Shaken island: Haiti earthquake the latest crisis to leave citizens in distress

The earthquake that struck Haiti recently has added to the island-nation’s multiple crises: political instability, rising levels of gang violence, an acute hunger problem and a poor public health system that struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published : Sep 04, 2021 06:00 IST

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry at a press conference in Port-au-Prince on August 14, after the earthquake struck.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry at a press conference in Port-au-Prince on August 14, after the earthquake struck.

On August 14, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck the city of Saint-Louis-du Sud, 150 kilometres west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The death toll now edges over a thousand, with many thousands of Haitians injured. The damage to the south-western peninsula of Haiti has been considerable; its largest city, Les Cayes, is now without its major market and many official buildings. Hospitals in the municipalities of Corailles, Pestel and Roseaux are full of the injured, and supplies are not able to get into the region because of the damage wrought to the road that connects Les Cayes to Jeremie, the capital of a neighbouring province, or department as they are called in Haiti. Furthermore, warfare between gangs in Port-au-Prince’s southern region makes the journey to Les Cayes and Jeremie much more uncertain.

Over a decade ago, on January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake hit the town of Leogane, about 25 km outside Port-au-Prince along the road to Les Cayes. That quake is estimated to have killed as many as 316,000 people. The devastation from the 2010 earthquake remains; infrastructure destroyed then has not yet been rebuilt. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2021 have now marked the entire region west of Port-au-Prince.

Bertrande Auguste, a resident of Les Cayes, told the Associated Press: “There has been nothing. No help, nothing from the government.” Prime Minister Ariel Henry declared a month-long emergency, but his government has not moved on getting the needed supplies to places along the south-western peninsula. At a press conference on August 15, Henry said that the first convoys had left for the affected areas but did not provide any specifics. Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that the situation was bleak, with the population in the region in need of clean water, shelter, food and health care. “Little more than a decade on,” she said, “Haiti is reeling once again.”

Also read: As Haiti earthquake death toll crosses 2,000, frustration grows over lack of aid

“We only have Jesus now,” said Johanne Dorcely, another resident of Les Cayes. “If it wasn’t for Jesus, I wouldn’t be able to be here today.” One problem with her sentiment is that the earthquake destroyed many of the peninsula’s churches, which were the mainstay of relief after the 2010 earthquake. Reverend Yves Joel Jacqueline said that the cathedral in Les Cayes was badly damaged. “We are the only thing here. There is no support from the government.” The attrition of the Haitian state has meant that the population is reliant on charity from religious institutions. These institutions are now in the midst of their own crisis.

Political instability

Henrietta Fore is more honest than the country’s Prime Minister. She said that this disaster “coincides with political instability, rising gang violence, alarmingly high rates of malnutrition among children, and the COVID-19 pandemic, for which Haiti has received just 500,000 vaccine doses, despite requiring far more”.

First with the pandemic. Haiti has a population of 11 million. Half a million doses of the vaccine is a grotesquely low number. The first doses arrived in the country in mid July. When the vaccines arrived at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, Port-au-Prince, UNICEF celebrated the feat but then laid out the problems before health workers: “When gangs are shooting at each other in the streets, transporting vaccines safely from one health centre to the other every day is a victory. Without reliable electricity, keeping a large number of vaccine doses always cool throughout the journey is a feat.” Reporting on the spread of COVID-19 in the country has been poor as the health care system has been strained for decades.

Also read: Haiti: Violence and politics culminate in Jovenel Moise's assassination

Second, the high rates of malnutrition amongst the children. UNICEF concentrates on children, but the hunger problem in Haiti is acute. Half the population is labelled as food insecure; a third of the population found it hard to eat each day in 2019, before the pandemic. Earthquakes, hurricanes and droughts compound the problems the people face, but they are not the authors of them. After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, 800,000 Haitians sought immediate assistance for food from relief agencies since food supply systems collapsed and people did not have savings to rely upon. Three quarters of Haiti’s population lives on less than $2 a day. It should be said that in 2009, the United States government of President Barack Obama lobbied the Haitian government not to pass an increase in the minimum wages. This increase would have impacted millions of Haitian workers who have since seen their buying power deteriorate.

Crisis of legitimacy

Third, the fact of political instability is impossible to deny. On July 7, Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise was brutally assassinated. In the months before this assassination, Haiti was wracked by protests against Moïse, whose term had lapsed and who had refused to hold elections.

Also read: Haitian President Jovenel Moise assassinated in his home

But Moise, just like his predecessors, suffered from a lack of legitimacy long before his term lapsed. Since the two coups against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and 2004, Haiti’s political system has suffered from a crisis of legitimacy. After the U.S. government removed Aristide from office in 2004, it has hand-picked the President and Prime Minister of the country. Aristide was followed by U.S.-sanctified heads of government: Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre (2004-06), who allowed the security services to undermine Aristide’s popular movement called Lavalas (the Flood); the agronomist Rene Preval (2006-11), who privatised government agencies and government land; the singer Sweet Micky Martelly (2011-16), who rehabilitated the Haitian military and old dictatorship’s militia, the Tonton Macoutes; and the businessman Jovenel Moise (2017-21), who took his orders from U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft. The government of Haiti since 2004 has turned over its resources to the country’s elite and to foreign corporations. Haitian sovereignty has been compromised for decades. In place of the government has emerged armed gangs, which control social and economic life in the country’s major cities.

Core Group

Hours after the assassination of Moise, Prime Minister Claude Joseph took over the government. The U.N. and the U.S. State Department accepted Joseph’s new role. But days later, the Core Group decided that Joseph had to step aside. What is the Core Group? It was set up in 2003 during a meeting of the Ottawa Initiative on Haiti held in Canada. Top officials from Canada, France, the U.S. and the Organisation of American States discussed the future of Haiti without the presence of any Haitian officials. Ambassadors from Germany, Spain, the European Union and the U.N. joined the Group eventually. It was the Core Group that put in place the governments of Martelly and Moise. It was this Group that told Joseph to step aside for Henry, who, the Group said, would create a “consensual and inclusive government”. In fact, no such government has been created since the Henry government is basically the same as the Moise government, kleptocracies backed by the Western powers. Joseph resigned, saying: “I’m not interested in any kind of power grab.” He knew he would not be able to stand up to the Western powers; he does not have a mass base like Aristide, who was anyway removed with the connivance of this Core Group in 2004.

Also read: Ariel Henry assumes post as Haiti's Prime Minister

Haitian Revolution of 1804

In 1804, Haiti’s people conducted the first revolution of the Third World when the enslaved defeated the slave owners in the name of the French Revolution. Since 1804, the Haitian people have faced resistance from France and the U.S., and Canada. These Western powers first insisted that Haiti’s government pay the slave owners for the loss of their “property”, an indemnity that Haiti paid until 1947. In 1915, when a new government of Haiti tried to carve out its sovereignty, the armed forces of the U.S. intervened, for 30 years, or else it put in place a dictatorial regime that ruled on its behalf: the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986. Aristide, who embodied the promise of the Haitian Revolution of 1804, was twice removed from power. Rather than allow Haitian democracy to flourish, the U.S. sent in a U.N. force to occupy the country on behalf of the Core Group. The assassination of Moise by Colombian and Haitian mercenaries closely connected to companies based in Miami (Florida) suggest the involvement of powerful countries who have no compunction about intervention in Haiti to prevent any advance by the people.

After Moise’s death, the U.S. sent its security services and military into the country. After the earthquake, U.S. President Joe Biden said: “The United States remains a close and enduring friend to the people of Haiti.” That friendship is strengthened by military ties and the suffocation by the Core Group of Haitian sovereignty. It is not a friendship with the people of Haiti, who now watch once more as almost two million people struggle to get out of the rubble of another earthquake.

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