Five years after Haiti’s devastation

January 14, 2015

Five years after a massive earthquake rocked Haiti, Jesse Hagopian calls on the world to remember the country's suffering, in an article published at Truthout.

Why have you come to save me?
Why have you come to save me?
You, Americans, have saved me
Who will save me now?
--Popular song during the American occupation of Haiti, 1994

THEY WERE the longest 30 seconds of my life, and as they ticked off, I came to believe they would be my last.

When the Léogâne fault shifted under Haiti at 4:53 pm on January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake opened up the earth. I pulled my wife and 1-year-old son into a sheltered spot in the bathroom of our hotel room. After 20 seconds or so, the sink jolted lose and water gushed on the floor, the mirror came crashing down, and our bed flew across the room. I clutched my wife and son in terror. I knew the building wouldn't stand up if it lasted much longer. A great boom rang in our ears, quickly followed by screams from all directions.

The shaking finally stopped, and we trembled with relief to find our second floor room still where it belonged. While we somehow survived, an incomprehensible calamity was visited upon the people of Haiti, considered one of the worst disasters in modern history. Estimates of the dead ranged from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, with hundreds of thousands injured, and more than 2 million people rendered homeless.

Kids search through the rubble of a school in Cité Soleil following the earthquake
Kids search through the rubble of a school in Cité Soleil following the earthquake (Logan Abassi)

The Prequel

In 2008, when the Great Recession shook the world economy, Seattle Public School funding collapsed, and I received a layoff notice for the 2009-2010 school year. My sudden unemployment meant that I became the primary caregiver for our baby boy.

That's what made it possible for me to accompany my wife, a public health worker whose job it was to educate Haitian health care workers about HIV, on a trip to Haiti. We arrived on the island on January 10, 2010--two days before the earthquake hit.

The Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, our hotel became a makeshift clinic. One of the hotel guests, an emergency medical technician, quickly assembled a triage and treatment area in the circular driveway. Over the course of the evening and into the night, we mobilized our meager resources to attend to hundreds of badly injured Haitians. My wife and I were deputized as orderlies in his makeshift emergency room, although we had no medical training. We stripped the sheets off hotel beds for bandages, we broke chairs to use for splints, and we transformed the poolside deck chairs into hospital beds.

During the second day after the quake, I witnessed my first death. This boy was about 8 years old, and he was wearing a bright yellow shirt with a graphic of the sun rising over mountains. His father had worked all night to dig him out of the concrete debris that had been their home. His son's screams, which had served to guide rescuers to his location, had turned to irregular low moans by the time he was brought to us.

The boy was laid out on a cream-colored polyester blanket with part of his brain exposed where a brick had crushed his skull. His father knelt at his side blowing frantically into his mouth. The father was not administering CPR--I doubt he had formal medical training--rather it was an instinctual, devoted attempt to animate his son's listless body with his own life force.

As we began dressing his abrasion, the boy took his final breath. The father, with a look of anguish that made me avert my eyes, quickly fled the area to grieve in seclusion, and the child's motionless body lay on the blanket for some time before any of us could summon the resolve to remove him.

It wasn't until the third day after the earthquake that I realized the scale of catastrophe. We drove through the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince on Thursday and saw hundreds of corpses lying in the streets. We saw people desperately trying to dig loved ones out of the rubble. We witnessed United Nations and U.S. soldiers refusing to assist and instead guarding private property.

As Johnathan M. Katz describes in his book, That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, "Security was the overriding foreign concern of the response." He goes on to write of his visit to the town of Léogâne a few days after the earthquake, "We would find its downtown, nine miles from the epicenter, eviscerated as if by a steamroller and nary an aid group or military caravan in sight."

As I wrote in an article from Haiti five days after the quake hit, "Thousands--or tens of thousands--more are still trapped under the rubble and need rescue. Today is an absolutely critical day. If these people don't get water today, they will die."

I was in a panic when I got to the airport that day and saw a virtual cornucopia of water and supplies piled up on the tarmac, none of it being transported to the people in need, who were seen as a threat by the U.S. military.

Alain Joyandet, the French minister responsible for humanitarian relief in Haiti, charged the United States with treating post-quake Haiti as a military operation rather than an aid mission, saying, "This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti."

Today, five years later, it is clear that helping Haiti remains a secondary concern of the United States and other international actors on the island. The promises of a massive international aid effort have proven deceptive, and the desperate needs in Haiti for housing, sanitation, economic development (including agriculture), public education and health care, remain largely unmet.

The encrypted slogan promoted by former president Bill Clinton of "Build Back Better," has been decoded by most Haitians to read, "We will exploit you in your greatest hour of need."

Haiti in the Time of the UN

There is perhaps no better example of the cruelty of international organizations toward Haiti than the cholera epidemic that broke out in the fall of 2010. Prior to October 2010, there had not been a reported incident of cholera in Haiti in nearly a century, according to the UN World Health Organization. An expert panel of epidemiologists and microbiologists appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon concluded UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal imported cholera to Haiti and contaminated the river tributary next to their base through a faulty sanitation system.

"It was like throwing a lighted match into a gasoline-filled room," said Dr. Paul S. Keim, a microbial geneticist who worked on the study.

Since then, cholera has killed 8,500 people and sickened some 800,000. As Jonathan Katz wrote, UN guidelines "call for on-site treatment of wastewater in places where no centralized sewer system is present...there was no on-site treatment for wastewater at the UN base." Yet the UN has refused to apologize for its negligent actions that led to spread of cholera in Haiti.

And while the UN Security Council claims to have dedicated money and resources to cholera's eradication, a report by the Center for Economic Policy Alternatives explains, "the UN itself has pledged just 1 percent of the funding needed, even as the UN's mostly military and police mission in Haiti costs over $572 million a year."

Shock Doctrine Development

In September of 2011, a massive collection of cables from the U.S. embassy in Haiti was released by WikiLeaks, revealing the U.S. government's role in keeping former President Aristide from returning to Haiti, its role in suppressing the minimum wage there and Washington's attempt to ensure Haiti continued to buy oil from U.S. corporations rather than the much cheaper supply from Venezuela, among other outrages.

I was particularly interested in the documents from the aftermath of the earthquake. While the inclination of ordinary people was to do anything they could to help--remarkably, half of Americans donated to Haitian relief, according to one opinion survey--WikiLeaks documents reveal that the U.S. government and its disaster capitalist counterparts thought only of profit.

For example, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten wrote in a secret February 1, 2010, "situation report" cable sent to Washington: "THE GOLD RUSH IS ON!...As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different [U.S.] companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services."

And what has ensued over the past five years is a textbook case of what Naomi Klein has called the "Shock Doctrine." As Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) Director Mark Weisbrot, said, in a January 2014 report, "The lasting legacy of the earthquake is the international community's profound failure to set aside its own interests and respond to the most pressing needs of the Haitian people."

This CEPR report goes on to note that many of the funds promised by the U.S. government to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake have, in fact, gone to enriching foreign contactors, stating, "67.1 percent of USAID contracts has gone to Beltway-based firms, while just 1.3 percent has gone to Haitian companies." And, "of the $6.43 billion disbursed by bilateral and multilateral donors to Haiti from 2010-2012, just 9 percent went through the Haitian government."

The U.S. government and Inter-American Development Bank set aside $220 million to finance the new Caracol Industrial Park, designed to provide sweatshop labor for the South Korean-based clothing manufacturer SNH Global.

Carocol has forced farmers off their land with little or no compensation. As Beverly Bell and Alexis Erkert have written, the factories routinely pay below the already insufficient $4.76 daily minimum wage. Wealthy investors reap profits from the relatively few light assembly factories that were built or restored following the earthquake, while average Haitian workers are unable to pay for a minimum standard of living on the wages they earn.

The Housing Crisis

Today, five years after the earthquake, some 85,000 homeless earthquake victims still live in about 123 camps of internally displaced persons (IDP). Tens of thousands more Haitians have been displaced into the shantytowns of Canaan, Onaville, and Jerusalem, who are not considered in these numbers and thus don't qualify for aid relief.

Moreover, a new report by Amnesty International, "15 minutes to leave--Denial of the right to adequate housing in post-quake Haiti," reveals the numbers of residents in the tent camps have been made artificially low due to forcible evictions. The report goes on to state, "Conditions in many IDP camps are dire. A third of all those living in camps do not have access to a latrine. On average, 82 people share one toilet."

Corporate Education Reform

The Haitian government estimated that at least 38,000 students and more than 1,300 teachers and other education personnel died in the earthquake. As UNICEF reported, " many as 5,000 schools were destroyed and up to 2.9 million children here are being deprived of the right to education."

When President Michel Martelly was elected in April of 2011 he made a promise to implement the Inter-American Development Bank's (IDB) plan for universal schooling of all Haitian children that would leave 90 percent of schools in Haiti privately operated and make no attempt at creating a truly public education system. The Program for Universal Free and Obligatory Education (Programme de scolarisation universelle gratuite et obligatoire, PSUGO) was established with the goal of educating "more than a million" students per year for five years.

Today government banners around the capital declare, "PSUGO--A victory for students!" But Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) conducted a two-month investigation in Port-au-Prince and Léogâne, revealing many problems with the education system.

As HGW states:

In addition to suspicions of corruption, the amount paid to the schools is clearly inadequate, the payments don't arrive on time, and the professors are underpaid. Also, most of the schools visited by journalists had not received the promised manuals and school supplies, items crucial for assuring a minimally acceptable standard of education.

With these conditions, it is no wonder that teachers went on strike last spring. Their strike action managed to win salary increases of 30 to 60 percent, but salaries remain inadequate.

"Outside Help": Imperialism "Saves" Haiti from Human Rights

Mainstream commentary on the fifth anniversary of the earthquake describes Haiti as making "shaky progress," and implies that more progress would have been made if it weren't for the deficiencies of the Haitian people.

The United States has taken a transparently self-interested approach to the relief effort--and the U.S. State Departments' special coordinator in Haiti, Thomas Adams, isn't embarrassed. He recently told USA Today, "I think Haiti's made about as much progress as one could reasonably expect given the enormous challenges there. Obviously, we and the Haitian people would like for things to move faster, but the reality is, there are a lot of obstacles, and Haiti's got a lot of challenges."

One reporter for the Seattle Times, explaining the failure of the Gates Foundation's initiative to connect Haitians to a new "e-cash" economy, summed up the slow progress since the earthquake by saying, "But Haiti has long confounded even the best-funded development efforts"--a statement that is underpinned by the racist logic of New York Times columnist David Brooks, who said Haitian culture is "progress-resistant."

From the perspective of U.S. officials and their media mouthpieces, the people of Haiti lack the capacity to solve their own problems and the only thing standing between Haiti and total chaos is the benevolent intervention of the West.

As the Washington Post wrote in a December 27, 2014, editorial, "To dismiss Haiti as a basket case or shrug off its troubles as insoluble is to forget a history that suggests that without outside help, the country can deteriorate into anarchy, at which point ignoring it is no longer an option."

Yes, let's not forget the history of "outside help" in Haiti.

What about the outside help of one Christopher Columbus? Haiti was the home of the Tiano native people when Columbus arrived in 1492. As the Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote of the impact of Columbus and the Spanish empire on the Taino:

Spaniards...are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.

What about the outside help of the French, who enslaved Africans and brought them to Haiti? Haiti commentator Ashley Smith writes of the particularly brutal form of slavery in Haiti, "The slave drivers whipped them through the course of 18-hour days to squeeze every ounce of labor out of them. The plantation masters often encased the slave's heads in tin masks to prevent them from eating the sugar cane." These conditions produced a mass uprising and revolution, led by the incomparable Toussaint L'Ouverture--the only instance in world history of slaves defeating their masters and establishing a new nation. The French promptly demanded reparations from the new Black republic for the loss of their property.

What of the outside help of the U.S. government? Haiti achieved its independence in 1804, yet the United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862 because the United States believed the idea of a Black republic, run by former slaves who had gained their independence through a mass slave rebellion, would send the wrong message to its own slave population.

From 1915-1934, the US enforced a violent and bloody military occupation on Haiti. As historian Mary Renda wrote, "By official U.S. estimates, more than 3,000 Haitians were killed during this period; a more thorough accounting reveals that the death toll may have reached 11,500."

The United States then supported the brutal dictatorships of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. When a popular uprising of the Haitian people brought down the Baby Doc regime, the United States worked to undermine Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical priest and activist for the rights of the poor. The Haitian people's audacity to pick their own leader was too much for U.S. President George W. Bush--he sent in the Marines in 2004 and they marched Aristide out of his home by gun point and into an African exile.

In the post-earthquake 2011 Haitian presidential election, the U.S. supported Michel Martelly, a former supporter of Baby Doc. Martelly was picked for the job by the United States because of his association with military figures who supported coups against Aristide. With U.S. and UN support, the Provisional Election Commission (CEP) rigged the Haitian election by banning 14 political parties from running, including the country's most popular party, Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas. With the help of the international puppeteers and their manipulation of the election, Martelly was able to ignore the mass protests against election fraud and capture the presidency.

What about outside help like the United Nations? Besides introducing cholera to Haiti, UN MINUSTAH forces prioritized security and policing over humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the earthquake, perpetrated mass rape of underage girls, and used indiscriminate force in densely populated urban areas that killed dozens of innocent civilians in raids.

In fact, there is probably no better example anywhere in the world of a more capable, self-sufficient people. Yet because of their great transgression of being Black and relentlessly pursuing freedom, they have been ruthlessly punished by the powerful nations. As the famed linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky put it, Haiti is still receiving "punishment for having dared to be the first free country of free men in the hemisphere."

Hands Up, Don't Shoot--From Ferguson to Port-Au-Prince

My family was in Haiti for five days after the earthquake before we were evacuated back home to Seattle. Recovering from the experience emotionally and mentally has not been easy. Gone is the acute PTSD I experienced in months following my return home. Yet I still experience stressful situations with much more intensity than I ever had before the earthquake.

While drug companies may not have developed a pill to cure PTSD, I can tell you that the best medicine for my ailment is struggle. And nothing puts me in a better state of mind than seeing the uprising of Black people from Ferguson to Port-Au-Prince.

Today, the people of Haiti are rising up against Martelly, with mass protests opposing his unwillingness to hold new parliamentary elections. As Thomas Péralte wrote, "'The problem is Michel Martelly,'" cry protesters almost daily around Haiti. 'The solution is the Martelly's departure.'"

With elections now three years delinquent, a political earthquake could be triggered on January 12, the day terms would expire for members of parliament. Martelly signed a December 29, 2014, accord with the Congress, extending member terms and calling for an election in 120 days. However, it remains unclear if the terms of that agreement will be met--and if they are not, the Congress could be nullified, and Martelly could claim near complete control of the government.

People who value democracy and human rights should make common cause with the people of Haiti.

In the United States, African Americans are leading a national "Black Lives Matter" uprising in the wake of an onslaught of police terror resulting in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and so many others. The interests of Haiti and the interests of African Americans have been linked ever since Haiti showed the world at the turn of the 19th century how slaves could get free.

As author, activist, and associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies Beverly Bell wrote of a recent police murder in Haiti:

This is a tale of another Black boy whose name and wrongful death were never reported in any official document or national media. The policeman responsible was not charged, indicted, or prosecuted. This child's prematurely snuffed life was not spent in the U.S. but in the Black nation of Haiti, though the US government subsidized his murderer...In the three years since Martelly was imposed, the U.S. has underwritten his unaccountable "security" forces to the tune of $73 million, courtesy of our tax dollars. The U.S. has also sold the Haitian government weapons that make the assaults possible.

When the people of the United States learn the lessons of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian revolution, and when the people of Haiti rise up once again to demand economic and political democracy, only then will I, and everyone who believes in justice, achieve peace of mind.

First published at Truthout.

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