Past Event

Haiti’s hard times: Are we helping or hurting even more?

The devastating earthquake that flattened Haiti on January 12 also delivered a massive jolt to the rest of the world. The widespread destruction of life and property brought the world’s attention to Haiti’s doorstep. News cameras and Twitter followers around the globe suddenly had reason to know about Haiti, its history, and its troubles.

Before the earthquake, poverty, an unstable government, and inferior infrastructure were already crushing the island nation of 9 million people.  According to the CIA Factbook, “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 54 percent in abject poverty.” The country also “suffers from high inflation, a lack of investment because of insecurity and limited infrastructure, and a severe trade deficit.” Now, the earthquake has left millions homeless and the poorest of the poor even more destitute. The current crisis has been called one of “biblical proportions.”

Don Hazen, executive editor of Alternet wrote: “It is hard to imagine the enormity of the pain and tragedy caused by the earthquake in Haiti, which has left the capital city of Port-au-Prince in ruins. The damage is catastrophic; more than 2 million people have been affected, tens of thousands have died, and uncountable numbers of people injured. It is truly the disaster of the century.”

As relief planes flew in with aid the first week after the earthquake, Haiti’s woes compounded. Media reported gasoline scarcity. People wore masks everywhere to blunt the stench of decaying bodies. Port-au-Prince’s streets were filled with thousands of people on the march.

For all the promises of aid and comfort to Haitians in their hour of need, some say the country’s real needs have become obscured.  To truly grasp the genesis and the magnitude of Haiti’s suffering, history’s truth offers the best guide.

Writer and film producer Joslyn Barnes writes in The Nation:

 “The French colony of Saint-Domingue achieved its independence and became Haiti in 1804 after a brutal 12-year struggle that began with an uprising of enslaved peoples led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, who together defeated the French royalist and revolutionary armies, the Spanish and British imperial armies who tried to take advantage and finally Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte sought to restore slavery and use Haiti as a launching pad for an invasion of the United States, sending some 50,000 troops to Haiti, where they were decimated by the Haitian forces and yellow fever. Bonaparte finally surrendered the project and sold the Louisiana Territory for 60 million francs to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson expressed his gratitude to the Haitians by assisting in the French blockade intended to punish Haiti. He closed our ports to all Haitian vessels as U.S. slaveholders were terrified of the spread of the “contagion” known as liberty.”

France further punished Haiti by demanding 150 million francs to lift the blockade. Haiti finally finished paying the “debt” in 1947. Some nations owed money by Haiti today recently called for canceling debts to help with reconstruction from the earthquake. In his Alternet piece “Toward Freedom,” Benjamin Dangl reports that “U.S. corporations, private mercenaries, Washington and the International Monetary Fund are using the crisis in Haiti to make a profit, promote unpopular neoliberal policies, and extend military and economic control over the Haitian people.”

In the week after the earthquake, U.S. Marines arrived in Haiti, bringing back memories of an earlier U.S. invasion. Security has been tightened, argued Benjamin Dangl on Alternet, based on “major media outlets talk about the looting, and need for security to protect private property.”

Peter Hallward, professor and author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment, believes the world’s approach to Haiti must change. “If we are serious about helping we need to stop trying to control Haiti’s government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy,” he wrote in the Guardian. “And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we’ve already done.”

What has been your reaction to the crisis in Haiti? Do you think the way aid is being dispensed will truly help Haitians? What role should the U.S. play in Haiti now? What are your ideas for helping Haiti become a truly democratic and stable country? What sources of information are you relying on to understand Haiti? Is there hope for Haiti? Why or why not? What does the rest of the world owe Haiti now?

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