The Worst Kind of Suffering

We can only wonder what Columbus was thinking as his dusty boots dropped upon the unspoiled shores of a quiet island known as Kiskeya during December of 1492. Regardless, it took but a blink for his motherland to set about conquering kingdom after kingdom in order to satisfy Spain's voracious appetite for gold, sugar, coffee and indigo.

Slavery, malnutrition and disease converted age-old cultures into wholesale civil chaos, all within a mere 50 years. And as the French infiltrated the western shores and became embroiled in territorial battles with her Spanish adversaries, the indigenous peoples held onto their legacy by the thinnest of threads.

So it must be deemed nothing short of miraculous that some 300 years after Columbus turned the dial on this Caribbean gateway, a slave rebellion led to a reclamation of Hispañiola. Yes, slaves and ancestors prevailed over the great Napoleon and tens of thousands of top order troops from both France and Britain. In 1804, the new nation of Haiti was declared... the only nation born of a slave revolt.

So what does this have to do with an earthquake? Everything.

The seismic shift that began just 10 miles outside Haiti's capital city this past week is nothing if not symbolic of the republic's enduring trail of tragedy. However miraculous the fight for freedom may have been some two centuries past, profound damage nonetheless sustained a permanent place in the hearts and minds of Haitians.

From German permeation in the early 1900s to the subsequent United States occupation for nearly 20 years thereafter, Haitians grew intolerant of white strangers filled with disdain for self-determination. Outsider self-seeking and insolence were the very same markers that had marred their private march for ages.

Over time, disparate interests begat a brittle political structure and an equally brittle infrastructure. How else could 80 percent of Haitians live in absolute poverty? How else could earning $2 per day be deemed an opportunity? How else could so few occupy positions of such power and wealth and turn a blind eye to the squalor that has cannibalized generations?

While nobody could have prevented Mother Nature from tearing a hole through Port-au-Prince, at least some "great nations" who have leveraged this land for decades could have been making protracted karmic payback efforts to prevent Haiti from spiraling into the abyss in the first place. The relief effort, while admirable, will likely be little if any relief once the new debris settles into the old detritus.

I have never been to Haiti, but 17 years ago, I did some business travel to her eastern island partner, the Dominican Republic. Though I was admittedly taken aback by the militant teenagers armed with sub machine guns who greeted our party on the tarmac, the republic has made noticeable strides over the past two decades. The resort industry, agro exports and infrastructure initiatives have certainly helped fuel the republic's second largest economy in Central America and the Caribbean.

So why does one half accelerate while the other disintegrates? Was it Haiti's pact with the devil back in 1794 -- as Pat Robertson recently claimed -- clearly implying that in no way could black people, let alone slaves, overtake well-heeled white armies? Or is it that some places just have dumb luck? (Like, perhaps, New Orleans, as some people would portend.) Or is it that relief can often be a fleeting gesture, a token of impermanence?

As major media converge upon the death and destruction as a "now event," it must be our deepest hope that healing and helping feed a story for the ages; a long term affair that citizens of this country and the world willingly afford the perennially imperiled people of Haiti. Considering America's miscarriage with New Orleans, this is indeed a tall order.

Please contribute to The Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. Medical attention and basic needs are paramount at this time.