Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
On January 12, 2010, a massive 7.0 earthquake hit the nation of Haiti. As is usually the case in a country with widespread poverty, irresponsible government, and no construction codes, the devastation was widespread, the death toll could be as high as 100,000. The government, barely functional in the best of times, has collapsed, emergency services nonexistent. People were left buried in collapsed buildings with no one but their neighbors to help them. Violence has begun as criminal gangs fight for control over scarce resources. It is, in a word, a mess, one that won’t be cleaned up for months, perhaps years. And the repercussions for Haiti and the rest of the Western Hemisphere will resonate for decades.
But the harsh reality is that the people of Haiti have been living with disaster on a daily basis for decades.
For a very long time, Haiti has been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The economy has forever been a basket case. The government, with a history of coups and counter-coups, has been infected with corruption and staffed by people for whom the welfare of their countrymen is an alien concept. There is no health care, except what can be offered by NGOs with very limited resources. HIV has been rampant in the country for as long as anyone can remember. Food is scarce, water always suspect. And if that weren’t bad enough, drug traffickers are using Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic as a waypoint for drug shipments between South and North America. The introduction of drug money into this penniless nation has made the corruption problem even worse.
The January 12th earthquake, while devastating enough, was merely the latest in a long line of terrible events that Haitians have come to accept as everyday life. The magnitude of this disaster will, for a time anyway, focus some long-overdue attention on Haiti as international support builds. The real tragedy is that we have ignored the privation there for so long; that the Haitian people have been forced to bear these burdens alone.
And a few months hence, when the clean-up is more or less complete, the dead are buried, and life there returns to normal, we will likely turn our attentions elsewhere and continue to ignore the long-term problems, problems we could help solve.
There’s no denying that the Haiti’s domestic problems seem insurmountable. The biggest one, the one that forms the biggest block to progress is corruption in the government. One may hope that many of the biggest criminals may have died in the rubble. Barring that fortuitous event, any hope of providing Haiti a future lies in finding a solution.
In most countries, corruption exists. In some cases, the law still reigns supreme and those who violate the law will eventually face justice. But in Haiti, justice is often for sale to the highest bidder. The police and the courts bend enforcement according to who paid whom and how much. Bureaucrats require bribes to do their jobs, money that doesn’t exist for the ordinary Haitian.
The primary job of any government is the health, safety, and security of its citizens. But the endemic corruption has left the Haitian people outside the system, leaving them with no help and no recourse. International sanctions are useless, because the burden for those sanctions is not borne by those in power, but by the public.
Corruption is aided by the influx of drug money. Most of the drugs flowing through Haiti end up in the U.S., in the hands of users and addicts who care little for anything or anybody else. The global human misery caused by this churlish indulgence is epic.
Haiti needs industry and economic development, but until the government is cleaned up, any such attempt will end up enmeshed in the snares of the corrupt and greedy.
One can hope that the attention brought to Haiti by this tragedy may lead to establishing reforms that work, setting this country on the road to recovery and prosperity. But I have come to know the attention span of the American public. Once the media begins beating the drums of politics and elections again, Haiti and its impoverished millions will fade from our collective consciousness. Life will go on as it always has and the Haitian people will continue to live and die in crushing poverty. Alone.
The worst part is the fact that today there are hundreds of other Haitis throughout the world, countries with starving people, corrupted governments, collapsed economies, some with daily violence in the streets. Will it take another natural disaster for us to notice places like West Africa? Or have we become so self-absorbed that we've lost our capacity for caring?
Can we remember?
Can we continue to act?
Can Haiti ever look to a future with hope?
It’s up to us.