18 January, 2010

Think of Haiti, pray for Haiti, be a Haitian

Sérgio Abranches

If history will repeat itself again in Haiti, the country runs the risk of plunging into deep social regression. It is on the verge of a dreadful state of nature. A state where people are led by instinct, fed by pain, anger, despair, and distrust.

History is not fate, or destiny. It is the result of social forces interacting with natural factors. Ramsey Clark alerts that “the history of Haiti will break your heart.” Brazilians use to sing Caetano Veloso’s 1980‘s song Haiti, where he asks: “think about Haiti, pray for Haiti.”

Haiti’s history has been an intercourse between human predators and brutal natural forces. Exploitation, isolation, occupation, the imposition of heavy reparations, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis have devastated the country’s right to a civilized future since the beginning of colonial rule.

Its native population was decimated in less than three decades after Columbus set foot on Hispaniola Island. The natives were replaced by African slaves. Haiti paid a double and unbearable price for its Independence War. As Clark wrote:

Haiti lay in ruins, nearly half its population lost. The African slaves of Haiti had defeated the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The 12-year war for liberation had destroyed most of the irrigation systems and machinery that, with slave labor, had created France’s richest colony and were the foundation of the island’s economy.

After Independence, in 1804, came isolation. The economies of the Americas were built on slavery. European nations were colonial powers. No nation wanted to legitimate an order born of slave revolt for freedom, or colonial rebellion. The United States would only recognize the independent republic after Civil War rid the country of its slave system, in 1862. Slavery was only abolished in Brazil in 1888, 66 years after its independence from Portugal.

The wealthier landowners who had not left Haiti after heavy losses from the destruction of coffee, cocoa, cotton and tobacco plantations, or were not killed during the Independence War, fled the island before the French surrender, or with the French troops.

Fear of the virus of black insurrection turned the “Pearl of the Caribbean” into the pariah of the Americas. Isolation was a greater price to pay for rebellion than lives lost and a devastated economy. It gave the poor island no means for recovery. Its connections with world markets were severed. The US would only allow limited trade before official recognition. Haiti desperately needed economic integration with the rest of the world. Its only source of revenue were tradable commodities (sugar, cotton, coffee, cocoa, tobacco). It lacked capital, and would not attract investors. Access to the French market would only be opened to Haiti after the country agreed to pay a heavy – and mostly illegitimate – indemnity for seized land.

After isolation, came occupation. The US occupied Haiti for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934. It left the country poorer than when the marines took over the Island.

Unemployed Haitians,looking for jobs, had moved to the Dominican Republic during occupation. The Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo presided over a genocidal racist campaign against black Haitians. As many as 40,000 were killed.

After foreign abuse, came brutal domestic oppression. The two Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, and their Tonton Macoutes established a murderous reign of terror, exploitation and corruption. It lasted for 30 years, most of the time with the formal or informal support of Western Nations, the US in particular.

As late as 2003 the US, the European Union and multilateral banks were withholding $500 million in aid and loans because, they said, Aristide’s government failed to reach a compromise with opposition parties which boycotted the elections. Again the threat of sanctions and isolation was used against the poor Haitians on political grounds.

What about natural forces? Haiti is geographically a disaster prone location. When natural risk is evaluated against the social frailties of the Island, it becomes a tragedy prone country.

Hurricanes were unknown to Europeans venturing in the Caribbean seas for the first time. Christopher Columbus met his first near Hispaniola in 1495 and was startled by its violence. During colonial times tropical storms and hurricanes devastated plantations throughout the Caribbean. The heavier losses were incurred by the more valued and demanding plantations of coffee, cotton, cocoa and tobacco. Sugar cane plantations were also destroyed, but their shorter cultivation cycle allowed landowners to resume production sooner, at lower investment cost. This explains to a considerable extent the trend towards monoculture. It also led many wealthier plantation owners to migrate with the cash results of their production. Hence the progressive reduction on the size of landed properties and the impoverishment of the landed elite. An impoverished elite, eager to extract the most from its land on the shorter span of time possible, meant more exploitation of slave labor, greater violence and absence of any concern for the welfare of slaves and the non-elite. Growing poverty and dispossession resulted from the climatic hardships of the plantation economy.

Extensive plantation and the search for safer locations led to deforestation. Hispaniola had an immense wealth of biodiversity when it was discovered. All this wealth was lost with almost total deforestation. Deforestation increased the island vulnerability do extreme climate.

In short, since colonial times Haitians were victims of a merciless cycle of misery caused by the interplay of human violence, environmental degradation and severe natural phenomena.

Deforestation, lack of adequate emergency service and poor infrastructure also help to explain the recent history of extreme natural events making human tragedy to be reenacted time and again in Haiti.

In 1935, a storm killed more than 2000 people. In 1946, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake was registered in Hispaniola. Although centered in the Dominican Republic it also affected Haiti extensively. In 1954, hurricane Hazel killed people, destroyed 40 per cent of the coffee trees and 50 per cent of the cacao crop. In 1963 hurricane Flora killed 8000 people. In 1994, hurricane Gordon wiped out 80% of the crops of the country. In 2004 tropical storm Jeanne provoked extensive flooding and landslides, killing 2,500 people and displacing thousands more. In 2008 Haiti was hit by four different hurricanes – Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike – in the space of 30 days: 800 people died, 60 per cent of the country’s agriculture were devastated, and entire cities became desolate and uninhabitable.

“Today, we are all Haitians”, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof (@nickkristof ) twitted from New York City, CNN anchor Kristie Lu Stout (@klustout) retwitted from Hong Kong, and O Globo columnist Míriam Leitão (@MiriamLeitaoCom), re-retwitted from Rio de Janeiro. It remains to be seen for how long we’ll keep Haiti on our hearts and minds.

I fear we will forget the Haitian tragedy in a few months. The country will fail to get aid on the amount required to rebuilt its cities appropriately. People will not get safer and better homes. Infrastructure will not be recovered and improved. Emergency service will not be provided. Risk areas will continue to be occupied and unattended.

The best case scenario, alas an unlikely one, would be an unprecedented success story of world solidarity to Haitians. Haiti wouldn’t be forgotten. The world would give back to its people through unconditional and unprejudiced aid part of the wealth it transferred to richer nations. The Haitian children, half of its population, would get good, unprejudiced education. Quality education would enable young Haitians to take the best of its cultural tradition, acquire the knowledge to become good active citizens and get qualified to lead the country to a civilized life sometime in the 21st century.

Let me finish with Ramsey Clark’s whole phrase on Haiti’s history.

The history of Haiti will break your heart. Knowing it, the weak will despair, but the caring will strive to break the chains of tragedy.

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