January 19th, 2010

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#151 – Dick Bernard: Start Seeing Haiti

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

I have watched the news about Haiti until I can’t watch much of it any more.

I ask you to be very, very attentive to Haiti long after the TV cameras leave and the fundraising appeals end, and we move on to other things, as we always do. Collectively, we Americans have a very short attention span.

This is truly a time to Start Seeing Haiti.

Here is a good graphic map of Port-au-Prince which was in Sunday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune. The neighborhood where my driver in 2003 lived, and in whose home we had our evening meal, is in the “shantytown” above Petionville. (If you follow the faultline till it is directly south of downtown Port-au-Prince, you’ll be in the approximate location of the hotel in which we stayed at the end of our trip to Haiti in 2006.) To get to that hotel, we travelled perhaps 10 miles more or less along the top of the mountain range beginning above Petionville. The hotel was, in Haitian terms, a luxury hotel. I would guess that hotel was severely damaged or destroyed a week ago. On that trip, we saw farmers working fields that were down slope, and passed villages perched on the mountain sides. We’ll probably never hear what happened there – it was just a place out in the country. Then, it was an idylllic if primitive pastoral scene – people in the fields with hoes…. Today?

I have been to Haiti twice: 2003 and 2006. In between, especially 2004-2007, I made a very strong effort to get very well informed about U.S. policy and our impact on Haiti over Haiti’s entire history as an independent Republic (206 years, beginning 1804). That trip to becoming informed was a troubling one…when one’s eyes are opened, sometimes you see uncomfortable things about yourself. That happened with me.

I am considered to be someone who knows something about the untold story about why Haiti has suffered for so long, and continues to suffer. I particularly resonate with this column by a long time and highly respected journalist here in the twin cities.

None of us know enough, at the moment, to be truly knowledgeable about what is going on, on the ground in Haiti. We see only fragments, and hear only bits and pieces.

We do know about the past. Suffice to say, U.S. history with Haiti goes back as far as President Thomas Jefferson and the 1804 U.S. Congress, and centers on slavery, and fear of a country, Haiti, whose slaves had successfully thrown off their chains and defeated France. We were, of course, a slave-nation then, and for many years later. (In too many ways, we still harbor these attitudes. They are an unfortunate part of what we are as a people.)

France, which held Haiti at the time of the slave revolt, has had its fingers in the destruction of the country since 1696 (it bankrupted Haiti as punishment essentially by extortion in the 1800s), and the Spaniards controlled Haiti before that (a guy named Christopher Columbus was first on the scene in 1492.) For a number of years I’ve had a timeline concerning Haiti-U.S. on my own website (there is one error: 1915-1934 should be the time we occupied Haiti). (My basic Haiti website, needs updating, but still includes much useful information.)

We Americans have much to be very ashamed of when it comes to our treatment of Haiti over the very long term. Haiti has been a human and physical resource to be exploited. That aspect is not, and will likely never be, talked about in the media that we Americans rely on for our daily news. (Frankly, I pay as much attention to what the media does not say, as to what it does. For example, I think there are hundreds of Cuban medical personnel now helping in Haiti, many who were there at the time of the quake; I hear not a word nor see a single image about them on our media. It is a forbidden part of the narrative, apparently.)

If you wish to learn more about Haiti and the US a good place to start is with American Dr. Paul Farmer’s books “The Uses of Haiti”. and “Pathologies of Power”, and visit his Partners in Health website, and read his biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. There are mountains of other pieces of information, but these are good places to start. Another heavily researched and recent book is Damming the Flood by Peter Hallward. IJDH (Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) is an excellent website to visit and get familiar with.

Partners in Health is an excellent and reliable destination for relief $$’s. Cathy and I are most involved in Fonkoze , a major Haiti micro-finance institution. Fonkoze has branches through Haiti, but it is headquartered in PaP, and it too has suffered severe setbacks in all the ways other Haitian institutions have been damaged or destroyed. EVERYONE has suffered in this tragedy.

60 Minutes on CBS on Sunday had an excellent segment on Haiti.

The Haiti government, fragile to begin with, was essentially destroyed in the quake. Medical facilities and their personnel: destroyed and many dead. There is one major airport, and it has a single runway. Thank God the runway wasn’t damaged. Cap Haitien in the north has an airport, but too short a runway for the big planes, and (compared with our freeway travel) the relatively short trip between the two cities takes forever. To my knowledge there is a single direct motor route between the Dominican Republic and Port-au-Prince. We have ridden on a good part of this road in the pre-quake times: it took three to four hours to go about 60 miles and this was on a good day. It is heavily travelled and poorly maintained – it takes money to keep up infrastructure. Many roads are still blocked with debris and even bodies, and heavy equipment will really not come in until the ships bring it – the harbor facilities were damaged in the quake. Fuel is hard to come by.

It is impossible for us to imagine the desperate situation on the ground.

Most of the people of Haiti will be alive when this is all over, but what are they facing in the short and long term? Ultimately, the urban population will likely have to be largely evacuated, at minimum displaced, and Port-au-Prince essentially completely rebuilt. It is the world community, led by us, that will have to do the rebuilding. Image starting over with a city of 2,000,000 (the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul and suburbs is 3,000,000.) It will be a gold mine for the unscrupulous, and one hopes that disaster capitalism will be kept better in check than it was in Iraq. But it will be a place where lots of money will be made – and not by Haitians. (Another useful and troubling book: The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.) We can do right by Haiti this time. I hope we will, and then allow Haitians to build and restore their society and be full partners within the world community.

As I write, we know a lot, but we know only a tiny bit of the long-term implications of this disaster. Some of the best insights I’ve heard came from a Haitian kid who appeared to be in his 20s at a meeting we had on Saturday. Haitians are networked world wide. They are resourceful and inteligent, but they are going to need lots and lots of help and they’re going to need it for a long, long time.

Be with them in any way that you can.