Haiti: Disaster beyond magnitude
- The Guardian, Friday 15 January 2010
It is all too easy, seeing the appalling scenes from Port-au-Prince yesterday, to forget America’s historic debt to Haiti, scene of the first successful slave revolt, which defined the destiny of Africans in the New World. The establishment of the first black independent state had tangible consequences. It denied Napoleon his foothold in the Caribbean and led him to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territories to Jefferson. But, for as long as anyone can remember, Haiti has been treated as a basket case where corruption, gang violence and natural disaster combine to drag the country backwards. Now an earthquake may have killed up to 50,000, and rendered 3 million homeless. No one can prevent shallow earthquakes, but the consequences of this one have been made catastrophic by Haiti’s condition.
The French saddled the nation with debt, the Americans with cheap rice imports in the 1980s; 98% of the land has been deforested, destroying watersheds, creating soil erosion and impoverishing agriculture. Self-serving Haitian elites have just spent three months getting rid of Michèle Pierre-Louis, the first effective prime minister the country has had for years. The roots of the rural exodus and exponential growth of jerry-built shanty towns lie deep, but as the first arriving international aid teams looked round in desperation yesterday for the flickering signs of a functioning state, it was brutally clear why they were not going to find any. The policemen were too busy rescuing and burying their own families to patrol the streets. Even if the physical symbols of state, like the buildings of the presidency and parliament, had stood their ground, it is doubtful what help they could have given to their own people. The institutions they represent have never been far from collapse. Before Tuesday’s 20 seconds of unbearable shaking, natural disasters had resulted in over 18,400 deaths between 2001 and 2007, and four storms and hurricanes in September 2008 carried away another 1,000. In other words, Haiti is not just the unluckiest country on the planet. This rate of mortality is anything but natural, particularly if you compare it to Cuba’s record in dealing with a similar procession of killer storms and floods.
Too many untested claims have been made about the capacity to build states around the world. But Haiti is surely one failed state on Washington’s doorstep that US power is in a unique position to help right now. Haiti requires not just a massive international relief operation, with bodies piling up in the streets and fresh water a scarcer commodity in Port-au-Prince than money. It requires a sustained, long-term international effort to get its flattened institutions functioning. Too often in the past after such disasters, international relief has filled the void of a functioning state, and when the spotlight of the world’s attention moves on, so too has the focus blurred. This time has to be different.
Maintaining law and order will be an immediate priority. The longer millions of survivors wait in the streets for help to come, the more likely it is that despair will turn to rage and Haitians will take matters into their own hands. Gang violence was curbed in Cité Soleil, the biggest urban slum, only after a concerted effort at arresting the gang leaders was made between the police and the UN mission. But it was never eradicated in other slums like Bel Air and Martissant, and it does not take much, as the food riots in 2008 revealed, to spark fresh waves of unrest. Barack Obama, the former president Bill Clinton and the secretary of state Hillary Clinton all know Haiti well. For them, it is not a far-off exotic land. When the president said yesterday that America will stand by the people of Haiti in their hour of need, announcing a $100m aid package and dispatching an aircraft carrier and relief ships, there was every reason to believe him. But this has to be a commitment which if necessary lasts years.