In the wake of the tragic earthquake on January 12, 2010, the world has come to a new awareness of Haiti. It was a shock to the system to see a nation of people who have suffered so much be literally shaken to their foundations.
As people across the globe responded with an outpouring of support for the people of Haiti, I had a chance to speak to some of my Haitian friends, to share in their grieving and to learn about the bigger picture of what has happened and what must be done to address it.
On the morning after the earthquake, I received a Facebook message from a friend whose parents were based in Haiti. They had retired to Port-au-Prince in December to help bring medical services to the needy, and she was unable to reach them. She remained calm and positive as she spoke not only about her own family's struggle, but about the general stigma of Haiti. She told me that perhaps this would be an opportunity not only for the country to rebuild, but for the world to see its people through new eyes.
I spoke to another close friend whose parents were living in Chicago and were still frantically trying to track down family members on the ground. An immigration attorney, he too raised the issue of stigma and of the news media's constant reporting of Haiti as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. He challenged me with a question: "How did we let Haiti become the poorest nation?"
It was with this question in my mind that I spoke to a third friend, who is an influential organizer for progressive causes. Through third- and fourth-hand reports, he had been able to account for most of his family, except for an aunt who was still missing. He spoke of seeing the images of the collapsed presidential palace, the first governmental building he had ever seen. He likened it to the feeling of seeing the White House lying in ruins.
While the news media had made comparisons between this disaster and the impact of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, my friend told that what had happened in Haiti was on a completely different scale. In a nation of 10 million, some estimate that 3 million people may have been put into the streets by this event. What would we do here in America if one in every three of us were homeless overnight? Who would be left to help?
If Haiti were not a poor nation, if it had a stronger infrastructure, perhaps it would be better prepared to handle the painful aftermath of such a disaster.
But Haiti is terribly poor, as we are told time and again. But why?
This week, amid the reports of the tragedy and the heroic response of everyday people around the world, I was stunned and saddened by the disgraceful assertion by the Rev. Pat Robertson that Haiti's suffering was due to a pact it had made with the devil. It struck me that most of us really have no idea why Haiti is so poor. Its people did indeed make a pact long ago...but it was not with the devil.
In 1804, Haiti became the first black nation to gain independence from slavery. But its independence came at a rare price. After a bloody revolution, the country was forced to pay 150 million francs (the equivalent of $21 billion) to the French as a condition of their independence. On threat of a military invasion, the fledgling nation was compelled to secure high-interest loans, creating a vicious cycle of borrowing from French banks to pay the French government. Haiti did not complete these payments until 1947.
What would have happened to the United States if for 100 years after independence we'd had to pay reparations to the British?
In this time of crisis, it is crucial that each of us donate whatever we are able to support the people of Haiti. We should do this not only for the good of those on the ground, but for the sake of our own humanity and the inherent value we place on the lives of all people.
But in this moment of awakening to the Haitian plight, I would propose that we ask ourselves the bigger question: "How did Haiti become the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere?" And after asking, I propose we push for a singular and decisive action.
The international community must agree to a forgiveness of Haiti's debts. The billions of dollars that nation was forced to pay at it's inception as the price for its freedom from enslavement is the crime against humanity that left the country so vulnerable to the ravages of poverty. It was not a pact with the devil that made Haiti poor, but rather a pact with those who would put profit over people.
In 2010, the global community has a chance to say that the leadership of our world is in new hands, to declare vigorously and decisively that all people are indeed created equal and that liberty is not a commodity to be traded nor dispensed according to means. We may be 200 years late, but the tragedy of this earthquake may well be our opportunity to finally give the people of Haiti a true chance at freedom.