“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed.”
Those were the words of Haitian President René Préval as he described the level of damage caused by the 7.0 earthquake and multiple, comparable aftershocks that hit Haiti on Tuesday evening. With pictures and videos flooding in from news sources, relief organizations and even camera phones, the extent of the physical destruction seems unfathomable. Not to mention the psychological trauma of seeing everything from your house to your National Palace, the most proud symbol of Haitians’ rich history, reduced to rubble. Corpses now line the streets of Port-au-Prince, and as my cousins described it, the city “smells like death.”
For many around the world, the deluge of news covering the earthquake is the first time that the conditions in Haiti are nearly impossible to ignore. And although this earthquake and its aftershocks are perhaps the worst single natural disaster to hit Haiti, it is certainly not the only one in recent years. Between August and September of 2008, Haiti was pummeled by four consecutive hurricanes that devastated the coastal region of Gonaives and left more than 800,000 in need of immediate humanitarian aid. In other words, Haitians are no strangers to nature’s fury.
Then, as now, the world and its news agencies are turning their attention to Haiti: a small country in the Caribbean that goes almost entirely unnoticed on a daily basis. That is, unless a crisis requiring foreign aid and intervention emerges, as most do. It is no surprise that upon hearing that my family is from Haiti, most Americans respond in an apologetic tone, saying that my country is sad and vulnerable and with an unfortunate past.
The “Haiti = poor” perspective, despite being a gross oversimplification, can be explained and exemplified by the coverage on every news channel immediately following the earthquake. Second to the fact that the earthquake happened, the most memorable piece of information that was repeated over and over is that “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Though the poverty that has plagued Haiti and exacerbated these disasters is part of the country, it is also just that—only a part of a complex history and identity that is both proud and rich.
But the resilience of Haitians and the Diaspora will not fail. The shots of people digging through rubble with their bare hands, while they wait for the aid to arrive, are a testament to the strength and bravery of the Haitian people. Meanwhile donations are pouring in through the Internet, especially through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and even cell phone text messages. Many choose to send their money to organizations like Yele Haiti and Partners in Health, both of which have received international recognition for their dynamic programs and high success rates. Haitians are even using news and networking sites to post pictures of missing loved ones, which living in New York, is a reminder of the flyers that plastered New York after 9/11.
One can only hope that sufficient funds, a rapid response and sustainable international assistance can stabilize the country and quell the panic that had since run rampant. And yet, though the present and the future of Haiti appear bleak and uncertain, we are a strong people who have been knocked down before, but never knocked out.
The road to recovery will be long, ridden with hunger and violence—these are inevitable. Perhaps embedded in the horror of this earthquake is a genuine opportunity to rebuild Haiti, truly from the ground up and emerge from this crisis with a chance to start fresh.
*Richard André is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org and an intern at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. He was born in Queens, New York, to Haitian parents, and graduated from Amherst College in May 2009.
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