Editorial: Haiti: Christians must ask why

Haiti’s 1804 slave rebellion transformed the population into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day …

More than 200,000 are dead, the same number are injured and a million left homeless by Haiti’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake last month. Yet relief efforts from around the world which swung into action almost immediately were frustrated by a lack of infrastructure in this, the poorest nation in the world.

‘The outpouring of compassion is amazing,’ said a headline in America’s National Catholic Reporter ‘but the vastness of the devastation is beyond imagining,’ said filmmaker Gerry Straub. In a series of eyewitness reports made about 10 days after the quake he described as ‘unbelievable’ the number of collapsed buildings and the stench of decaying flesh.

Physicians are fighting to save lives knowing that, if they succeed, there will be little for patients to eat or drink.
Earthquakes of this size are devastating in any country. But why is Haiti taking so long to recover? Where are the heavy machines that would be clearing rubble in other places, and the hospitals with their emergency supplies and generators?

Haiti was once a proud nation – the world’s first black republic which, just a few years ago, celebrated its 200th anniversary of independence from Napoleon’s France. Haiti’s 1804 slave rebellion transformed the population into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, said Gary Young in an article in the Guardian Weekly, February 26, 2004 www.mindfully.org/WTO/2004/Haiti-Colonialist-UK-US26feb04.htm
Today the nation is ravaged by Aids, political violence and poverty after 13 coups and 19 years of American occupation (1915-1934).

The hope and promise of that first black republic has been stifled by Western colonisers ‘who knew what a disastrous example a Haitian success story would be. In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte as he despatched a 22,000-strong army: “The freedom of negroes, if recognised in St Domingue (as Haiti was then known) and legalised by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World”.’

France, with US backing, later ordered Haiti to pay 150 million francs ($18bn today) in gold to compensate former plantation and slave owners as well as for the costs of the war in return for international recognition.
‘By the end of the 19th century Haiti’s national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest, and the country was locked into its present role of debtor nation.’

‘Forced by an international agreement to lower its import tariffs, Haiti found itself flooded with subsidised rice from the US which drove local rice growers out of business. When Haiti fined US rice merchants $1.4m for allegedly evading customs duties, the US responded by withholding $30m in aid.’

The political situation would warrant a separate article but the Duvalier family should be mentioned here. Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier (1957-1971), president until his death, exploited the US fear of communism against Haiti’s neighbour, Cuba. His regime is described as one of the most ‘repressive in the hemisphere’. His son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ continued the repression. It is not hard to see why Haiti is the worst nation that could be struck by a disaster of the proportions of those of January 12, 2010.

Emergency relief and charity are much needed in the Pacific and in parts of New Zealand as well as in Haiti. But the nation will not move forward without its better-off neighbours questioning history to locate the causes of its economic and political impoverishment. This social structural analysis is at the root of the kind of justice Jesus challenges us to seek out.