Thursday, January 14, 2010


The world has a cruel sense of justice.  Why does Nature reserve her harshest furies for the poorest people who are least able to cope with them?  Why do calamities seem to pile up on those who are already suffering the most?

This, to me, is what makes the earthquake in Haiti feel so different from other disasters to those observing it, psychologically and emotionally.  It’s not just the present suffering under the piles of rubble and cracked earth for which we feel, but for every past injustice thrust upon the Haitian people felt all at once—as if the collective weight of the sequence of miseries suffered by the poorest North Americans, wave upon wave, were revealed to us at once, crystallized in this moment of calamity.  We empathize not just for the current victims, but for the whole history of un-asked-for misfortunes which have repeatedly crushed the promise of whatever nascent hope this tragic nation has ever managed to cultivate.  “Poor Haiti… What could possibly happen to these people next?”

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a result of colonial exploitation, rotten government, and repeated natural disasters.  Just in 2008, the country was hit with four consecutive hurricanes that killed 800 and left millions homeless.

Recently though, observers had been feeling a cautious hope for political stability—and eventually, maybe, some semblance of prosperity—in Haiti.  Just two months ago, the Economist noted:

FIVE years after the United Nations set out to build a nation in the poorest territory in the Americas, and after three years of relative political stability under President René Préval, outsiders have begun to express modest optimism about Haiti. Bill Clinton, a former American president and now a UN special envoy for the country, last month took a large group of foreign businessman to Haiti and told them that political risk there was “lower than it has ever been in my lifetime”.

But it was actually a story chronicling the growing chance that political instability could return; its title was “Rebuilding Haiti: A step backward.”  Indeed, in the wake of the earthquake, one commentator writes with tragic sympathy:

Haiti just can’t catch a break.  For nearly five years, the small island nation has made slow but steady progress toward economic development and political stability. But it seems that just as the country is poised to turn a corner, an act of God, like yesterday’s devastating earthquake, sends Haiti reeling back…
For every step in the right direction, Haiti has been dealt an equal and opposite blow. In April 2008 there were widespread riots to protest the rising cost of food. Similar riots occurred elsewhere in the developing world, but in Haiti, it resulted in the death of a peacekeeper and the ouster of the prime minister. The World Bank offered Haiti an emergency bailout to help mitigate the food emergency, but even as that crisis was settling, Haiti was hit again—and again, and again, and again. In the span of 30 days in the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes and tropical storms. Flooding and mudslides killed an estimated 800 people and devastated crop harvests. The port city of Gonaives was virtually destroyed. Millions were internally displaced…
This is Haiti’s tragedy: Just as the trend lines shift in the right direction, calamity strikes.

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