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Way were we when dey needed us?

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“Haiti, I’m sorry. We misunderstood you. One day we’ll turn our heads and look inside you.” David Rudder’s calypso on Haiti seems to have much more meaning today than we would have ever thought. Would the devastating quake that emptied the bowels of Haiti finally force us to look inside her? Really, the days for band aid solutions are gone and radical surgery is needed. In fact, this need has always been there. Today when we hear the empty babble of Evangelist Pat Robertson and the Republican Dean Rush Limbaugh, we know it is necessary to look inside her.{{more}} Pat Robertson tries to explain Haiti’s problems by talking nonsense about a pact with the Devil, and Rush Limbaugh suggests that it was not necessary to donate to the relief efforts because America has already done so by providing the hard earned tax monies of Americans to Haiti over the years. Everyone should be required to read Sir Hilary Beckles article “The Hate and the Quake (Haiti)” that appeared in the Barbados ‘Nation’ on January 17. Although I have singled out Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, some of us believe that the disaster that struck that Caribbean Country on January 12 was a punishment for its sins, for the practice of Voodoism and all sorts of other things with which we care to associate Haiti.

Some Aspects of History

I came across an interesting piece that appeared in the Caribbean Net News on January 15 that was written by George Henry. I take the liberty of quoting the first paragraph. “Haiti, I am sorry. You who showed us how to gain our freedom, but we left you behind. You who taught us that Man must never be a slave, we turned our backs on you. It is because of you the black man is a ‘free’ individual in the western world. It is because of you, Haiti, we can educate our children, since you were one of the first who placed emphasis on education in this part of the world in the name of freedom.” The outlines of the story are known, if not the details, that Haiti was the first and only country to have freed itself from slavery, defeating the powerful army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Because of that she became a pariah state, and was ostracised from the community of nations. Slaves in one of the richest countries in the Western hemisphere, doing the unthinkable, could not be allowed to interact with other nations. What would their example teach the slaves in America? Their very existence, it was felt, represented a threat to other countries that held slaves. Haiti was a symbol of a successful slave revolt. The Haitian slave revolt brought a new dimension to the struggle against slavery particularly in the colonies of the British Caribbean. With the problems facing the slave societies in the early 19th century it was the feeling of many, and this was propagated by some of the abolitionists, that it was either abolition from above or from below by the slaves through revolt. This was now a strong possibility, for the Haitians had shown this. So in any effort to understand the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, attention has to be paid to the Haitian Revolution.

Let us imagine what it was like in 1804, the year in which the Independence of Haiti was proclaimed. Slaves, the majority of whom were illiterate, taking control of the richest colonies in the Caribbean! They obviously needed assistance, the kind of assistance that the United Nations and other international bodies give to newly independent states today. In Haiti’s case she was treated as an outcast. In any event the French were not prepared to recognise her independence, and other countries would not dare to do so, even if they wanted to, without French recognition. The French eventually recognised the independence of Haiti, but the Haitians had to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs and to reduce customs charges on French vessels. That became a millstone around the neck of the Haitian people. In fact the first instalment had to be secured by a loan from the French, and it took almost another 100 years before Haiti could relieve itself of this debt. Haiti’s financial problems also led to the involvement of other nations, particularly the Germans and the Americans. The American intervention in Haiti in 1915 was the beginning of a period of American control as part of a strategy for controlling the whole area that included Cuba. American influence and control involved its support for some of the most brutal dictators, some of whom assumed power with American support. All of this bred and supported internal problems and divisions, and Haiti was set on a path from which it has never recovered.

The Earthquake

There is thus a long story behind Haiti’s status as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The earthquake of January 12 struck a country that was most vulnerable to the kind of destruction that a quake of that size could bring. Vincentians like people all over the world have been glued to their television sets since January 12. Some of the scenes were incredible and brought tears to the eyes of many people, even those who were not Haitian. So when the Haitian born Governor General of Canada Michaelle Jean broke down in tears one could understand. It was hard to look at a city that had crumbled in this manner. The struggle to find survivors, the successes and the failures, the joys and sorrows, all made compelling stories, and the world watched, praying secretly, hoping for more successes.

There were, undoubtedly, problems despite the immediate grand response from countries around the world. The city’s infrastructure had collapsed, the state buildings had crumbled, the Presidential Palace, the port was crippled and debris blocked roads, making it difficult for supplies to reach those most in need of medical supplies, food and water. The government was immobilised in the early moments when there was need for some Body to be in charge. In fact, the coordination of activities for the first couple days was a major problem with the Americans who had taken control of the airport being accused of favouring American interests. Even the UN was somewhat incapacitated with deaths of some of their personnel who had been part of their 9,000 peace keeping mission. As happens on these occasions we were all glued to the American media, and while there is no doubt about the tremendous support from that country, the contributions from others including CARICOM appeared to be a foot note. Cuba, I believe, was one of the first countries to have sent in medical help, with about 30 Cuban doctors joining the hundreds of other Cuban medical people who had been stationed in the country. But it was difficult to know this, as it was with the CARICOM team of doctors, psychologists and engineers.

While the assistance given so far is to be commended, even disregarding the difficulties in getting this assistance to persons most in need, the real challenge is the rebuilding of Haiti, putting this country on a path that could lead to sustained growth and development. Haitians, because of a long history of foreign involvement, would obviously be wary about foreign involvement. This is where CARICOM should play an important role. They should act as the conscience of the international community and challenge those who seek to help. The developed countries must start by relieving Haiti of the debt which she owes. Haitians must also play a key role in any strategy for putting their country on a different course.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.