Chris McIvor's Blog
Haiti - the longer view
Several years ago when I worked for Save the Children (UK) as their representative in the Caribbean I spent large periods of time in Haiti. It was a fascinating, intriguing and frustrating place to live. On the one hand I found resilient, friendly and resourceful people. On the other the bureaucracy was a nightmare and most things, such as electricity, water and waste removal, didn’t function. The road system was so chaotic it took about two hours to crawl the few miles between the place I stayed and the office where I worked. The Government had been dysfunctional for several years because it had been established by a military coup and many members of the international community refused to recognize it.
I remember speaking to one Haitian colleague who remarked that not having a functioning Government made very little difference to daily life, since most Haitians never expected much from the people who ruled them. He cited thirty years of despotic rule in the 1950s, 60s and 70s from the Duvalier family. The heads of this family, called Papa Doc and Baby Doc by their detractors, had maintained their power through repression, intimidation and a system of patronage that rewarded those who served their interests. Most of whatever wealth the country had flowed into their personal bank accounts. They also received generous support from various friendly Western Governments, in particular the United States.
‘In those days,’ my friend told me, ‘all you needed to do was make a pronouncement against communism and you received whatever support you needed to repress your people.’
While I was based there I read several histories of Haiti and had the impression that this was a society punished for having dared to be the first country to throw off the shackles of colonialism and slavery, and declare itself a republic. A slave revolt in the 18th century was led by someone called Toussaint Louverture, a name I recognized from a poem by Wordsworth of the same title which I had studied at University. Despite the huge disparity in technology and weapons he and his generals managed to defeat several French armies sent to retake the country. Finally Haiti was granted independence but at a price. Under threat of reinvasion it was made to pay huge reparations to the very plantation owners whose brutal regime had sparked the revolt in the first place. The debt was not repaid in full until 1947!
Outside interference in the life of this country did not stop there. Fearful of the spread of discontent among its own slave populations in the southern United States, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean a number of powerful neighbors did their best to destabilize the newly independent country. This included promotion of internal coups and revolts, invasions, economic blockades etc, everything in fact that could be done to ensure the new country did not succeed. Haiti did not receive official US diplomatic recognition until 1862, over half a century after its independence. In the early part of the 20th century it was occupied by US marines for almost twenty years, after the US Government became worried about the county’s political orientation and a perceived threat to some of its powerful business interests on the island.
In some ways past history has now caught up with Haiti since the devastation caused by the earthquake last week is not just a matter of the country’s unfortunate position over a major geological fault line. Years of misrule and the opposition of hostile and unsympathetic neighbors have helped to create a country widely recognized as the poorest in the western hemisphere. In other places hurricanes, floods and earthquakes cause death and destruction, but these events are compounded in Haiti by its political, social and historical legacy. A natural disaster has been exacerbated by very human problems.
Signs of its vulnerability have been present for years. On one occasion when I was in Port Au Prince several hundred people died because of rains just outside the city. A small stream turned into a torrent for a few hours and washed scores of people from the hillsides where they should never have built their homes. Why were they allowed to live in locations where they were at extreme risk? I was told that Port Au Prince had little if any building regulations. Although there were some laws pertaining to where you could establish your property a small bribe was sufficient to have your proposed structure accepted. Such was the pressure of people for housing that they were literally prepared to live anywhere. This was frequently on top of each other, which probably explains why so many of the houses in Port Au Prince concertinaed during the recent quake.
One of the biggest shanty towns in the city is a place called Cite Soleil. It consists of miles and miles of cardboard and tin shacks and dwellings, most of which do not merit the term housing. Built beside the sea its streets are regularly awash with water during high tide. When storms, which are frequent in this part of the Caribbean, hit the coast much of it is washed away. ‘Where else are we expected to live?’ remarked one resident, when I asked him why he took the risk of establishing his home in such a location. He pointed out that there was no Government sponsored housing schemes and that the costs of renting private property for a month would have cost him more than he earned in a year.
At the moment the world’s television cameras are turned on a country that requires all the international support and sympathy it can get. Will these same cameras be there in a few months when the more complicated efforts of recovery and rebuilding take place? Will international support assist the rehousing of hundreds of thousands of people who are currently displaced? Will their new homes be safer, more earthquake and flood proof, than they were in the past?
A colleague in Save the Children mentioned that this earthquake will probably require a ten to fifteen year recovery effort but wondered whether the international community would be prepared to make such a commitment. The world owes Haiti’s poor people an historical debt. Given the last three to four hundred years who could ever say that fifteen was too much?