As you no doubt heard by now, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale has hit Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its epicenter was just a few miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Large buildings in Port-au-Prince, including the National Palace, built by the US Marines in 1915, and the United Nations headquarters, have been destroyed. Many large cement structures are now piles of rubble. The extent of the damage remains unknown, as communication between Haiti and the rest of the world has been difficult since the earthquake hit.
Haiti is a country of ten million people, and some reports estimate that at least 100,000 have died and three million people have been affected directly by the earthquake. The capital, Port-au-Prince, is home to nearly three million people, many of whom are recent migrants to the capital and who live in substandard housing.
Thirty years ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in terms of food production, particularly rice, one of the staples of Haitians. Unfortunately, over the past three decades, trade and aid agreements between the US and Haiti have created a situation where rice farmers can no longer make a living in Haiti. A prime example of this is when rice, grown by subsidized farmers in the US, is dumped on the Haitian market, pushing Haitian farmers out of production. Because of these and other US and IMF economic policies over the past three decades in Haiti, people from the countryside have been unable to make a living in rural areas, and have migrated to the capital.
Many of these urban migrants live in houses made of cinderblock or other substandard materials that are very susceptible to earthquake damage. The fact that so many people live in inadequate housing structures adds significantly to the destruction caused by the earthquake.
Haiti was founded in 1804, and is the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti also boasts a proud history of a successful slave revolt. Despite its noble beginnings, Haiti’s history has been fraught with violence and poverty, and the United States has played a significant, contributing role in the lack of political and economic stability in the tiny island nation.
Haiti was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934. In 1994, Aristide Bertrand was democratically elected by the Haitian people – the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Eight months later, he was ousted by US-backed forces. Following this, the US occupied Haiti. Haiti was occupied again by US and UN forces in 2004.
Hurricanes have hit the island regularly over the past decade, adding to the troubles faced by the people of Haiti. The recent earthquake is the worst to hit Haiti in 200 years. The earthquake, with its fires and the massive destruction of buildings, “seems like the abyss of a very long history of natural and political disasters” (Edwidge Danticat, January 13, 2010 on Democracy Now).
When Haitian citizens have left their own country to come to the US (a form of forced migration), the US government has systematically discriminated against them. Currently, there are currently 30,000 Haitians being held in immigration detention centers in the United States. Subsequent to the most recent hurricane in Gonaïves, Haiti, immigrant rights activists mobilized to request that Haitians not be deported to Haiti, because of the destruction wreaked by the hurricane. These demands for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) were denied. In the aftermath of the present disaster, it would be inhumane to send deportees from the United States to Haiti.
President Obama has promised to help the Haitian people get through the present disaster. Given the troubled history between the two nations, and the extensive corruption involved in foreign aid in Haiti, Obama will face many challenges in delivering this much-needed assistance. Granting Haitian immigrants presently in the United States Temporary Protected Status would be a crucial first step in the effort to help Haiti get back on her feet.
If you’re interested in helping the people of Haiti, Dumi Lewis has a good list of organizations over at Uptown Notes.
Update from admin 1/15/10: U.S. Suspends Deportations to Haiti.
~ Tanya Maria Golash-Boza teaches at the University of Kansas and blogs about her research on the consequences of mass deportation at http://tanyagolashboza.blogspot.com/