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Hell in Haiti: a Post-Mortem

January 16, 2010

We Americans can’t pretend to grasp the terrifying, cataclysmic, hell-on-earth disaster that struck Haiti this past week. We’ve caught the televised glimpses of ruined buildings and imperfectly shrouded corpses; we’ve read the stories. But we haven’t stood upon a street in Port-au-Prince to hear the cries, smell the smells, dig beneath the rubble or look into the despairing eyes of our fellow humans.

I’m writing about the earthquake from the safety and comfort of my desk here in Philadelphia. I’m not Anderson Cooper; I don’t enjoy his budget or salary (or, I admit, his reporter’s penchant for diving headlong into swirling whirlpools of peril), so my earnest deskbound observations will have to do.

1. We’re looking at what could be the single most devastating disaster ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. Estimates of the dead are now soaring toward 200,000, a capital city lies in ruins, and the second-oldest republic in our hemisphere has suffered a setback that has essentially broken its back as a nation. It’s difficult to think about Facebook, “American Idol” or even healthcare reform at a time like this.

2. Haiti has endured a wretched history of calamity and suffering for the past 200 years. By citing Haiti’s “pact with the devil” (in exchange for winning its independence from France two centuries ago), Rev. Pat Robertson added more fuel to the speculation that he’s an evil (or at least senile) maniac. But he got it right in one respect: Haiti seems to be cursed. Yes, it sits astride a major earthquake zone and regularly takes the brunt of brutal hurricanes, but so do at least a dozen other Caribbean island nations. Haiti has long been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, apparently singled out for chronic misery. Why?

3. Haiti’s poverty reinforces itself on an endless repeating loop.  Why are the people of Haiti so unfortunate compared with, say, the Dominicans who share the same island? Haiti’s history is a prime culprit. The Haitian government owed a staggering debt to France in exchange for its independence: a sum of $21 billion (in today’s dollars) to compensate the French government and slaveholders for the loss of their “property.” That debt took 120 years to repay, and it left the country bankrupt. To make matters worse, corrupt leaders like the infamous “Papa Doc” Duvalier robbed the nation’s treasury to enrich himself and his cronies. The people of Haiti were essentially abandoned by their government.

4. Are Haitians partly responsible for their own misery? It seems cruel to blame the victims, but that hasn’t stopped the blamers from weighing in. Here’s a sampling of the many derogatory comments I found on the ABC News website in response to a story about Haitians’ growing frustration with the relief effort:

This is what happens to a society that is based on superstition, lacks education and is overpopulated. Things in Haiti will likely get much more nasty.

Has anyone suggested that they get up off their backsides and help themselves? Could they not go to the airport for themselves?

Wow—what a sense of entitlement! I’m glad we have the resources to help the Haitians get through this disaster, but the fact of the matter is that we owe them NOTHING. If they’re going to get angry and nasty with the people who are there to help, we should simply leave and see how well they can clean up this mess themselves.

They have been a slum land forever. To be brutally honest, this is by far the best thing to ever happen to their country. There is so much cash coming into that country, and they are used to impoverished conditions. … They need to clean up their country, or else the U.N should just take it over, considering the U.S taxpayers will have so many hundreds of millions invested, we SHOULD own it. Then let Trump or someone take it and make a resort/vacation spot like the Dominican [Republic]. They simply do not have the ability to take care of themselves, not now or ever.

Again, it amazes me how stupid those poeple are. If your country is in such bad shape (before the earthquake) and you are so poor to even take care of yourself…… why are you dumb enough to breed and bring other human beings into that kind of poverty. So no, I feel no sympathy for that country right now.

Leave it to the fortunate to gloat over the miseries of the unfortunate. But aside from their utter lack of human sympathy, these merciless pronouncements aren’t entirely unfounded.

Haiti was a paradise once. It boasted an abundance of natural resources. It used to be a major exporter of sugar, rum and coffee. Today it’s virtually a desert. Why? The desperately poor population denuded its own land, burning trees to make charcoal, leaving the once-green hillsides vulnerable to mudslides, flooding and other natural disasters. 98% of Haiti’s trees are gone.

So yes, Haitians had devastated their own country even before the earthquake finished the job. Still, I have to wonder how much differently we Americans would behave if our government, economy and infrastructure suddenly crumbled. Deprived of gas, oil, electricity and money, we might be burning wood for charcoal, too.

5. This is no time to be divisive. Leave it to Rush Limbaugh, that Rajah of Right-Wing Radio, to use the Haiti disaster as an opportunity to snipe at President Obama. Quoth El Rushbo:

This’ll play right into Obama’s hands — humanitarian, compassionate. They’ll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community — the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country.

All right, Rush was still smarting from the Harry Reid flap, wherein the eminent Democrat eluded the noose for his much-publicized “light-skinned/no Negro dialect” remarks. But only a partisan hack would use the  Haitian earthquake to pick away at Obama and undermine his authority. If a colossal human tragedy can’t bring us together for at least a couple of weeks, we’re polarized beyond repair.

6. Here’s what we can do. Donate. Not to the Haitian government, but directly to the nonprofit agencies that are offering hands-on relief. Some groups have requested bottled water as the most urgent donation, but money still ranks right at the top of the priority list. I’ve named three of the most effective organizations below, with direct access to their Haitian relief efforts:

American Red Cross: Call 1-800-REDCROSS or donate online at their website. You can also donate $10 to be charged to your cell phone bill by texting “HAITI” to “90999.”

Doctors Without Borders: Donate here to aid the medical relief effort.

UNICEF: To help the children of Haiti, donate here.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2010 8:31 pm

    Haiti “asked” for their problems when it “asked” for its freedom. These things go hand-in-hand. I think maybe France should step in to help, maybe with about 21 billion or so in aid… Problems like Haiti has had, poor government, and poorer people, are constants in former European colonies. When you leave a country to fend for itself, and don’t train anyone to run vital things like infrastructre, the country collapses. Haiti was left with nothing, and tried to make-do with the resources it had, like wood. Unfortunately, with no government to regulate them, the Haitians misused its resources, as humans are apt to do. The Caribbean is close to the “Garden of Eden” in many ways, fertile land, abundant sea-life, but the people there overpopulated and overused the land, because there was nobody to tell them not to. This a common problem with the Human Race in general, the entire planet is overpopulated, and all its recources are being squandered making TVs. Is the entire Human Race asking for the planet to shake us off? Do any of us or all of us deserve it? Do us Americans, who consider a mile out of walking distance, eat four three-course meals daily, and throw-out tons of garbage weekly, deserve this more than people who didn’t know better?

    • January 19, 2010 10:47 am

      TK: Not all countries that win independence end up as basket cases. (Look at the U.S.) That said, you’re right that Haiti had so many strikes against it even before the earthquake. And yes, I see Haiti as a kind of canary in the coal mine: a warning about the fate that awaits any land with a broken-down government and infrastructure, widespread corruption, no money and too many people. Scary thought.

  2. valdobiade permalink
    January 18, 2010 7:49 pm

    I don’t believe that helping poor countries doesn’t come with “strings” attached.
    If France would get to give Haiti help, maybe it would be interpreted as neo-colonialism.
    If Russia are willing to help Haiti, it doesn’t mean that Russia is not looking to get something from Haiti.
    If US are helping Haiti, I don’t think that there are not ways to profit from that “help”.
    The “help” between countries is just smoke and mirrors, hiding the actual monetary benefits from disasters.
    In wars as in disasters, there is always some who’ll benefit giving “help”.

    • January 19, 2010 10:54 am

      You’re such a cynic, Valdo. 😉 You’re right that each country’s aid to Haiti will give rise to different theories about the “benefits” to be derived from that aid. (The U.S. is already being accused of “occupying” Haiti.) But that shouldn’t discourage any country from offering help. The victims in Haiti don’t really care about international politics; they just want food, water and shelter.

  3. January 18, 2010 9:18 pm

    (cough) Haliburton (cough)

  4. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 19, 2010 11:25 am

    The US didn’t end up like other freed colonies because of the North. The industrialized, modernized portion of the country, whereas the South is more like Mexico than Europe. Agricultural base, poverty, little to no industry or education, instigator of civil wars… The imperialistic, greedy, industrial giantism of America has, so far, kept it among the first world, thus distancing us from some of the major problems of the third world, or at least reducing(replacing) them. By and large, our government is stable, (in comparison to others) our population is educated, *(results may vary)* and we have the highest standard of living in the wolrd. (if you don’t count the poor, but who does?) The US isn’t dependent on a single cash crop or industrial export for its entire economy, and we don’t have a civil war every generation when our leader dies, or is deposed. The major difference between America and many third world countries is a stable government. Haiti, as mentioned, has not had stable governments. Note the plural, governmentS. Haiti should be a metaphor for instability, both geologicaly and culturaly. Neither ends well.

  5. valdobiade permalink
    January 20, 2010 3:33 pm

    “The major difference between America and many third world countries is a stable government.”
    That reminds me that “tea party” don’t want a government at all, like in the Bush era, when the government couldn’t even help its own people when Katharina hit the US. At that time, I think that Bush didn’t want to send help because it looked like Katharina hit some African country.

  6. January 20, 2010 4:51 pm

    “African county” to a Republican = poor, useless country with no oil. To clarify, by “Stable” I also meant competent. IE. not Bush.

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