'Haiti needs time to breathe' after 1st devastating earthquake since 2010 disaster

·National Reporter & Producer
·7-min read

Nearly two weeks after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake devastated the Caribbean country of Haiti, killing more than 2,200 people, its surviving citizens and aid workers continue the treacherous work of rebuilding the region.

More than 7,000 homes were destroyed and about 30,000 families were left homeless in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, according to official estimates.

And while an all-hands-on-deck approach has consumed the western part of the island of Hispaniola, many Haitian citizens are wary of foreign intervention that could leave them in a worse position than they’re currently in.

“Haiti needs time to breathe,” Haitian American activist Marleine Bastien told Yahoo News. Bastien was born in the small village of Pont-Benoit in the late 1960s and went to high school there, before seeking political asylum in the U.S. in 1981.

People look at the damage
People in Marceline, Haiti, view the damage wrought by a recent magnitude 7.2 earthquake. (David de la Paz/Xinhua via Getty Images)

“No country can thrive under constant meddling and interference from foreign nations,” she said. “Haiti wants nations who want to collaborate with them and other nations to support them in times of need. Haiti doesn't need any nation to come and dictate to the Haitian people.”

The country is currently at a historical crossroads. In early July, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in a Port-au-Prince suburb by a group of 28 foreign mercenaries. Political chaos ensued as two men claimed leadership of the country. Two weeks after Moïse’s killing, Ariel Henry, a prominent neurosurgeon backed by the U.S., became Haiti’s new leader.

But since then, not much has changed. Rampant gang violence, inadequate police leadership and long-standing mistrust of the government have characterized the former French-ruled republic for decades. Adding insult to injury, just 0.24 percent of the country’s population has received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

Now, with the latest earthquake, the first since the country’s cataclysmic magnitude 7.0 quake in 2010, which left more than 100,000 dead and several hundred thousand displaced, many Haitians simply want relief and stability. But they also want these things on their own terms.

“The Haitian people know what they want,” said Bastien, who is the founder of the nonprofit Family Action Network Movement. “We do not want what happened after the 2010 earthquake to happen again, where different entities went to Haiti without consulting with the Haitian people. [They] basically took over and implemented measures that did not benefit or reach the impacted areas.”

A member of the Haitian National Police (PNH) directs residents
A member of the Haitian National Police directs residents waiting in line at a food distribution site in Port-Salut, Haiti. (Jean-Paul Saint Fleur/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The mangled aid response from 2010 has only further contributed to Haitian distrust of foreign assistance on the island. An NPR and ProPublica report from 2015 revealed that $500 million in relief from the American Red Cross went toward “poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success.” Of that amount, millions remain missing today.

“The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people, but the number of permanent homes the charity has built is six,” the report found.

The Red Cross “strongly disputes” the claim of mismanaged funds, according to NBC, noting the challenges in providing aid to the country. The nonprofit is no longer accepting financial donations for Haiti.

Many local aid groups, as a result, have stepped up in a major way.

Bastien’s nonprofit is accepting monetary donations, in addition to medicine and medical supplies, on its website. Other groups such as Haiti One, the Lambi Fund of Haiti and the What If Foundation are accepting food and clothing donations as well as providing medical care to those in need.

Both individually and collectively, the nonprofits’ goals are to strengthen Haiti’s democracy and development. Most of the organizations are made up of Haitians who live on the island or were born there, highlighting the importance of members of the community being a part of the rebuilding efforts.

Hospitals on the island also continue to feel the effect of the most recent disaster.

Hopital Bernard Mevs, the largest emergency hospital in Haiti’s capital and most populous city, Port-au-Prince, remains “over capacity” with patients who had to be airlifted to its premises. Though not directly affected by the earthquake, the hospital serves as one of the most trusted recovery options for those injured. Many of its staff members have remained in shelters near the earthquake’s epicenter of Petit Trou de Nippes to help those closer to the disaster. The hospital organized a GoFundMe campaign in partnership with Project Medishare to help victims in some of the hardest-hit communities, Les Cayes and Jeremie.

It’s a stark difference from relief efforts in the past.

Bags of rice
Bags of rice at a World Food Programme distribution site in Port-Salut. (Jean-Paul Saint Fleur/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Celucien L. Joseph, an associate professor of English at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Fla., is a Haitian historian and literary scholar who moved to the U.S. at age 15. He blames a troubled history of foreign rule, including by the U.S., for many of the challenges Haiti struggles with today.

“The United States has contributed enormously to the suffering of the Haitian people and Haiti’s economic challenges and decline and political troubles,” Joseph told Yahoo News. “U.S. policies toward Haiti have been detrimental to the country’s economic development and autonomy.”

The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and controlled its government for nearly two decades. During that period, the U.S. structured Haiti’s economic and social policies as a means to attract foreign investment. Twice in the past 30 years, the U.S. has sent Marines to restore order — once under President Bill Clinton and again under President George W. Bush.

Even before U.S. interference, Haiti was under French rule until enslaved Africans revolted against their French colonizers in 1804 and declared independence from France, making Haiti the first Black-led republic.

The international community, however, refused to recognize Haiti as its own nation until the French did so. In return for that concession, France demanded the young country pay 150 million francs — the equivalent in U.S. dollars of $21 billion today — as reparations.

“The Haitian people are a people who have known or experienced political tragedy, trauma, suffering, natural disasters and all forms of abuse and exploitation coming from different directions and sources,” Joseph said. “Politics in Haiti is synonymous with national catastrophe, and the fragile political life continues to challenge the enduring legacy of the Haitian Revolution.”

But many scholars believe that the difficulties Haiti has faced for years do not have to be its identity. 

“We are not bound by our past. Countries can recover and then develop,” Philippe Girard, a professor of Caribbean history at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., told Yahoo News, noting South Korea’s resurgence after the Korean War ended in 1953. “The responsibility of governing Haiti is for Haitians.”

(Photo Illustration: Haitian historian Philippe Girard, left; Photos: Yahoo News, David de la Paz/Xinhua via Getty Images)
From left: Haitian historian Philippe Girard; a man in front of a damaged house in Marceline. (Yahoo News; David de la Paz/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Bastien, the activist, contends that Haiti already has everything it needs. She refutes the Biden administration’s push for the country to hold a new election soon, as most Haitians remain fearful of gangs and corruption, and she believes the country needs the chance to be able to properly manage itself.

“The country has the resources for every Haitian on the island,” she said. “Haiti is not poor. We just need to find a way to bridge the gap between the 1 percent that controls most of the resources of the nation and the majority of the Haitian people [who] have to fight for every crumb. Enough is enough.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: David de la Paz/Xinhua via Getty Images (2)


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