The earthquake in Haiti is a call to all of us to look again and look deeper.
Since 12 January 2010, this is no longer the case. Images of destruction and devastation have been broadcast throughout the world – the decomposing bodies, the wailing mothers, the ominously silent children sitting alone next to piles of rubble which were once their homes, desperate people scrambling through the destruction with their bare hands in the faint hope of finding loved ones.
These harrowing images now spring unbidden into our thoughts, not just when we think of Haiti but also when we smile at our carefree children, or surreptitiously undo our belts after overindulging at mealtimes, or step into a nice warm shower, or lie in our comfortable beds. Thoughts that are too complex to just be labelled empathy. In there are feelings of helplessness in the sight of all the suffering, horror at the graphic images of death, guilt at our life of ease and plenty, and an uncertain anxious feeling caused by the realisation that those people were just like us: with busy lives full of to-do lists, plans, jobs, family. And yet, within 90 seconds of the earth shaking beneath their feet, they are lying still, with their angels on their shoulders putting away their pens and closing their books. The body left to rot and the soul now accountable.
For in these days following a catastrophe like that in Haiti, we are like those people in the cinema who put on their 3-D glasses and all of a sudden can see the reality around them. Or perhaps, sadly, the analogy is more like that of a sleeping person who rouses briefly from his dreams but then, after adjusting his quilt, slowly sinks back into slumber. Either way, in the days following an event like this with wall to wall 24 hour media coverage, our feelings often ebb away and we become victims of compassion fatigue.
Another victim of this “disaster journalism” is the faculty of analysis and examination. For instance, an oft repeated phrase during this troubled time has been: “Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere”. This in itself is true, but the back-story often not given by the press is WHY it is so poor. After seeing some of the coverage of this crisis one may be left with the impression that Haiti is just another ne’er do well nation of poor black people, corrupt and dysfunctional and seemingly unwilling or unable to lift themselves out of the mire of poverty. A closer examination of the history of this nation shows this not to be the case.
Ever since Christopher Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on Haiti’s beaches in December 1492, one could argue that the writing was on the wall for Haiti’s spiral into grinding poverty. The Spaniards exploited it for its gold and when its indigenous people, the Taínos, were wiped out in the early 1500s owing to ill treatment, chronic disease and malnutrition, the Spanish imported enslaved Africans. Haiti was given to the French as part of a peace treaty with Spain in 1697 and became extremely rich on the back of its huge slave population. The brutal efficiency of its slave rules and regulations (known as the “Code Noir”) saw one-third of new African slaves dying within a few short years of arrival. 1791 saw the start of the Haitian revolution which lasted until 1804 when Haiti was declared a free republic, the only nation consisting of former slaves. When one examines the events for the following 206 years, it is almost as if the world has never forgiven this nation of uppity Negros for demanding their freedom.
For example, in 1825 the French demanded reparations for the loss of their slave property. This claim worth 150 million francs bankrupted Haiti and mortgaged its future to French banks until it was finally paid off well into the 20th century. Another example is the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, which not only resulted in the deaths of 3,200 Haitians, but also established its modern financial system. This has been described as (at best) “shaky” and (at worst) “doomed” because of the proliferation of huge loans lent at exorbitant rates of interest by the US treasury and private New York banks, which resulted in a financial system that siphoned the country’s wealth to offshore creditors, rather than reinvesting it in the country’s infrastructure.
US complicity in Haiti’s decline did not stop there. On the political front between 1957 and 1986, the US supported the brutal father and son dictators, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, as bulwarks against communism in the region. They even arranged Baby Doc’s exile to France when he was ousted in 1986 and made off with over $500 million from Haiti’s impoverished coffers.
1991 saw the election of former-priest-turned-politician, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in a landslide victory but less than a year later, Aristide was ousted in a CIA-backed coup. The Clinton administration helped Aristide back to power in 1994 but only after he had agreed to implement draconian reforms, including opening up Haiti to free trade with the US and a brutal IMF restructuring programme, which cut the minimum daily wage from $1.50 to 63 cents, slashed Haiti’s rice tariff from 35% to 3%, which destroyed Haiti’s local rice industry and permitted imported US rice to feed 1 in 3 Haitians by 1995. Another by-product of the destruction of Haiti’s agricultural industry was that peasant farmers moved en masse into the city to find work in sweatshops and in so doing created the vast slums of Port-au-Prince.
Aristide remained a popular President and was re-elected in 2000. He earned the wrath of the IMF with his plans to double the minimum wage and then became more vocal in calling for France to repay the $150 million francs (recalculated as $21 billion) for the unjust “reparations” demanded back in the 1800s. In 2004, Aristide was overthrown in another coup tacitly supported by France and carried out by US Marines, who escorted him to the airport with the ultimatum “Come with us or stay. Live or die.”
Since then, Haiti has spiralled out of control. A disaster waiting to happen.
An earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale is no picnic. At this magnitude, even “earthquake-proof” buildings will sustain some damage but it is worthwhile to remember that in 2007 Chile suffered an earthquake of 7.7 and yet only 2 people lost their lives. There are some geological factors that could explain this. For example, the depth that the quake occurred at: a more shallow quake will inflict more damage. However, as highlighted by the mayor of Port-au-Prince in 2008 when a school collapsed, the majority of buildings in the capital city were shoddily built and dangerous under normal conditions.
So where does all this conjecture leave us, the passive viewers of these happenings? I feel that the earthquake in Haiti is a call to all of us to look again and look deeper. Look again and look deeper at Haiti and see in its past the reasons why is isn’t just a perpetual victim but rather a plucky survivor. Look again and look deeper at France and the US’s pious promises of debt relief and financial packages and see that they are not the signs of generous liberal democracies showering mercy on those less fortunate but rather the blood money owed to a nation raped and pillaged repeatedly over centuries.
And finally, look again and look deeper at our own selves. That uncomfortable feeling we have should not translate into compassion fatigue and an urge to turn away or surreptitiously change the channel. That feeling should be seen for what it is: our own soul reminding us that we will one day lie in our graves like those thousands of people in Haiti bereft of all the paddings of this inglorious delusion called the dunya. It is at that time we will see what we have sent ahead of us: our good deeds (including charity) and we will heartily wish that we had done more when we could.
When the Earth is shaken to her utmost convulsion,
And the Earth throws up her burdens from within,
And man cries distressed: “What is the matter with her?”
On that Day will she declare her tidings:
For that thy Lord will have given it inspiration.
On that Day will men proceed in companies sorted out, to be shown the Deeds that they had done.
Then shall anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good, see it!
And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it.
Al Quran, Surah Zalzala (99)