It is still difficult to absorb the images. Though I have now heard from my family members, I experience symptoms of trauma, mainly dissociation -- my mind seeks sporadic distances from my body as this is simply too much for my psyche to bear. Unlike those glued to their screens, I turned off the television. I have that luxury. Yet, I keep thinking of those who cannot. If, with over 1600 miles between us, this is my reaction, then what must it be like for people who are in the thick of it in Haiti?
Since its inception as a free black state in 1804, Haiti has been fragile. If the earthquake that devastated the capital last week has revealed anything else, it is that the country has a weak and barely functioning state and virtually no infrastructure. Of course, that is not news to those who know Haiti: it has always been the case. How it got that way tells us why efforts to rebuild Haiti must take a different course. And this simply cannot be understood without some references to the island's history.
Since independence most politicians have followed a simple rule build coalition to oust the enemy then disband as they had done with the French. Freedom came at a price. The young Republic's sovereignty was compromised in critical ways that continue to affect it today. Early on, it was crippled by debt -- an indemnity payment demanded by France of 150 million francs (borrowed from European banks) for their loss of property and, the island's economy never quite recovered. Haiti was also isolated by an international community -- still trafficking in slavery -- for sixty years after its successful revolution. The brutal U.S. military occupation the following century furthered Haiti's centralization in the capital, weakening regional institutions and economies. Moreover, ruler after ruler chose to concentrate power and develop the capital at the expense of the nation. In that vein, the birth certificates of those not born in the capital, until very recently, were actually labeled moun andeyo, people born on the outside.
As a result, over the years the escalated internal migration that overpopulated Port-au-Prince was fueled by the search for jobs, education and other opportunities due to the absence of government presence in rural areas. This is one of many reasons that rescue efforts and resources are unable to be delivered. Leoganne, Petit Goave, Jacmel for example, were out of reach to rescue workers for days. Historically, the extractive state has opposed its nation and only served a select few.
Recently, I spoke with a friend who was there during the earthquake. He sounded fully present. He politely asked how I was. "You just lived through an earthquake, how are you?" I replied. His words were a staccato of observations: "You can't imagine how terrible it is... I have taken lots of pictures... videos... this must be documented. Bodies everywhere. The smell. People need to know what is really going on there. A friend of mine has 400 people in her yard. Her house collapsed. Everyone is outside. Some are dead. We need water. Medical assistance. Food. There is no state. No ministry in operation. No communication. Nothing. There is nothing. Haiti, I tell you, will never be the same."
Haiti better not be the same!
The earthquake has indiscriminately shifted some of the class boundaries in Haiti, forcing everyone out in the streets due to fear of frequent aftershocks. This disaster with all of its horror and tragedies actually represents an opportunity when the time arrives to rebuild a different Haiti -- one with a government of politicians with national agendas, not self-interest, one that recognizes its duty to its citizens. Haiti could be a country with industries and labor relations that cease to exploit its workers and stops reinforcing the extreme gap between the rich and the poor.
This prospective Haiti could promote expansion of civil space that fosters both acknowledgement of dissent and genuinely supports democratic engagement. This new Haiti can be a place where education is not privatized and centralized in the capital, but available to everyone in all nine departments. And finally, it can be an island that embraces its social and cultural plurality in its myriad forms without debasing its black masses. That simply cannot occur without the constructive will of all Haitians and, the international community, especially the United States and global aid agencies, because they have historically undermined local politics.
So when rebuilding is underway, we need to remain just as engaged. We are obliged to become vigilant observers and volunteers who question, watch and participate in reconstruction efforts on the ground to make certain that indeed, Haiti, which is so close and yet so far away, will never be the same. And must not be the same.