On January 12 the world started to see the first images of an earthquake stricken Haiti.
The responses to the tragedy have been diverse. Even though several countries have rushed to send aid, medical and rescue workers, food and water; the situation in itself is so chaotic that even the assistance has been slow in arriving.
Before the natural disaster Haiti was already considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, where more than a million families relied on international food aid.
Yet we tend to forget that Haiti was the wealthiest French colony representing about one fourth of France’s economy in the 1700s. When the slave revolt defeated the French army the new independent nation became the first country in the world to abolish slavery. After the revolt Haiti was imposed with a sanction of 150 million francs, which it did not finish paying until 1947. Meanwhile US invaded Haiti in 1915 in order to guarantee repayment of the debt and to protect US firms, the troops stayed until 1934. Duvalier’s’ father and son cruel dictatorships were backed by US and the Western world. When the Haitians elected Jean Aristide in 1986 foreign intervention backed a coup that removed him from office. From then on US and UN troops have occupied the country.
Three decades of American occupation, multiple corrupt regimes, natural disasters and environmental devastation have left a country that has not been able to establish their own path.
The food aid for example, while it provides food to the poorest, also leaves the Haitian farmers out of business and at a disadvantage since they cannot possibly compete with how US subsidies its farm industry and dumps surplus crops in the form of aid. That practice has harmed not only Haiti but also other developing countries.
Many Haitians who now live in the Diaspora, would like to help out back home and they could play a very important role in rebuilding Haiti. Yet once more is difficult to compete with the big international organizations which pay their administrators well and who live in safe-well built homes. Maybe these resources could be spent more effectively if Haitians are employed and top international consultants stay home.
Under the most recent conditions, sixty percent of the housing in Port-au-Prince was sub-standard and over half of the population lived on less than $1 a day. It is difficult to expect sound building codes when people live in such poverty.
Environmental degradation and poverty, social problems, and low or nonexistent building standards make a deadly combination for the Haitian population. In the previous years they have suffered four tropical storms or hurricanes that killed about 800 people in 2008, killer storms in 2005 and 2004 and floods in 2007, 2006, 2003 (twice), and 2002.
In the midst of the catastrophe, Pat Robertson from the Christian Broadcasting Network said the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck Haiti was the consequence of the curse that had befallen the country’s people after its founding fathers made a “pact with the Devil” in exchange for Haiti’s independence from France. That was to be expected from someone who after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, blamed “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, all of who have tried to secularize America.” Dr. R. Albert Mohler,Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to Robertson’s “embarrassing” remarks by
highlighting that his “Theological arrogance matched his ignorance.” It is very convenient to forget history and rely on prejudice to feel ourselves better than others.
The damage to Haiti is so extensive that the experts consider that it is a wonderful opportunity for rebuilding. According to one of them “Catastrophic disasters open a window of opportunity to fundamentally change how cities are rebuilt,” “If it’s rebuilt in the same fashion [as now], our children are going to have this same conversation.”
Throughout the world with the entire financial and social crises that we have faced, we are given the opportunity and hope of change. As we help in any way with the current emergency, let us hope for a true change for ourselves and for Haiti.
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