A history of Haitian Misery

So, another one hit Haiti? Ho, hum – hope it didn’t cause too much damage.

It did.

Nobody pays much attention to the Republic of Haiti. It’s a dirt poor, disorganized place with a barely functioning government, but that hasn’t made it a hotbed of terrorism, or other crimes that would attract outside interest. It’s on an island out in the Caribbean, a place you’d think should be paradise.

Unfortunately, it’s also got a big target painted on it: Its location puts it in the path of many hurricanes … and the occasional earthquake.

Ayiti was Haiti’s indigenous name: Land of High Mountains. It’s the terrain that makes travel and relief efforts so difficult. It had a unique history: the first independent Latin American country, the first independent nation led by blacks in the post-colonial years, and the only country that gained independence as a result of a slave rebellion.  It’s one of only two independent nations in the western hemisphere that has French as an official language (the other is Canada).

Christopher Columbus – you’ve heard of him – landed on December 5, 1492, and I suppose that’s when things started going downhill for Haiti’s people. For Columbus, too – his ship Santa Maria ran aground there.

Maybe, as far as recorded history is concerned, the diseases brought by Europeans qualify as the first natural disaster on the island. When the natives were almost wiped out, the Spanish governors went to Africa to import the labor they needed for gold mining and other work.

Later western Hispaniola turned into a haven for pirates. Like I said, rough neighborhood. Slaves, disease, pirates – earthquakes. It was a rich country for awhile, but it wasn’t the people living there who were making the profits.

Long story short: A lot of other countries messed with Haiti, until former slaves drove them all out in 1804 and founded the nation of Haiti. I’m not saying that ended the violence: In 200 years, the Haitian government has been overthrown by 32 coups. From 1915 to 1934 the United States occupied the island, and for many years after that various dictators ran the place. Dictators sometimes don’t worry about infrastructure, economic development or social programs, and so the country became what it is today. Even before the quake, Haiti was the poorest, least developed country in the Americas.

So why am I telling you all this?

We all know by now that a huge disaster hit down there on January 12, a 7.0 earthquake that ranks as Haiti’s worse in over 200 years. There have been, and will continue to be, many stories about the damage, the deaths, the relief efforts, and the suffering.

I’m trying to put the catastrophe into perspective. It would be a horrible thing anyway, but these people have already been beaten down by their own conflicts and history. There are less than nine million people in Haiti, and one estimate put the possible number of deaths at 500,000. That’s a high estimate, but if you include the seriously injured, and those who might die from disease, thirst and starvation, it’s close enough to mean the casualties might total close to five percent of Haiti’s entire population.

If my math is right – and it often isn’t – if we lost five percent of the population of the United States we’d be dealing with the sudden violent death of around fifteen million  people.

That’s what Haitians are going through.

They already had a disorganized and ineffective government, a ruined economy, little infrastructure, and nothing in the way of laws to require safe building construction. The people of Haiti are living on the rubble strewn streets in 90 degree weather. Hospitals are turning away seriously injured patients due to overcrowding, damage, and a lack of supplies. People are in real danger of dying from thirst before disease even begins to spread. Just getting to the victims is almost impossible, due to damage to the airports, seaports, and the few roads. Haitian police have vanished; they have families of their own.

What happens next?

Within hours of the quake, a U.S. military assessment team arrived.

They were followed in short order by search and rescue teams, medics, supplies, and other aid from China, Cuba, Britain, Germany, Canada, Spain, Iceland, Venezuela, The Netherlands, and many other countries. United Nations agencies are preparing aid, despite the loss of their own people. Specially trained members of American fire departments prepared to deploy the day after the quake.

Nobody questioned whether they should help Haiti. Nobody asked the race of the people they’d be assisting. Nobody wondered if maybe these poor people are somehow worth less than some disaster victim elsewhere. No country has decided they wouldn’t help because they don’t like some other country that was helping.

I’m not calling this anything else than the tragedy it is, nor am I suggesting that somehow some great thing will come out of it that outweighs the human tragedy. Still, when the chips are down, people are people. Good people, doing good things when the need is at its greatest.

This is the time for you to donate to a trusted relief agency, like the Red Cross; to give blood; to send supplies; or to do your job, if you’re one of those called to go there. This is the time for those of you who pray to do so, and for those of you who don’t to send your hopes and thoughts to the people of Haiti.

Those caring people – you people – will far outnumber the scammers and the haters, because in the end that’s what humanity is really all about. Because when things are at their worst, the good people of the entire world are at their best.

There are lots of lessons to be learned, here. That might be the most important one.

Now I’m hearing that, just hours after the quake, Brazilian soldiers in an improvised hospital helped deliver a baby girl.

Life goes on.

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