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Restore Haiti's Stature Now

Haitians desperately reaching for water

The massive 7.0 earthquake on January 12th in Haiti, which killed tens of thousands of people, evoked remarkable responses from all over the world; most of them were spontaneous outpourings of human compassion and care, except infamously for the most vulgar and outrageous racist remarks from an American Evangelist and a rabid anti-Obama Conservative radio host.


The people in Haiti’s neighbouring countries in the Caribbean watched the horror unfold with particular poignancy because there but for the grace of God could have been any of them.  They well know that, just as Haiti could not have been prepared to cope with a catastrophe of such magnitude, neither could they.  This was not only a disaster that was emotionally upsetting in the scale of its human carnage and destruction; it was also very close to home.


The reaction of the government of the second poorest country of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) was exemplary and heart-warming.  Guyana’s President Bharat Jagdeo summoned a meeting of leaders of various groups, including the leader of the main Opposition political party, Robert Corbin, and announced that Guyana would provide US$1 million in immediate assistance.    


This figure is impressive not only because Guyana is rated after Haiti as the poorest country in CARICOM, but also because it is the same sum that the government of oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago announced that it would be contributing.  This comment is not in any way to denigrate the contribution of the Trinidad and Tobago government, it is simply to underscore the magnanimity of Guyana.


All CARICOM countries are today confronted with serious financial challenges.  Their unemployment levels have risen; their debt has increased; prices for many of their commodities on the world market have declined; receipts from tourism have fallen; and their terms of trade have worsened.  The sums they have offered are therefore proportionate to their means in some cases, and very generous in others.


The sums pledged by Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago matched the US$1 million amount assured by the Caribbean Development Bank.  Other governments, including the governments of Barbados and Jamaica, under the leadership of their Prime Ministers David Thompson and Bruce Golding respectively, indicated their readiness to provide help in needed ways.  Prime Minister Thompson himself chaired a lengthy meeting the day after the earthquake to determine how best Barbados could respond.


In Jamaica, Milton Samuda, the president of the Chamber of Commerce appealed to the private sector and all Jamaicans to help, saying: “We urge the Government and people of Jamaica to respond with a level of human concern which will encourage them to urgently transmit to the government and people of Haiti whatever assistance is possible." And in Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean, Starcom Network launched a radiothon appeal entitled, “Help Haiti Now” under the personal supervision of its CEO, Vic Fernandes.



What all this says is that people in CARICOM countries have recognised that Haiti is fully a CARICOM country, no longer a distant poor cousin whose poverty is to be disdained.  Haiti is no longer an inconvenient Caribbean tragedy that can be expediently pushed to the back of regional thinking. Haiti led the way for the freedom for all of Latin America and the Caribbean – that debt has never been discharged.

This awful human tragedy in Haiti may now have the benefit of bringing the country Haiti fully into the CARICOM fold, and advancing its developmental needs higher up the agenda of regional governments.


If CARICOM countries do nothing else in the period after the immediate devastation is over, they should take a meaningful lead in securing for Haiti the assistance it requires, not only to rebuild the country but also to create a better Haiti where every child can expect to be educated, and none should go to bed hungry; where forests can be replanted and sustained; where investment can create employment and where the weight of oppressive poverty is lifted from the backs of the Haitian people.


The global community has shown that it has a conscience about Haiti by their remarkable and instant response with help.  Far away nations such as Finland and Iceland are two countries in point.  But the two nations that should have the greatest sense of guilt are France and the United States which, in the past, have contributed to crippling Haiti.  France kept it in a financially pecuniary state, forcing it to pay retribution to French plantation owners in the aftermath of Haiti’s revolt against slavery. The United States brutally occupied it as a service to US banks to whom Haiti was indebted, and did little, during that period, to help the country to develop.


Persistent poverty became a way of life, and the country had little resilience to cope with the many catastrophes that have befallen it.



It is therefore all the more reprehensible that, after President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States government would provide US$100 million to Haiti immediately, the conservative right wing personified by Rush Limbaugh, attacked him for it.  In overtly racist remarks, Limbaugh said: “They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, "credibility" with the black community -- in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country.  It's made-to-order for them (meaning the Obama White House team).


And, if Limbaugh was not bad enough, the Evangelist Pat Robertson showed both his ignorance of Haiti’s history and his innate racism when he claimed: “They (Haitians) were under the heel of the French…and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘We will serve you’…and so, the devil said ‘Okay, it’s a deal’ and kicked the French out”.   The man did both Christianity and America a grave disservice.


As this commentary is being written the full loss of human life has not been determined.  But it will be huge.  So too will be the destruction of physical plant, particularly hospitals and schools.  A country already impoverished and without the capacity to cope is now worse off in terms that most countries in the Western Hemisphere cannot comprehend. 


It is shocking that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that its executive board “could consider” support for Haiti of US$100 million. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of IMF said that the money would be “subject to the approval of the executive board”.  But, this is not a time for weasel words and phrases, Haiti needs help now both to alleviate its urgent needs today and create a better and sustainable tomorrow. The IMF should move faster and more comprehensively.


Similarly, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) announced that it was providing the sum of US$200,000 to help with immediate needs. This sum is the regulation amount allowed at times of disaster, but this was no ordinary catastrophe – it was extraordinary in its scale and required an extraordinary response, particularly as the IDB has had US$330 million in undisbursed funds in its Haiti portfolio.  It was a relief to hear that it subsequently said that US$90 million of that money would be re-directed to helping rebuild infrastructure.


The time for all the talk on Haiti should now be over.  If International Financial Institutions (IFIs) have determined that Haiti does not have the technical capacity to write project documents or to implement projects, the IFIs should provide the expertise they need.  Every way should be found to overcome the obstacles to building a better and stronger Haiti.


In this way, countries like the Bahamas and the United States which have borne the brunt of Haitian economic refugees would rest easy that there would be far fewer of them.



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