Haiti was once called the “Jewel of the Caribbean.” Now it is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty percent of the population lives below the poverty line and fifty-four percent live in abject poverty. There is a huge wealth gap between the black majority and the French-speaking minority, 1% of whom own nearly half the country’s wealth. How did this happen?
The island was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus on his voyage to America. Years later it was split; the part kept by Spain is now the Dominican Republic, while the part relinquished to France became Haiti. France started plantations for coffee and sugar, and these lucrative exports began Haiti’s reign as the “Jewel.” These plantations required many workers, causing the French to import hundreds of thousands of slaves. When the French Revolution began, the slaves of Haiti began to revolt. They outnumbered colonists ten to one, and became the first and only successful slave revolution. Before their exit in 1825, Haiti was required to pay reparations totaling 150 million francs. This crippling debt (about $21 billion in today’s money) was finally paid off in 1947. This never allowed Haiti to have a stable economy and led to constant political unrest. The oppressive regime of Francois Duvalier, followed by the equally tyrannical reign of his son, Jean-Claude, crippled the country’s tourism industry and forced out many of the educated people, until its end in 1986. Since then Haiti has continued to struggle to stabilize its government and economy.
Oh yeah, then there was that earthquake.
After the devastating natural disaster, there was a significant outpouring of help: financially, physically, and spiritually. Americans responded by donating almost $2 billion to hundreds of organizations. It was truly a generous effort by a great number of people. But why does it take an extraordinary, earth-shaking calamity to move people to help others? Why isn’t ordinary, everyday poverty enough to get people’s attentions? Why does the jolt of one tragic event affect more people more profoundly than years of systemic tragedy? The process is the same in either case: see people in need, empathize with victims, donate money or time to help.
Haiti has been in need — dire need — since 1825. Almost two hundred years later, they are finally getting some attention. However, is all this support only going to help Haiti get back to the state it was in before the January 2010 earthquake? They will rebuild homes and buildings, treat the victims, fight cholera, and do their best to take care of everyone affected by the disaster. But what happens when everyone is healed and returned to their homes? Will the economy become fruitful? Will the government become stable? Will the wealth gap be closed? If we return Haiti to its status quo, what have we accomplished? What happens when the next earthquake or hurricane hits? It is not enough to fix buildings and broken bones. That is merely a stop on the path to recovery. This is the opportunity to fix Haiti, or at least get it going in that direction.
Last year, in a letter to the U.S. government, Bishop Howard Hubbard, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice, explained the importance of having a plan for Haiti that includes sustainability in the years after the initial emergency needs are met. That plan should include debt relief, an extension of Temporary Protected Status for Haitians living in the United States, and sustained reconstruction and development assistance to Haiti. This call to action beyond the emergency response is our call as Christians and as humans. Haiti has tried and failed for a number of years to pick themselves up. They cannot do it alone. We are called to help them. We cannot let this opportunity pass, because there may not be another one.
More than a year later, it seems people are moving on from Haiti. Perhaps people are growing more concerned with their own worlds. Our nation has its own share of issues these days. Some people are upset because the money donated is not being spent. Some are unhappy because there are no visible signs of progress. Somehow, Haiti is no longer seen as the wounded nation, struck by unfathomable calamity. It is back to being considered the corrupt country that has caused its own problems and doesn’t deserve our time or money.
Yet there are signs of hope. Because relief organizations have not spent all of their donated resources, there is still a substantial amount to continue the rebuilding. These organizations wisely realize that spending money appropriately is more important than just throwing money at problems. And even though the economic and political conditions have made it harder to accomplish tasks, work is moving along. Catholic Relief Services has started the Rubble to Reconstruction program to unite a community and get things moving faster. With assistance from CRS, local people clear, crush and then sell debris for use in building new construction. In outlying towns, where land ownership is clearer and areas are smaller and more easily coordinated, structures are going up more quickly.
But we should be aware that the work in Haiti is far from over. Consider our own nation. It has been some five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, yet the 9th ward is still pretty empty. And that is in the United States, with its vast resources and solid infrastructure. When every home is rebuilt and every business is restored in Haiti, the real repairs can begin.