ARE THINGS GETTING BETTER IN HAITI?
FR. MED’S OVERVIEW OF HAITI
In 2017 Haiti had an estimated population of 10,646,714 people. The country is about the size of the State of Maryland. It has a median age of 23. Haiti has a GDP of $1,800 per person and an unemployment rate of 40.6%
The recorded written history of Haiti began on December 5, 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean that he named Hispaniola and claimed for Spain. Today Hispaniola is populated by two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Port-au-Prince, the capital, is 721 miles off the coast of Florida, just an hour and forty-minute trip via an airplane.
In 1625 the French began to populate the island. France took control of the of the western part of Hispaniola – Haiti. Spain took control of the eastern part of the island – the Dominican Republic. Haiti became one of the wealthiest of the French colonies, producing vast quantities of sugar and coffee, but dependent on a brutal slave system for labor.
Haitian slaves revolted in 1791. On January 1, 1801 Haiti proclaimed its independence. Haiti is the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States. In 1826 France finally recognized Haiti’s independence. Haiti had to pay a huge indemnity to France for the loss of property. Loans were made and Haiti incurred a huge dept. Under the agreement with France for independence, Haiti had to cease exporting its sugar entirely. Overburdened with a huge debt and losing its primary source of income, Haiti struggled on.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, tropical storms, diseases and famines have plagued Haiti since its beginning. In 1751 and 1770 earthquakes and a tsunami destroyed Port-au-Prince. In 1842, an earthquake destroyed Cap-Haitien, the second largest city in the north of Haiti, killing over 10,000 people. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake killed over 310,000 people according to the toll of the Haitian government.
Every couple of years a hurricane or a tropical storm hits Haiti causing the loss of lives and wide-spread destruction. As recently as October 4, 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused catastrophic flooding after 40 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 feet. More than 600 people lost their lives and over 100,000 were left homeless. Trees, crops and animals were all swept out to sea. Of the labor force in Haiti, 66% are involved with agriculture, as is 35% of the GDP.
After the January 12, 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic broke out outside of Port-au-Prince. By March, 2017, 9,985 have died as a result of cholera and over 700,000 have become ill.
In the 1960’s, Haiti was considered THE JEWEL OF THE CARIBBEAN. Its bays, scenery, lodging and small restaurants along with the warmth, friendliness and culture of its people – drew people from the United States and all over the world. More people in the 1960’s went to Haiti for their honeymoon and their winter vacation than to any other country in the Caribbean.
But in the 1950’s and the 1960’s various diseases, fevers and illnesses attacked the cattle, goats, sheep, hens and turkeys, causing salmonella. Many animals had to be slaughtered. I remember visiting the village of Thomazeau in 2006 where we built our first homes and wells. I asked about the railroad tracks I saw where we were standing in the fields. Many of the ties were missing. I was told that Thomazeau in the 1960’s had the second largest slaughterhouse in the Western Hemisphere after Chicago. But when the diseased animals had to be killed, the slaughterhouse shut down. The poverty and the famine that followed for many decades caused people to tear up the railroad ties and make charcoal to sell.
When the African Swine Fever hit Haiti in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, every pig in Haiti had to be killed. The already impoverished peasants had to really struggle to survive. Children quit school to help sell whatever they could in the marketplace. Farmers had to mortgage their land. There was no money to plant or to farm. The country still has not recovered today after 40 years.
Haiti was ripe for dictators. Francois “Papa Doc”, a doctor, was elected president in 1957. In 1964 he declared himself president for life and ruled as a dictator. In 1971 Haiti amended its constitution to allow the president to choose his successor. He chose his son, Jean-Claude who was 19. In April 1971, after his father died, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”, declared himself president for life. He used a secret police force called “Tontons Macoutes” (bogeymen) to enforce his policies. In 1986 “Baby Doc” had to flee the country after a revolt against his inhuman policies.
In March, 1987, Haiti adopted a new constitution that called for presidential and national elections by the people. For three years there was turmoil as military men tried to take control. In December, 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Salesian Order, became the first democratically elected president of Haiti. In September, 1991, Aristide was ousted by a military coup and fled the country. Until 2004, Aristide was back and forth as president of Haiti. The United States and the UN sent in troops and peace keepers to maintain order. In 1994 Aristide left the priesthood. He married the next year and had two daughters.
We in the United States are well aware of political factions the past few years. Over the past 25 years Haiti has been ripe with political factions. After Aristide left in 1994, Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre replaced him in a transitional government for several months. Gerard Latortue, a UN official, was appointed as Prime Minister during a turbulent period when US and UN troops were needed. In 2006 Rene Preval was elected president. Michel Martelly was elected president in 2011. Jovenel Moise was elected president in January, 2017. All of these elections were marred by disruptions and violence. Many people in Haiti are hurting. Elections are times when people are able to speak out, demonstrate, and hopefully choose leaders who are honest. It is not surprising that the people of Haiti use their elections to try and have their voices heard.
Fr. Rick Frechette is a Passionist priest who has labored in Haiti for many years. His friend, Paul Haggis, beautifully gives testimony to his work in the Foreward to Frechette’s book, “Haiti, The God of Tough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men”.
What you weren’t prepared to see, or feel, is the joy. It straightens the backs of women who take enormous pride in cleaning their eight-by-eight foot tin shacks, and of men who push carts bearing carcasses of ancient automobiles. It spills from the empty baskets of women who walk miles in search of clean water, their laughter bouncing off the bullet-scarred walls of Cite Soleil.
It shrieks from the mouths of pantsless boys who bang a rusty barrel ring down the muddy road, or girls who dance with abandon just because they are wearing a pretty dress, despite the fact that it is the same pretty dress they’ve worn for years, that their sister wore for years before that, that was picked out of a container of secondhand garments sent by well-meaning rich people.
It shines in the faces of the grinning boys who sit on the roofs of their shacks, fishing in floodwater that drowned their grandparents and refuses to recede. What breaks your heart, and gives you hope, is the joy.
ARE THINGS GETTING BETTER IN HAITI?
Angel Aloma is the Executive Director of Food for the Poor, the largest international relief and development organization in the USA. Food for the Poor has been working in Haiti since 1986. Its food programs feed hundreds of thousands of Haitians every day. Last year Food for the Poor built over 1,800 new homes in Haiti. In 2017 Food for the Poor shipped $288 million worth of goods to Haiti in trailer containers.
Fr. Med Laz asked Angel Aloma whether things are getting better in Haiti today from his perspective. His reply: