When asked about the parallels between Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat recalled a news story that had said, “These kinds of things don’t happen here, they happen in Haiti or in Africa.” As part of the Africana Studies Department 2009-2010 speaker series, Danticat, a Haitian-American author, spoke last Thursday as the honored Sojourner Truth Guest Lecturer. Danticat’s response encouraged us to challenge what I consider the “natural” disaster narrative. This discourse ignores that these disasters are compounded by pre-existing racist political conditions that permit the heights of devastation and destruction we have seen in cases such as Haiti and Louisiana. The correlations between Haiti, Louisiana, and even Honduras speak to the not-so-“natural” conditions that predispose these regions to an incomprehensible degree of pain, loss, and devastation. Haiti is not an isolated incident.
When news broke of the earthquake in Haiti, I was in Honduras as part of a human rights delegation accompanying organizations in resistance to the June 2009 coup d’état against former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. I remember that immediately after the earthquake, many people in Honduras expressed their remorse and solidarity with their Haitian compaeros and compaeras. However, they also shared concerns that what happened in Haiti could happen in Honduras. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, and some communities are still living in homes left untouched by aid, similar to survivors of Hurrican Katrina. The nature of “natural” disasters is bound to the conditions within a democracy. If these disasters have taught us anything, it is that institutionalized racism must accompany the public discourse regarding these instances of destruction.
“Natural” disasters and coups have wreaked havoc throughout the Americas, and the ensuing U.S. and U.N. military occupations to “maintain the peace” because of “violent looters” have taken advantage of the countries’ vulnerability to pursue imperial economic projects with multinational businesses that put recovering economies at a disadvantage. In no way do I mean to ignore the inspiring efforts that have resulted from international aid. However, as Danticat notes, “Now it’s time to look for the smaller organizations that are on the ground” and that have walked alongside Haitians prior to this earthquake. These are the organizations that will continue to maintain a presence in Haiti once the media, their cameras, and their correspondents have left. (The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund and Partners in Health are highly recommended amongst the plethora of organizations with already-established relationships in Haiti.) However, genuine economic development for and by the Haitian people has been shunned in many conversations.
As Danticat explained, “Yes, this was a natural disaster, but this was something that was in the making for a very long time—in part because we didn’t have centralization, but also in part [because] we had policies that favored importing.” Haitian farmers were able to provide some of the nation’s products, but after years of free trade policies under the Clinton administration, that is no longer the case. Haiti, formerly the world’s largest sugar and coffee producer, now receives these goods from other countries, including the United States. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that “Haiti’s economy is four times more open than that of Canada or the US.”
“Free” trade has taken its toll on Haiti alongside U.S.-backed dictators such as Francois Duvalier, who massacred the poor and people’s movement leaders in the 1960s. Also, the French demand for reparations, 90 million francs, following the Haitian Revolution of 1804 has left the Haitian economy indebted to France after emancipation from French colonial slave society. It was during President Aristide’s second term that he insisted France repay Haiti in the sum of over $23 billion (today’s equivalent). In 2004, he was exiled from Haiti, and even after the earthquake, his repeated requests to return to Haiti have been denied despite the overwhelming majority of Haitian support for their ousted president. Here in the United States, we must pressure the government to prioritize social welfare and not military deployment and to do away with economic trade policies that have made Haiti and other countries financially indebted to international loaning institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.In Honduras, the de facto government under Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo has rejected the ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) and left the region open for neo-liberal models that further exploit human and natural resources and violate human rights, similar circumstances to those that contributed to the disaster in Haiti. Within our borders, many working-class black communities in Louisiana were devastated by the poorly-built levees and slow governmental response. You can see the similarities between that situation and the Honduran North Coast where the Garfuna (Afro-Indigenous) and working-class citizens construct their homes alongside rivers, vulnerable to hurricanes and with little promise of govenmental aid.
Last week, Pitzer’s Latino Student Union hosted a presentation of a student organized trip to Louisiana that worked on sustainable efforts in Louisiana’s lower 9th Ward. They described neo-liberal projects that have made it nearly impossible for the working-class black population of Louisiana to return to their homes. They described the gentrification of a historically rooted population. They also discussed schools that prioritize testing strategies, which have made the Louisiana public education system one of the many neo-liberal experiments of the U.S. government. However, like Honduras and Haiti, Louisiana can lay claim to a vibrant and inspiring history that encourages a genuine people’s movement. Resilience is a defining feature of all these regions and their people, and will be critical to their recovery from disaster and development in the future.
Danticat ended her talk on a hopeful note, saying she was pleased by the nature of unity and solidarity that has emerged in the Americas and Caribbean islands. “We are all vulnerable to this kind of tragedy,” she explains. “In a sense, we’re all Haitian. Now we’re at the point where we have to start thinking ahead as a country, as a people.”