Once again Haiti finds itself on the tragic side of the world’s disaster divide and its need for help is urgent.
A 7.2-magnitude earthquake, more powerful than the whopper that killed more than 200,000 in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in 2010, has rocked the country’s more remote southern peninsula, killing more than 2,100, leveling thousands of homes and leaving hundreds more missing and presumed trapped under rubble.
And, barely three days later, while Haitians still were searching for loved ones and trying to dig their neighbors out of the rubble with bare hands, Tropical Storm Grace lashed into the island, causing mudslides and floods that damaged temporary shelters for people displaced by the quake.
And all of these horrors rained down — during the COVID-19 pandemic — on the heels of the assassination of President Jovenel Moise last month, which left the government without a president, a functioning parliament or head of its Supreme Court.
Few in the quake zone were surprised when promised government rescue help largely failed to show up.
International aid groups, including the United Nations, and the United States mobilized to send help. But, struggling to get through severe flooding, blocked roads and armed gangs, aid convoys with relief supplies barely could get through.
The new prime minister, Ariel Henry, toured the devastation a day after the quake offering little more than kind words. His government lacks experience, money and, in the eyes of most Haitians, legitimacy. In further humiliation to Haiti’s national pride, he had to travel on an airplane borrowed from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“It is as if we are cursed,” the Rev. Lucson Simeon lamented to a Washington Post reporter at his devastated church in L’Asile, a small farming community 11 miles from the epicenter. “We just keep getting beaten down. I ask myself, how can this be?”
He’s hardly alone in that sentiment. The Rev. Pat Robertson, a Republican presidential candidate in 1988, sparked a backlash of criticism on his CBN broadcast after the 2010 quake by citing a spiritual pact that Haiti’s founders supposedly made with the devil in 1791 to help win their liberation from France.
With its dubious, unconfirmed origins and co-option by Robertson as a racist trope, that legendary story of a satanic deal sounds morbid amid Haiti’s latest chain of disasters. In reality, Haiti’s tragedies have less to do with supernatural deal-making than a combination of natural and human-caused calamities.
In nature, Haiti sits on two major fault zones in the middle of the Caribbean hurricane belt. Climate change has only accelerated the ferocity of the weather. Erosion from storms and clear-cutting deforestation policies dating back to the French colonizers hampered agriculture.
Infrastructure and construction policies are weaker than in wealthier nations. Slavery under the Spanish, then the French, marked centuries of exploitation, including by Americans.
Southern politicians and the planter class feared Haitian slave revolts might spread to these shores. Instead, the United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and helped prop up the murderous Duvalier dictatorship to prevent the island’s becoming the next Cuba.
The well-intended creation of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) system in the 1960s led to a weakening of Haitian institutions, which critics say made it easier for foreign companies and NGOs to bypass Haiti’s central government, further weakening self-governance by Haitians.
Considering its turbulent history, the people of the island and their relatives in the Haitian diaspora, particularly in Miami, deserve praise for their often tireless efforts to help their fellow Haitians. In recent years, the money sent back to Haiti in remittances — a record high of $3.8 billion last year, according to the Haitian Times — accounts for at least a third of the island’s economy.
Now, once again, the island looks to the outside world for help, although with great reluctance, considering its long history of corrupt and corrupting outside influences.
In the short term, as social service and religious groups mobilize to deliver food, medicine and other supplies, relief organizations like (among others) UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Hope for Haiti and the American Red Cross especially deserve the support of U.S. onlookers.
In the longer term, thousands of Haitians left without homes, churches and other physical resources desperately need assistance after decades of struggling on the tragic side of the disaster divide.
The United States, among other nations with a long, not-always-glorious history with the island, should turn to credible and reliable leaders outside of government to help Haitians build a better future for themselves.
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