Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The tragedy of Haiti

The last tragedy in Haiti was the 2010 earthquake unless you count the flooding from storms and hurricanes that have touched the island since then. There is also the cholera epidemic which seems to have begun when foreign aid workers introduced a new strain of cholera into the country - post-earthquake - so that now the few reliable drinking water sources are not reliable. A couple of new books have come out recently that document what's been going on in Haiti since the earthquake. Unfortunately, it seems like not much good given the millions of dollars raised.  Jonathan Katz and Amy Wilentz are the authors, both journalists, who have spent a lot of time in Haiti. Wilentz, who has lived there, has written of Haiti before in The Rainy Season (1989) which covered the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier. Her latest book, Farewell Fred Voodoo, is a bit of  history, some culture, some reporting about earthquake relief or a lack thereof, some stories, and more analysis since she understands the country and - what she doesn't understand - much better today. She gives us the facts: 3/4 of the people live on less than $2.00 a day, 50% of the people have no access to potable water, 50%-70% unemployment, 2/3 of the people have no access to sanitary facilities, only 10% have electrical service, 95% of the country is deforested, 4/5 of the college educated live abroad. It is a depressing sketch. And that was before the earthquake. Things are worse now with the cholera and about a half million people living in temporary tent cities. And thousands more living in so called temp housing that is becoming permanent. She and Katz document the uses and abuses of all the millions of dollars of aid that has been given to Haiti which has really not been given to Haiti but to organizations providing relief and reconstruction to Haiti. There are lots of white folks in Haiti now living quite well on relief and reconstruction money.  It could be argued that the aid dollars have not helped a whole lot although there are people and places that have and are being helped. There are people there to help even if many of the aid organizations and workers have their own agendas. Some of those still there two years after the earthquake, especially some of the doctors, are dug in and doing good work. But now that the water and sanitation services have gone away there is always more to do, not less, it seems.  Reading these books makes you ask why. Why is Haiti still tragic even after all the money and all the people have tried to help for so many years.

Wilentz gives some perspective. Haiti was colonized by France. Within two generations of the first white colonizers all the natives were wiped out. Slaves were imported from Africa to work the sugar cane. It was the most lucrative plantation system in the world. African slaves were brought in, worked to death, and replaced with more. In the late 1700's slaves outnumbered their white masters by 10 to 1. In 1791, slaves attacked sugar plantations leading to a full blown slave revolt and in 1804 Haiti declared independence from France. For years after France demanded "retribution payments" for loss of land, slaves and equipment. This enormous debt of 90 million was backed up by threat of a blockade led by the French, British and US. It was not fully paid off until the 1900s. The slave revolt reverberated through the slave economy around the world. Haiti was a pariah state. No one would recognize the new nation and trade with them. US recognition came during our own civil war. The 1900s brought a US occupation by the marines. Then, Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

The 2000s have seen many elected presidents and just as many ousted. Then, the hurricanes and earthquakes. Haiti can't seem to get a break (or all they get are breaks). And no one can figure out how to help put this poor country back together again.

Wilentz tells stories about people who try and mostly fail. There is one doctor who she seems to think is making a difference. She works in a tent office in a tent city and she sees TB patients all day. She gets supplies from Western donors but she takes no salary. She hires no help. She works with Haitians and works the way Haitians work, ie, she works within the system, taking what it gives to her. She helps one person at a time and doesn't seem to care if anyone outside Haiti knows what she is doing. Every morning she cooks 12 pounds of spaghetti and distributes it during the day to patients for whom that is the only meal of the day. Put an bit of mayo or ketchup on it and it's not bad, she says. For all the money going to big projects in Haiti that are failing here is one model that works.