Why is Haiti still suffering?

January 12, 2011

SocialistWorker.org contributor Jesse Hagopian remembers the devastating earthquake in Haiti--and the promises of aid that the U.S. government made and broke.

WHEN THE Enriquillo fault line shifted at 4:53 p.m. last January 12, our bed was sent across the hotel room, the other side of the building collapsed, and, as we would soon find out, Haiti was devastated.

My 1-year-old son and I had accompanied my wife, an HIV educator for health-care workers, to Haiti only two days before the earthquake. In the immediate aftermath, the emergency medical technician who was a guest at our hotel formed a makeshift clinic in the circular driveway to attend to hundreds of badly injured Haitians.

My wife and I were quickly deputized as orderlies in his driveway emergency room, and without any prior medical training, we assisted in whatever way we could--stripping the sheets off hotel beds to apply as bandages, breaking chairs to use the wood for splints and transforming the poolside deck chairs into hospital beds.

However, tens of thousands of Haitians didn't receive even this basic first aid, resulting in a much higher mortality rate. The catastrophe can only begin to be grasped through comparisons--with some 300,000 people dead and another 300,000 injured, the total number of casualties roughly equals the entire population of Seattle. More than the entire population of King County--over 2 million people--were made homeless. Some 1.5 million still live in tent encampments today.

Children living in a tent camp near Haiti's presidential palace in Port-au-Prince
Children living in a tent camp near Haiti's presidential palace in Port-au-Prince

Upon returning home, we learned that half of all American households had given a charitable donation to help the people of Haiti and were overjoyed that Haiti's plight had not been overlooked.

However, the overwhelming majority of the money pledged to Haiti has yet to reach the Haitian people. Only $6 million of the $52 million Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund had been spent by November, the Washington Post reported. The U.S. government's pledge of more than $1 billion was completely unfulfilled until November, when it finally released $120 million.

Worse, the U.S. is pursuing a development strategy calling for garment factories (read: sweatshops) and tourism instead of the sustainable agriculture programs proposed by Haitian civil-society organizations that would create jobs, produce food for countless Haitians, and allow Haiti to address the environmental degradation that has crippled its economy for generations.

According to an extensive Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti study titled We Have Been Forgotten, 75 percent of families living in the tent camps had someone go an entire day without eating, 44 percent drink untreated water, and 27 percent had no access to sanitation.

The terrible conditions of the tent camps have contributed to the rapid spread of cholera in Haiti, believed to have been introduced by United Nations occupying troops from Nepal. Already, some 2,600 Haitians have died from the disease, with the New York Times predicting, "Cholera may become a way of life that could afflict as many as 270,000 people over the next several years."

To tackle a problem of this proportion, Haiti will need an effective government that understands the needs of its people and can coordinate a rebuilding project on the scale required. Yet Haiti's most popular political party, Lavalas, has been banned from participating in the most recent election--with U.S. and United Nations support--preventing any new government from truly representing the will of the people.

If any people can overcome these challenges, it is the Haitians, who gained their independence through the only successful slave revolt in history, and who have as recently as the mid-1980s deposed a brutal dictatorship through a popular uprising.

As the people of Haiti struggle for a better future, we here would do well to remember the Haitian proverb, Men anpil chay pa lou: "Many hands make the load lighter."

First published by the Seattle Times.

Further Reading

From the archives