Haiti: It’s Not Fair
This morning my father, who is Haitian, said: “They’ve been hit by hurricanes that completely missed the Dominican Republic, and now this. It’s not fair.” I noted the remark because in my life, I can’t recall my father — ever — asking or expecting anything about this world to be “fair.” Fair is simply not a concept my father acknowledges.
But today, it certainly feels like a beautiful country that has the good sense to keep all of its wars civil in nature is in some kind of cosmic doghouse. I mean, after all these people were displaced from their destroyed homes, you know what happened last night? It rained. And it’s going to freaking rain again tonight. I’m not a spiritual man, but if you are down with the Lord, can you please ask God to stop peeing on Haiti?
I can literally not think of a country that is less prepared to deal with disaster of this magnitude. Port-au-Prince, a city of well over 2 million people, didn’t have a functional fire department before yesterday’s earthquake. And they still have aftershocks registering over 5.0 on the Richter scale happening right now.
With the help of friends, family, and Twitter, let me try to put what is happening in Haiti right now in a perspective Americans will understand.
If you’ve ever been to the Dominican Republic — which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti — you know nothing about Haiti. Haiti revolted from it’s French colonial masters in 1791, gaining independence in 1803. That’s right, it’s a black country that beat the bag out of Napoleon! (Note: My younger cousin who is much smarter than me contends full independence was achieved in 1804. He’s so smart he managed to quickly change every internet source to make it look like he’s right, he’s devious like that.)
Politically, it’s kind of been all downhill from there. While the Dominican Republic eventually adopted a basically stable form of government, Haiti … did not. Some Haitians claim that the country’s historic political instability is a result of the institutional memory of killing French people — while other minority populations in the Western Hemisphere waited for the colonial masters to politely go away — makes the people unruly. Please check in with any Haitian cab driver for a more full rendering of this argument.
And, there’s the Pat Robertson argument: that Haitians deserve this because they made a deal with the devil to get out from under colonial rule. (No, I did not make that up. Yes, sometimes I want to believe there’s a hell just so I know Pat Robertson has someplace to go when he dies.) Obviously, it’s a pretty silly argument: I mean, come on, you don’t need the devil’s help to beat the French at war.
But most people understand that the problem is topographical. Look at a map of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic has the central mountain range that splits the island, but otherwise, the Dominican side is pretty flat. The Haitian side looks like a crumpled up piece of paper: mountains, hills, crags, hey, Haiti is the only place in the Caribbean where you can get in some really good skiing when the conditions are right.
Ask the Mongols/Turks/Russians/Americans about their experiences in Afghanistan if you want to know how difficult it is to exert centralized governmental power over a mountainous region.
You have to understand that weak government/challenging geography mix of Haiti to understand just why the death toll from yesterday’s earthquake will reach into the hundreds of thousands. It is an absolute nightmare down there right now. Bob Poff, the director of the Salvation Army in Haiti, broke down crying while giving an interview to Tamron Hall on MSNBC.
People on television are emphasizing how “poor” Haitians are. Yes, yes, yes. Extreme poverty, dollar a day, Sally Struthers, we get that. But as we saw with Katrina, in these cases poverty is only a contributing factor. Total failure of government, that is also essential to turn a natural disaster into an epidemic of death. Twitterers are saying that every single hospital in Port-au-Prince is destroyed or abandoned. Every. Single. One. That’s not “natural.” That can only happen when you don’t zone for enough hospitals outside of danger areas. It happens when your infrastructure doesn’t have enough fallback options for people to be able to navigate to work in the middle of chaos. It happens when there are not enough trained medical professionals for your dense urban population in the first place.
Right now, literally as I type this, there are planes in Miami with food, water and relief workers sitting on the ground. Miraculously, the airport relatively survived the earthquake. So why are the planes on the ground in Miami instead of in the air on the way to Haiti? Because there’s nobody in Haiti at the airport to operate the air traffic control towers! Again, that’s not natural, that’s government baby.
And I’m not slamming the Haitian government or René Préval’s administration. This isn’t a “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” situation, incompetence and corruption have not reared their heads (yet). I’m saying that the Haitian government doesn’t have the institutional capacity to adequately prepare for situations like this. The ability for governments to react under stress to mitigate damage and death is something that westerners tend to take for granted.
In Haiti, and countries in similar situations, often the only authority that is capable of responding to a crisis like this is the military.
And that is not a good thing. In Haiti right now, reports indicate that the military is the only functioning authority. That shouldn’t surprise anybody. We’ve seen the picture of the cracked president palace, but the parliament building was also swallowed up by the Earth. And a prison. That’s right, some reports say that as many as 4,000 prisoners escaped when the prison collapsed. Now, this is Haiti, I’m not going to assume that every one of those people are dangerous felons. I suspect that some of those escaped prisoners were in jail for BS “crimes.” But some of those people needed to be in jail. Twitterers are saying that the looting has already started.
Enter the military. These disasters can be golden opportunities for warlords who would-be dictators. Westerners sometimes fail to realize that despots often have the support of poor people in their countries. It’s always bourgeois middle-class types that clamor for “democracy” and “liberty” and other soft concerns they teach in liberal arts colleges. Poor people want to eat. Poor people want to drink. Poor people want somebody, anybody, to help them lift the concrete slab off of their family matter. Children are literally trying to dig out their parents from collapsed homes. Charismatic generals can exploit these kind of tragic situations to further their political goals.
Of course, people on the ground can’t even worry about that right now.
You want to know what’s going in Haiti? It’s going to rain tonight. That just isn’t fair.