Category Archives: haiti

Uncovering Haiti

Obviously, there was an earthquake in Haiti this past week, followed by a huge aftershock today. While reports of the earthquake tend to make clear that this is Haiti’s largest earthquake in 200 years, media talking heads rarely explain why these details matters. Homes in the Caribbean are made of cement, protecting people from hurricanes, not earthquakes. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, construction can be shoddy because folks cut corners to save money.

More importantly, the constraints around responding to the quake exacerbate the injury done in the short-term and long-term. Problems with aid and its dispersal lay in the lack of Haitian infrastructure to begin with. What happens when a natural disaster hits a region already suffering from “state-of-emergency” conditions? What happens when a country cannot feed itself, let alone weave the safety net it needs? How do we now imagine and approach solutions when media fails to expose underlying causes of the man-made disaster, before and after the earthquake?

The best response I’ve seen so far in the mainstream media has been from the International Crisis Group: “Haiti has sustained what may be the most severe natural disaster ever in the Western Hemisphere. Its historically weak physical and institutional infrastructure, and the sad fact that the earthquake’s heaviest blow was delivered to the capital city’s core, have only compounded Haiti’s vulnerability.” By physical infrastructure, consider this—when I was in Haiti, we drove on a national highway. Portions near the city of Cap Haitien (the second largest city) was paved, the rest was not. Rocks and gravel covered it, restricting our speed to about 30 miles an hour. Institutional infrastructure? Consider that public transportation either did not exist or was not organized. Hitching rides in empty trucks can be a way of life, yet in this situation it cannot save lives. Worse, remember that international loans have pressured the country to invest in exports rather than social services that would have provided the foundation for faster recovery.

The Group also writes: “No matter how much the United States gives, there cannot be enough relief for the desperately needy victims in the time frame that anyone would want.” However, they stop short of critiquing U.S. policy in the Caribbean. They only state that the U.S. has “special obligations” in supporting Haiti because the “two countries have shared long historical engagement, both negative and positive.” This history of engagement includes political and economic policies that has led to weak infrastructure and high population density around one city. I also fear that the title of this response, “In for a decade, not just a year,” would also support beliefs that the U.S. should continue to intervene in Haitian governance. Maybe then it’s alright that this response is tucked in quietly to the NYTimes rather than in the front page as the main analysis of the earthquake.

For more critical, progressive information on the earthquake, check out the links compiled here. Also, as we open up our checkbooks, let’s be smart about what organizations will truly support the Haitian people. Pass it on.

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The Reality of Racism

Obama- In case you live in a cave and didn’t realize this amazing man and amazing speech existed. “A More Perfect Union.” You can find a video on Youtube and one his site.

Tibet- I’m hoping for a boycotted 2008 China Olympics. If globalization is good for anything, it creates international pressure for human rights.

I promised I would write about racism in the Dominican Republic. I waited until after working on a few bateys and visiting Haiti, where I was this past Easter break.

I’ll start backwards. I went to Cap Haitien with 5 other CIEE students and my Haitian friend Karly. After crossing the border and going through both countries’ customs, we walked to the bus station and got on a guagua (a mini-bus). Though Karly’s passport had been checked twice by each country’s immigration office, the money collector insisted on checking it again. (A money collector or cobrador rides with the driver to help direct people, move luggage and collect ticket fees.) We get into our seats and some other guy comes and checks the passport of every black person on the bus. Then another one comes by to check. None of them were immigration officials nor military officials. They start making trouble with one Haitian and the two of them go outside behind the bus. I’m positive the Haitian man bribed the money collector so he wouldn’t be bothered anymore.

They say money whitens so think about this: 1) Karly uses his school ID instead of his passport. PUCMM as a top private school pulls some weight. 2) He and Kaylee, who’s blond and blue-eyed, are sitting together and talking during the ride. By the end of the ride the money collector calls Karly “moreno.” On an objective level, you would call Karly “negro” in Spanish to describe his dark skin. But he’s now moreno (a lighter black) because of his social position: being friends with 6 americans, a few of whom are “rubias” (white with light colored hair, objectively speaking).

Dominican racism and corruption go hand in hand. All the Haitians had to be ready to bribe their way out of things, which means that the movement of Haitians throughout the DR is limited by how much money one has. Haitians, Dominico-Haitians (Dominicans with Haitian backgrounds), or simply dark skinned people may be asked anywhere for their passport or documents. Even if one has everything in order or is even a Dominican citizen, that official, police officer, or soldier might just take it from you or make you bribe him so he’ll release you. And even though there are laws that say children born on Dominican soil have citizenship, racist nurses have been known to deny Haitian, Dominico-Haitian and dark Dominican parents birth certificates. Without these certificates, the right to schooling is denied (even there is a law that states one can go to grade school without all the necessary papers). If you try to apply for papers? The process is complicated, expensive, and rejection by racist officials may end your efforts to apply for a birth certificate or national ID. And deportation? Stories exist of dark Dominicans being deported to the other side of the border with nothing but the clothes on their back. Want to bring your case to court? Many judges are corrupted too.

Back to the guagua, I am fuming mad but trying to calm down. I know that in foreign countries, I am out of my realm and could be in danger in a matter of seconds if I’m not careful. The only thing protecting me? My US citizenship. Lucky me. I start staring down the money collector. He looks at me suspiciously for a while and then asks for my passport. HAH! I handed it to him, with the US seal facing up. He hands it right back to me without checking it. “Chequealo,” I demanded him. I could only be defiant because of that seal and its weight in the world. I don’t curse but believe me, I cursed on that bus ride back to the DR. And worse, I was finishing up reading for my Dominican-Haitian Relations class. Reading about a past of racist Dominican policies while you’re traveling back from Haiti doesn’t make that ride a very happy one.

We went through at least 5 military checkpoints after that, on a trip that runs about 2 hours without traffic. At the first stop, I watched from my window as the money collector slipped a bribe into the hands of a soldier so he wouldn’t check the bus.

Needless to say, after four days in Haiti I wasn’t happy about returning to the DR. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It’s also home to some 9,000 UN peace officers. Ok, so the world knows that. What else is Haiti? It’s home to the amazing history of the first black republic, home to the Citadel which we hiked up to see, beautiful beaches that we visited, delicious (SPICY!) food that we ate, and Konpa (Haitian music) that we danced to. Karly was a different person in Haiti. He was so happy to be home. He’s moving to Canada because he can’t handle the BS he gets in the DR, including at PUCMM.

I was impressed by the people. I know there are problems that are unseen and unheard by me. I know I was there for less than four days and only in Cap Haitien. With that in mind, I still felt their strength. One evening, after dinner, we walked back to our hotel and passed a basketball court. The outdoor court was all cement, set before a backdrop of a crumbling building. And like you could find anywhere in the world, men in Jason Kidd and LeBron James jerseys were playing basketball like nobody’s business.

Nonetheless, the trip was bittersweet. It opened my eyes to the reality of corruption and racism, poverty, and the resilience of people. I feel horrible to even write about the strength of the Haitian people. They amazed me with their hope, but why do they need to exhibit that strength everyday? Their struggle makes their resilience visible and it’s not fair to have to be that strong daily.

If you’re interested, I’m linking a report from Human Rights Watch about Haitian rights in the DR. “Ilegal Peoples.”

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