground in Ethiopia and President Reagan was dubious about giving money directly to Mengistu, most of the $500 million was distributed in the form of grants to private aid agencies, such as the Red Cross.  Reagan officials were thus able to exercise some degree of leverage in Ethiopia, albeit indirectly.  Viewing their humanitarian and political objectives as interconnected, they temporarily discouraged Mengistu from resettling peasants onto collective farms.

The response to the Ethiopian famine comprised Washington’s first hundred-million dollar commitment to a foreign natural disaster, establishing a precedent that is still followed today.  In 1986, Reagan officials provided El Salvador with $300 million in the months following an earthquake that threatened political and economic stability in the war-torn Central American nation.  Not only did the funds provide President Jose Napoleon Duarte with money to stave off communist challenges (leftist guerrillas started providing Salvadorans with food and fresh water hours after the tremor), Washington’s response to the earthquake allowed Reagan officials a role in the reconstruction of San Salvador, lowering trade barriers and opening up channels for investment from American businesses.  The recipients of American reconstruction grants included both aid agencies and private firms.  Disaster relief not only represented an important plank in President Reagan’s Cold War strategy, it also served as a means to dictate neoliberal terms of development in catastrophe-stricken countries. 

Both Democratic and Republican presidents followed Reagan’s blueprint.   During the early 1990s, the Clinton administration funded humanitarian missions in Haiti, using feeding campaigns to weaken support for Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras, whose coup overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.   When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was one of the few bureaucracies whose funding was not cut by conservative lawmakers.  After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Bush officials spent $800 million, committing themselves to reconstructing communities in Indonesia.  The Agency for International Development’s website boasts of reviving markets, pressing for women’s rights in Indonesian Islamic courts, and promoting democratic local elections.  Although the Cold War had ended, the use of humanitarian policy to fulfill political and developmental objectives continued.

President Obama’s commitment to the rebuilding of Haiti thus fits into a larger pattern of American humanitarian policy established during the 1980s.  The President’s actions are neither surprising nor partisan.  In this instance, Mr. Limbaugh, an avowed conservative, may have been (albeit unwittingly) the voice advocating change.