Earthquake was only misery Haitians had not yet endured
Published 14/01/2010 | 05:00
Until Tuesday afternoon, a cataclysmic earthquake was about the only disaster that had not befallen Haiti in the 205 years since a slave revolt won independence from Napoleonic France.
Bankrupt, barren, misruled and ravavaged by nature and human violence, the country on the western end of Hispaniola Island is a textbook example of a dysfunctional nation.
Haiti has sunk in a spiral of destitution, dependent on foreign charity and a UN force to keep its eight million people from starving and fighting. When the land known for its voodoo religion and black magic has tried to pick itself up, nature has hammered it down, most recently in 2008 when hurricanes and landslides killed 1,000 and made 800,000 homeless. In 2009, Haiti fell in the UN economic rankings from 146th to 149th out of 182 nations. In the Americas, only Nicaragua comes close to such poverty.
"Some countries just have no luck. Haiti is one of those places where disaster follows on disaster," Joel Dreyfus, a Haitian journalist, wrote yesterday. "Haiti has a glorious past, a brutal present and a dark future."
But Mr Dreyfus said Haiti's horrors masked a noble history. "What you will not hear is that it is also a country rich in culture, world-class art, and music that is celebrated all over the French-speaking world," he wrote on the Roots website.
Inhabitants of the sprawling, fetid bidonvilles (shanty towns) around Port-au-Prince like to say God colluded with the Devil to create a land of sunlit misery like none other on earth. For Graham Greene, who wrote of the reign of the dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier in his novel 'The Comedians', Haiti was simply "the nightmare republic".
Haiti, whose name is Indian for Land of High Mountains, looks miserable after losing 98pc of its trees to deforestation and turning an unpleasant mud-brown.
The pain of life has driven many abroad, to the richer islands, to the United States and to France, the former master which kept it down with exorbitant demands for reparations during the 19th century.
Nearly 80pc of the people live below the local poverty level of $2 (€1.38) a day. About 300,000 children scrabble for existence alone in the towns. In 2008, food riots broke out and last year hungry children were said to be eating mud pies.
Haitians also have to contend with corruption and industrial-scale murder and kidnapping by gangs and, it is said, their own security forces.
Despair has led in recent years to nostalgia for the 29-year-reign of Papa Doc and his dictator-son Baby Doc, who fled to France in 1986. The dictator may have been a murderer, but living standards were better, say some. Tens of thousands were killed in the Duvalier years, largely by the Tonton Macoute, Papa Doc's militia who cultivated the idea they were zombies from the grave. In the 1960s, Duvalier decorated the Welcome sign at Port-au-Prince airport with butchered corpses of his enemies.
In 1994, President Clinton sent 20,000 troops to restore to power Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president, after he had been overthrown in one of three dozen coups in independent Haiti's history. In 2004, US Marines escorted the former slum priest, out of the country when he was overthrown in a bloody palace revolt.
About 9,000 UN troops were deployed to quell the violence the same year. Residents criticise them for using lethal heavy firepower in raids of slums around the capital, but otherwise keeping to themselves in armoured vehicles.
President Rene Preval has been struggling to renegotiate Haiti's heavy foreign debt. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has visited and promised favourable treatment. She is reviewing possible work permits for those who go to the US. President Obama's personal tax return in 2008 listed a $2,000 (€1,378) donation to a Haitian church charity.
After the hurricanes of 2008, Mr Preval pleaded to the world not to leave Haiti alone to face the next catastrophe. (© The Times, London)