Downtown Port-au-Prince.

Haiti: Five Years After the Quake

Wandering the bustling streets of downtown Port-au-Prince, my first question is, “where’s the rubble?”

I can sense my host holding back an eye roll.

“You know, it’s been almost five years.”

In some ways, my question was ridiculous. But reports of a devastated city remained fresh in my mind. It seems no one bothered to send reporters back for an update once the debris was finally carted away.

“Did they rebuild differently?”

“Not really.”

“I thought the world promised to give Haiti ten billion dollars?”

“Promised. Donors delivered less than half of their pledges. Most aid didn’t stay in the country. Little of it helped the average Haitian.”

Ouch.

In many countries I have visited, clear narratives quickly emerged that diverged from the mainstream media. Pakistanis hated terrorists, Afghans felt hope, Somalis successfully self-governed, and so on.

Unfortunately, Haiti wasn’t quite so easy or clear.

Downtown Port-au-Prince.

Downtown Port-au-Prince.

Helpless or Hopeful?

The January 12, 2010 earthquake killed 200,000 Haitians and displaced 15% of the country.

The media descended on Haiti almost immediately. Two narratives emerged. The first was familiar: helpless Haiti once again struck by disaster. Crumbled buildings, battered bodies, poverty, and desperation. Dire warnings of looting and chaos. The final nail in the coffin of a country teetering from one disaster to the next.

The second was also a common post-disaster storyline: hope and unity. After meddling with and failing Haiti for so long, the world would finally make things right. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush united forces. Telethons and fundraisers raised money to “rebuild, better.” There suddenly were more celebrities in Haiti than in Hollywood.

Unlike war-torn or disaster-plagued countries in Africa or Asia, an American could fly to Haiti in two hours from Florida. Haiti somehow seems more real than a Somalia or Syria. People genuinely wanted to help.

So, five years later, what did they accomplish?

Visible scars heal faster than emotional ones

Haiti tops many “most dangerous countries in the world” lists. Googling “Is Haiti dangerous?” leads to such gems as this post, which claims, “the level of crime in Haiti is beyond horrific. There are no safe areas in the country.  While the rate of kidnapping has declined since it reached a peak in 2006, it’s still incredibly high.”

My friends reacted similarly. “I thought you were done with your dangerous countries?” “Why would you go to Haiti?” “Don’t get killed.”

I now rarely consult US State Department’s travel advisories in advance, but enjoy reading them afterward. For once, I give them credit for taking a nuanced approach: “Hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Haiti each year, but the poor state of Haiti’s emergency response network should be carefully considered.”

One kidnapping was reported to the embassy in 2014. Not exactly an epidemic considering hundreds of thousands of potential targets.

Haiti’s 2011 murder rate was 6.9 per 100,000 residents, compared to neighboring Dominican Republic’s 24.9 and Jamaica’s 40.9. The latter are top tourist destinations.

Royal Caribbean Cruises leases the only major Haitian international tourist attraction, Labadee Beach. It markets the beach as either a “private resort” or “Labadee, Hispaniola”. Haiti’s name is so sullied that it requires omitting the name of the country. Can you imagine a cruise itinerary referencing Key West, North America? Labadee is one of many pristine beaches in Haiti, yet most receive few, if any, tourists because of Haiti’s sordid reputation.

During my week in Haiti, I witness little evidence of the 2010 quake and certainly no chaos. I strolled through Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien at day and night in both nice and gritty neighborhoods. Not a single person harassed me or asked for money. I never felt remotely threatened or unsafe. The only guns I saw were those of police and UN peacekeepers – and some ancient canons.

Haiti Canons

Canons at the Citadelle Fortress.

While many buildings look shabby, I am told that they appeared similar before the quake. The tent cities are gone, although most displaced Haitians never received their promised “new homes”. Many still live in makeshift shelters.

While visible scars have healed, the quake continues having a deep emotional impact. I do not meet a single person who does not personally know someone hurt or killed in the quake. While Haitians are accustomed to disaster and tragedy, the earthquake somehow stands apart as uniquely traumatizing.

While wandering Port-au-Prince’s historic Iron Market, a sassy and voluptuous middle-aged Haitian woman stops me and my friend. She comes across as aggressive. “Why are you here?” She assumes we work for NGOs, but instantly warms up when my friend responds in Creole.

She laments the state of post-quake affairs, but quickly moves onto more pressing topics – like men. She points at me suggestively. I blush. My friend refuses to recount parts of the conversation, “for my sake”. But while they continue their animated conversation, it dawns on me: the quake indeed looms large in every Haitian’s psyche, but on a daily basis the same mundane vicissitudes that face every human-being loom even larger.

Has anything really changed?

Haitians are rightly proud of their history. When Haiti gained independence from France in 1804, it was the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean and the only one to defeat three European superpowers. It is also the only country in the world established from a slave revolt.

Yet, today, Haiti garners much more depressing superlatives: the poorest and most corrupt country in the Western Hemisphere with the lowest human development index. It is ten times poorer than the Dominican Republic, with whom it shares the island of Hispaniola.

In the aftermath of the quake, some believed the disaster would finally finish Haiti. The optimists disagreed, hoping the quake would at last unite and rally the country. Aid would rebuild it. International attention would save it.

While Haitians will never forget the quake, it’s not obvious how much it will ultimately change Haiti’s trajectory, for better or for worse.

Haiti’s beauty earned it the moniker “Pearl of the Antilles”. Yet, poverty has frayed its beauty. Trash litters streets, rivers, and the land. Most of the naturally wooded country has been deforested to make charcoal. The countryside remains surprisingly lush and verdant, but major rains quickly lead to devastating mud slides and soil erosion.

Countryside outside Port-au-Prince

Countryside outside Port-au-Prince

Brain drain persists. Over 80% of Haitian college graduates lived abroad in 2004. Or, as my Haitian friends says, “As soon Haitians get enough money, they leave. There is no middle class in Haiti – they all live in Miami.”

Corruption continues to be endemic. My friend shares a story about two government ministers from Haiti and Colombia. Both boast about stealing public funds. The Colombian shows the Haitian a picture of a two lane bridge crossing a river. “How do you like my four lane bridge?”

The Haitian smiles and pulls out his own picture, this time of a scenic, untouched river valley. The Haitian responds, “How do you like my eight lane bridge?”

Getting anything done requires bribes at all levels. Foreigners avoid investment, worried about being implicated in corruption or losing their assets due to political instability.

I went to Haiti ignorant, thinking that perhaps it was like South Africa, with something akin to apartheid. In reality, race is not the issue, but it is an issue. Plenty of dark-skinned Haitians possess significant wealth. Haitian presidents have been black for the last century. That said, you’ll almost never see a light-skinned Haitian walking the streets. So while there are rich dark-skinned Haitians, there seem to be few poor light-skinned ones.

Social class dominates life. There is an upper class and the poor with little in the middle. Mansions overlook slums. The well-off largely live a separate life, choosing cars over walking and flying over buses. One can forgive them – walking over open drains through clouds of noxious exhaust or buses that wind through narrow, bumpy dirt roads is neither pleasant nor efficient. Still, the economic divide looms large.

A Haitian entrepreneur summed it up, “There is progress in things being built, but ultimately the rich get richer and poor get poorer. The government is better about talking about things than actually doing them.” Another mused, “The country is not moving forward or backward, just in circles.”

What’s next?

Ultimately, the humor and warmth of Haitians and the beauty of their country persevere despite the quake. Yet, so too does the inequality, corruption, and poverty that plagued Haiti before the disaster. Every Haitian I met radiated tremendous pride and expressed a strong desire for change as well as a willingness to work for it. I met countless Haitians who held US passports, all of whom voluntarily decided to return home to help build a better future.

Hills of Cap Haitien.

Hills of Cap Haitien.

The words of the man sitting next to me on my bus from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitien stick with me. “Haitians love to work. They have been robbed of their ability to do so by a series of corrupt leaders and outside meddlers. Give us our ability to work back and we can and will rebuild our own country.”

I hope for the sake of Haiti that the world manages to help it do so. We have seen enough of the wretched side of Haiti. We should now seek its splendor and charm.

In my next post, I’ll delve more deeply into the role of aid in “rebuilding” Haiti, the “Republic of NGOs”


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