Thursday, January 14, 2010

Various Thoughts on Haiti

a. Before starting, if anyone has decided that they would like to make a donation but do not know which group to donate to, please consider making a donation to Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles (about 3 hours northeast of Port-au-Prince). I worked there for a brief stretch during my residency. Their website notes that areas outside Port were affected, and the hospital has been swamped with patients and the doctors, nurses and support staff are stretched very thin. I don't want to divert money from the Red Cross but this is a more "tangible" donation, so if you have not yet contributed please do take a look at their website.


Pat Robertson's insane monologue yesterday is perhaps remarkable only for its particularly twisted form of logic. After all, religious fanatics have been in the business of interpreting natural disasters as divine retribution  for millenia; what makes Robertson's thoughts on the matter so singularly flabbergasting is that he believes that Haitians, who had received a century of the most brutal treatment endured by humans at the hands of Christians, somehow made a "pact with the devil" ("true story!" the Reverend adds helpfully, as if he had found it in Wikipedia just before going on air) by not turning to Christianity. Assuming that he was trying to make any sense at all, I would guess that he's referring to the Haitian practice of voodoo. Even if one ignores his thoroughly peculiar logic, the vast majority of Haitians regard themselves as Christians. If Robertson thinks their particular brand of Christianity, with its African animistic influences, isn't up to Godly snuff, then why hasn't such a calamity befallen Rome? And why did God wait more than 200 years to get around to a punishment like this? No, what is most amazing about a raving lunatic like Pat Robertson--who, it must be remembered, made these comments on a show trying to raise money for the relief effort--is that his network, CBN, reaches millions of viewers in the US and millions more worldwide. "He's not like David Koresh," a colleague of mine quipped today, referring to the religious cult leader at the center of the Waco, Texas tragedy. "I mean, Robertson's got followers."

The irony is that because of their Christianity, a good many Haitians don't disagree with Robertson's assessment, although again I'm not sure they would concur with Robertson's underlying thought process. The quote of note from the writer in the above link: "If God exists, he's really got it in for Haiti."

c. Haiti was not an easy place to spend a month, and I continue to have conflicted feelings about the country. (And it goes without saying that spending one month in Haiti hardly makes me an expert. What observations I have are tentative, and what thoughts I have I myself regard with skepticism.) The story of the Haitian revolution and throwing off the yoke of bondage by the French at the outset of the 19th century has to rank as one of the greatest stories of self-determination in the history of humanity. Based off the very principles that defined the American and French revolutions, Haitian independence was a logical response to French oppression. It should be no surprise that politicians in the United States (Southern or Northern) or anywhere else had absolutely no interest in fostering this nascent state, and so, denied the ability to engage in trade like any other free nation (and Haiti was a country of vast resources at that time, and would have made a powerful trading partner for molasses and rum which were critical parts of the early American economy, to say nothing of the Spanish colonies), nor allowed to develop a navy for basic defense (attacks by the US prevented this), Haiti turned inward and began a two-centuries long process of auto-cannibalism that has been more-or-less uninterrupted. The US was heavily involved in Haiti in the early 20th century, occupying the country from 1915-34 (my jaw dropped when I saw WPA-style bridges there while riding through the countryside, as I had been totally ignorant of my country's involvement in Haiti); the Soviets also added to the infrastructure a bit during the 50s and 60s while Papa Doc Duvalier cleverly played the superpowers against one another. But besides these relatively short-term relationships, few nations have generally cared much about Haiti except for it to serve as a cautionary tale. Paul Farmer, now the famous doctor and subject of the bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains, wrote about the history of Haiti's relationship to other independent nations over the past two centuries in his book The Uses of Haiti. It is worth the read. To have any hope of understanding the magnitude of the disaster that has just befallen Haiti, one needs to read a book such as this. This earthquake really couldn't have happened to a less prepared country.

d. You will read multiple descriptions of Haiti in the coming days as a place of "tremendous poverty." While that is undoubtedly true, describing Haiti as "impoverished" doesn't really give one the full scope of the core problems that its people face. For instance, when compared to an African nation of roughly equal population and area, Haiti (168th) outranks Rwanda (179th) in per capita GDP, and by a fairly sizeable amount ($1300 vs. $900; the US ranks 8th at $47,500, while Zimbabwe is last in 194th with a per capita GDP of $200). Rwanda's infant mortality ratio (17th highest in the world) is higher than Haiti's (37th), with similar data for life expectancy at birth (50.5 years versus 60.8). But Rwanda is a considerably more stable country than Haiti, with a government responding to the needs of its people, and there is a general sense among the people that their lives are improving. This is all the more remarkable given Rwanda's recent genocide; Rwanda's near-miraculous turnaround is the subject of New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer's book A Thousand Hills, which has gotten some airplay in the US. In Rwanda, despite its recent horrors, the people have a sense of hope and of common purpose. In Haiti, where its leaders have been either uninterested or unable to help its citizens, there is no similar attitude--or at least, if it is, it is hidden well underneath the surface. I saw no evidence of it when I was there. Instead I often felt a sense of foreboding--especially in Port, where it was impossible for me to walk the streets without being accosted by people wanting my money. By contrast, when my wife worked in Kigali for a few weeks while building a high school there a few years ago, she was a magnet not for money, but for her camera--kids were constantly asking her simply to take their pictures. This in a place that, by the numbers, is even more impoverished than Haiti. So poverty is only a chunk of the problem. I don't want to imply that this is a fault of  Haitians, and I don't want to sound callous to the needs of those people who came up to me on the streets of Port. Rather, my point is that if one only thinks about the earthquake without making some attempt to understand a little of Haiti's history, and if one also regards this as "earthquake hits impoverished place," one won't have understood anything about what's going on there. The earthquake hit a place that most of the nations of the world (including and often especially the US) have used as a punching bag for two centuries, and the people aren't merely impoverished, they are desperate, which to me is a critical difference.

e. At the risk of sounding pedantic, one final point about the scope of the disaster is that Haiti has no real "government" in the sense that we--so far, anyway--think of as "government." Despite some bad apples and assorted pockets of corruption, most Americans tend to think of their police as being there to protect them; there is no equivalent in Haiti. Here we take some of the most important functions of a government for granted, two of which are conspicuously absent in Haiti: garbage removal and a clean public water supply. I can't say how disheartened I feel here when I see families choose brand-name bottled water in their own homes while perfectly potable water taps in their kitchen sinks sit unmolested. Haitians right now would die for such a privilege. And because of the lack of potable water, many more may.

ps--Now at the risk of sounding ridiculous, one small way to continue to make a contribution to Haitian GNP in the coming years, for those of you who like to drink alcohol, is to buy Haitian rum, one of their few true exports widely available in the US. I am a fan of Rhum Barbancourt, and recommend that you check it out the next time you are at the liquor store.

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