Haiti’s grief as chronic political and economic crises hamper disaster response after the earthquake

Mourning weighs heavily on the landscape of southwest Haiti, with so many rural villages ravaged by last week’s magnitude 7.2 earthquake. As the region buries the lost, the living languish with the help they desperately need.

This is Haiti’s latest tragedy, but it is just one more layer to its continuing suffering.

In remote Port-au-Prince, the capital, life falters amid crushing poverty, growing lawlessness, inadequate infrastructure and ineffective government.

“Haitians are used to [living] with the concept that there is no state, there is no government, ”said Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, who has already tried to introduce himself to the presidency.

Jacky Lumarque is the rector of Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, which runs mobile clinics for some areas affected by the recent earthquake and also restores valuable cultural artifacts damaged in the 2010 earthquake, including the painting behind him. (Ellen Mauro / CBC)

“If you yourself are in a disaster, you can’t help people in a disaster and the government is in a disaster.”

A debilitating power vacuum compounded by a devastating earthquake – a grim reality fueling a growing resignation that the help so many need may never come.

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“It’s as if nature was against us”

The earthquake could hardly have come at a worse time.

On July 7, just over a month before the earthquake, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his own home. The origins of the plot remain unclear, but even before the murder, Haiti was in a deepening political crisis.

There had been no sitting parliament for over a year after the country failed to hold new elections, allowing Moses to rule by decree. Critics have called him a burgeoning autocrat. There were big protests demanding his resignation.

Billboards of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, assassinated in July, are still dotted in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. (Ellen Mauro / CBC)

After the assassination, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, appointed by Moïse just two days before his death, became Haiti’s de facto ruler following a brief power struggle.

Henry announced that new elections would be held in November, but that was before the earthquake. Now the timeline is cloudy.

“It is impossible to have elections right now in a country so destroyed in terms of public administration, police, justice,” said Fritz Jean, a former acting prime minister who was also governor of Haiti. . Central bank.

“What we are experiencing right now is a country that is really on its knees.”

Then came the earthquake.

“It’s like nature is against us,” said Fritz.

A woman washes clothes at an encampment in Cayes, Haiti, on August 18, four days after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the southwest of the country. (Ellen Mauro / CBC)

In an interview with Radio-Canada this week, Henry admitted that Haiti is unfortunately not prepared to react to the consequences of the earthquake.

“We are a third world country,” said Henry. “We don’t have a lot of resources.

And so, after the earthquake, thousands of people are now homeless, living in squalid makeshift camps or sleeping next to the ruins of their homes. For so many people, food and water are scarce – as is hope when anguish seems undefined.

Layers of crisis

Haiti has a proud past but a difficult history.

During the Haitian Revolution, slaves overthrew their French rulers in what has been described as the only successful slave rebellion in history. But the Republic of Haiti was overwhelmed from the start.

To maintain its regained freedom and stave off a French invasion, Haiti was forced to pay around $ 25 billion in today’s dollars to compensate former slave owners, a debt that would not be repaid until 1947, plus a century later.

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Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The Haitian people have endured decades of political upheaval punctuated by corruption, periods of foreign occupation and cataclysmic natural disasters.

Many Haitians divide their lives into two categories: before and after January 12, 2010. On that day, Port-au-Prince was destroyed by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in the region.

A couple examine the damage to homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 17, 2010, days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed the capital and ultimately claimed more than 200,000 lives. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

The earthquake was followed by a generalized cholera outbreak linked to a UN peacekeeping mission that left 7,000 more dead.

Haiti never fully recovered, its long-standing vulnerabilities only worsened with the disaster. Billions of dollars in financial aid have poured in, but there are allegations that it has been mismanaged, whether by aid agencies or the Haitian government, and it has made little difference to the quality of life.

While the death toll from this most recent earthquake is far lower than in 2010, Haiti’s political environment eleven years later is far worse, hampering its ability to help coordinate aid to devastated regions. .

State control is so weak that much of the emergency response is carried out by air, with gangs controlling the main road from Port-au-Prince to the disaster area.

The UN has tried to negotiate with the gangs to create a humanitarian corridor, but the situation is precarious.

“The lack of security has become too difficult to manage,” Henry admitted to Radio-Canada. “We are determined to once again become a country where people can move freely.”

Humanitarian organizations and private institutions are trying to fill the void, but what is happening now is fragmentary and insufficient.

People unload humanitarian aid from a U.S. Army helicopter at Les Cayes airport in Haiti on August 22. (Matias Delacroix / The Associated Press)

Quisqueya University of Lumarque is organizing mobile clinics to be sent to some of the hardest hit areas. It also restores valuable cultural artifacts that were damaged in the 2010 earthquake.

Despite the deep desperation that now reigns in the disaster area, Lumarque says even tougher days may lie ahead when the time comes to attempt to rebuild.

“The hardest part is the reconstruction phase,” he said, because at this time the international media hardly pays attention to the country and “everyone is forgetting about you, even your own government”.

An opportunity to learn

Haiti’s challenge to emerge from the quagmire towards a more stable future is vexing.

“People are fleeing because they cannot have jobs, because the state cannot provide the environment to create wealth in the country,” Jean said. “The state does not have the means to provide services.

This 300-year-old church in Cavaillon, Haiti was destroyed in seconds in the earthquake earlier this month. (Paul Smith / CBC)

The country needs elections for a democratic reset, but in the current security and economic environment, they will almost certainly prove impossible to hold until next year.

Some want more international aid to stabilize the country; others fear outside influences even more.

What is needed, said Lumarque, is a chance for the country to come together and catch its breath.

“You have to have everyone at the table, listen to everyone and devise a strategy – first for a new constitution, second for security and third, for the elections.

“There is an opportunity to learn from these disasters and to grow stronger.”

People work to clear debris in Cavaillon, Haiti, after an earthquake struck the southwest of the country on August 14. (Paul Smith / CBC)

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