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Op-Ed

God Hearts Haiti

Gauging the invasion of the well-intentioned a week after the devastation of Port-au-Prince and wondering what it really means for Haiti’s future.

Port-au-Prince, U.S. Navy

I sleep fitfully now and wake up thinking of the nightly ordeals I have not shared—that sleep that is provoked by smells of death, shouts of despair, the discomforts of using debris for a bed, and, of course, fear.

And then I think of the sticker I once saw on the scratched partition of a yellow cab, years ago, when Port-au-Prince ranked high on the list of dangerous places in the world. God Hearts Haiti, declared the sticker.

That’s some tough love.

When the ground shook a week ago, rattling the capital into chaos and raining concrete onto the city’s hapless population, many ran in the streets “praying, screaming to God that they knew he could destroy them, that he didn’t have to prove it,” according to one account.

Port-au-Prince got the full brunt of God’s love in the new decade. And as a bonus, it gets Washington’s attention. In its receipt of both, my prayers go out to Haiti.

 

Until recently, Haiti occupied an approximate place in my mind—the psychic equivalent of surmising that the nation was Caribbean and ominous, so it must be near the Bermuda triangle. I suppose that I knew it shared an island with the Dominican Republic and was as visible from Cuba as Cuba is from Miami, but I wasn’t aware of the significant ironies of either of these geographic realities.

Then in September 2008, when back-to-back storms left hundreds dead, thousands homeless, I traveled to Haiti to help beat the drums for more aid.

After five days in Port-au-Prince and in Gonaives, the city hardest hit by the hurricanes, I saw Haiti not just as a poor Caribbean nation, but as a disaster waiting to happen. And that was after the supposed disaster struck.

Just a week after I returned from that trip, an earthquake hit the capital. Eighty-nine children died in a collapsed school and officials lamented, “It’s not just schools, it’s where people live, it’s churches.” I had seen those schools and churches and those places where people lived, perched in shantytowns of stacked houses of cement, rebar, and crossed fingers.

I wrote, bitterly, that at least crumbling schools in Haiti leave fewer dead students than in Sichuan because in Haiti there are so few kids who can actually afford schools. But of course it was not just the schools last week. It was “churches and those places people live.” It was the hospitals and fire departments and the port and the presidential palace. It was the barber shops and the lotto shacks. It was the whole vulnerable structure of the city.

 

Ten thousand U.S. servicemembers are now on the ground in Port-au-Prince. Ten thousand U.S. troops providing security from lawlessness and looters and adding muscle to rescue and recovery efforts. Surely their arrival will help Haitians sleep sounder these nights. (By the end of the week, another 6,000 will be helping, too.)

If God has shown Haiti his heart with ceaseless misfortune, the U.S. has shown its commitment to the nation with euphemistically termed “mixed results.”

But ten thousand is also half the number of soldiers dispatched by Washington to Haiti in 2001 when Jean Bertrand Aristide needed support as he was forging a new chance at Haiti’s revival. Three years later, when he failed to deliver, it was a U.S. Air Force jet that flew the once popular, ever populist, but increasingly despotic president to Africa with instructions to not come back. Aristide then was not up against a task as large as the one that confronts his country today. Aristide today only weeps and begs to be returned to help his homeland.

Ten thousand is also the number of aid groups with humanitarian commitments to Haiti when the earthquake struck. But their combined efforts have thus far shown no progress in moving Haiti from misery to mere poverty.

“Today, tomorrow and for the time ahead.” That is how the U.S. secretary of state characterized Washington’s fresh commitment to the devastated island last Saturday

There is hope in that ill-defined timeline—hope that the magnitude of need will engender a more sustained investment in all that the failed state lacks, from safe housing and clean water to fair governance and equitable economic policies. But there is also an ominous note to the open-ended stay. If God has shown Haiti his heart with ceaseless misfortune, the U.S. has shown its commitment to the nation with euphemistically termed “mixed results.”

 

I went to see Avatar over the weekend. It was a delightful distraction from the headlines. Until, that is, the gunships of Earth trained their fire on the Na’vi Home Tree and we watched a terrified population crushed, in three dimensions, by its splintering, pulverized home. The whole theater tensed in palpable psychic discomfort. This was not the entertainment we wanted.

A lush paradise populated by lithe, spiritual blue people should not put me in mind of jerry-rigged Port-au-Prince, with its shoddy architecture, dysfunctional social sector, and non-existent infrastructure. But it doesn’t take a foreign policy scholar to see that director James Cameron had saved a corner of his Pandora for cautionary tales from the real world—from the Niger Delta and the Amazon, from Pakistan and Afghanistan—where corporate greed and military megalomania of a particularly morally compromised American variety take control.

When I read about the Global Hawk, the state-of-the-art U.S. Air Force drone currently making sorties over the battered island, I want to cheer the utility of its images in helping establish safe places for resettlement, supply deliveries, and areas where rescuers may still find survivors. I try to ignore the promotional claim that the Global Hawk “helps commanders know the most current information about enemy locations.”

It is puerile to offer metaphors from Hollywood, and paranoid, yes, to raise so soon the exploitation alert, but I’m not alone in assuming that the U.S. occupation may find use in its presence in Haiti beyond humanitarian assistance. Or that the displaced population may not be provided with anything much better than “another tree,” in a sadly deforested landscape.

Tonight, Port-au-Prince is being invaded only by the well-intentioned. Along with the U.S. Southern Command, there are Doctors Without Borders and Chinese rescuers and Ban Ki-moon and Sanjay Gupta and Wyclef Jean (is he in yet?). The whole world was loving Haiti last week with a heart that may prove more lasting in its generosity than before. But if there is proof that God himself hearts Haiti, maybe it’s only that he didn’t plant it full of unobtainium to test that unconditional love.

I sure don’t see many other signs.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem