Haiti: Beyond Relief

More than immediate aid will be needed to alleviate the island’s misery

Opinion | Linda Eid | February 2010

When a combination of fireworks and lighting lit up the Haitian sky on New Year’s Eve – shining above the Iron Market, the Statue of the Unknown Slave and the Gingerbread houses – none of the people celebrating would have expected that, only 12 days later, this small republic of nearly nine million inhabitants would suffer the first natural disaster of the new decade, and the biggest since 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami.

At 16:53 local time, an earthquake with a catastrophic magnitude of 7.0M (Moment Magnitude Scale), hit with its epicenter at Léogâne, and at 17km of depth. 52 aftershocks followed during the next twelve days. Figures reveal heartrending casualties; more than 1.2 million homeless and about 170,000 confirmed deaths. Numbers are expected to rise as the search for survivors was called off on Jan. 23 by the Haitian government, after the UN had announced the closing of the emergency phase of relief operations.

The world has since rushed to provide help by any means possible. And as immense as the catastrophe was, when compared to previous unfortunate events, it is prideful to conclude that correspondent human response has been marked by a progressive leap. However, in the case of Haiti, much more than immediate help will be needed in the long term to alleviate the country’s devastating economic problems (prior to the disaster).

Since the catastrophe, governments, NGOs and the international community at large have assisted on multiple levels – sending in medical teams, engineers and specialists to offer humanitarian aid. Among many, the International Red Cross, Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Partners in Health, Giving Children Hope and numerous others contributed to the relief efforts. Only two days after the earthquake, more than 20 countries had deployed military personnel in order to secure the distribution of food and water, and to coordinate rescue operations. The United States, Canada and the Dominican Republic led the effort, sending in the largest commissions. Moreover, rescue operations were facilitated by the activation of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, which allowed the organizations at work to share satellite images and maps of the affected regions.

Problems of refugee immigration, mainly to Canada and the U.S., were coordinated between the correspondent governments and Haitians were granted "temporary protected status" by which about 100,000 of the refugees inside the U.S. are allowed to stay legally for 18 months. This status does not apply to Haitians outside the states. However, the U.S. government along with local agencies in Florida is implementing the Department of Homeland Security’s comprehensive plan for Caribbean mass migration, called "Operation Vigilant Sentry," that has deterred waves of mass migration (especially from Cuba, Haiti and the Caribbean islands) by intercepting immigrants at sea and returning them to their homelands. Only six years earlier, after the collapse of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government, such a movement was avoided through the OVS plan.

Aristide, a former priest who was expelled from the Roman Catholic Church for his intense speeches of liberation theology was elected in 1990 following two centuries of foreign occupation. He was Haiti’s hero of the poor and a legitimate, democratically elected leader, promising improvement of Haiti’s dreadful economic situation by raising the minimum wage and forcing businesses to pay taxes. He received little support from the United States.

"The U.S. had ties with some of the very strong financial interests in the country, and Aristide was threatening them," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT), a critic of George Bush Senior’s policies towards Latin America. Aristide rallied partisans with fiery attacks on U.S. policy, mainly for its support of past dictatorships and constant interference in Haitian internal matters. After eight months in office, the business elite and the Haitian army overthrew the president, with only the merest of rebukes from the U.S. Restored to power in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, he relinquished his office to René Préval in 1996 – Haiti does not allow consecutive re-elections – before being re-elected in 2000. This time, however, the international community had halted aid, and in addition, there were accusations that the International Republican Institute – a democratic assistance organization funded by the U.S. government – was assisting opposition parties in the Dominican Republic. In 2003, another coup overthrew Aristide for the second time sending him into exile. Throughout his political career many – both Haitian and international – have accused Aristide of drug trafficking, embezzlement and corruption. Further, Human Rights Watch has alleged violent attacks on members of the opposition under Aristide.

But the politicians are fecklessly inept at handling the immensely complicated situation the quakes have brought on. Adding up to the destruction and refugee issues is the heartbreaking matter of orphaned children. Interestingly enough, the UNICEF and SOS Children called for a halt of adoption, after 400 families from the U.S. and the Netherlands had answered the call. Many of the adopted still have living relatives, and it would be much better to ease the trauma they have endured by being with family, rather than taken away from home.

Many questions remain unanswered. Humanitarian, social and economic difficulties are not the only problems Haiti faces, which was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere even before this catastrophe and is ranked 149th out of 182 on the Human Development Index. The political situation seems blurry as well, especially after Aristide’s announcement that he is willing to return to his home country and help rebuild it.

"As far as we are concerned, we are ready to leave today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti, to share in their suffering, help rebuild the economy, moving from misery to poverty with dignity," he said from exile in South Africa.

Additional complications may arise from the presence of U.S. Army, despite President Obama’s highlighting of the close ties between the two countries. In fact, Aristide had accused the U.S. of driving him out in 2004. Nevertheless, the biggest relief effort in US history is intended to be, in President Obama’s own words, "for the sake of our common humanity."

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