I’ve been concerned about Haiti for more than a decade, ever since college. My professor and mentor Madison Bell wrote a trilogy of books on Haitian history; Russell Banks, who visited campus and was a tremendous voice, was concerned about Haiti too: Madison Bell considered Banks’ Continental Drift the great American novel, and one of the storylines in that book involved a Haitian refugee. Edwidge Danticat came to campus, and while I missed her visit I did read her book of stories. I’d heard about the Tonton Macoutes before college, but reading Danticat’s stories really brought them home.
All of that reading, abstracted as it might be from the real world of Haitian life, led me to pay more attention. And since college, I’ve continued to follow the news: the coups, the food riots… and now the earthquake.
We don’t know yet, but the reports suggest tens of thousands of dead. It’s horrifying, and we must do what we can to ameliorate the suffering of the millions of people affected—that’s incontestable, and certainly urgent.
But where was everyone while the (US-backed) Duvaliers killed tens of thousands? What have we done about the 300,000 restaveks? Who has done anything about the basic sanitation and medical shortcomings that kill one in five Haitian children? Those numbers eclipse those affected by the earthquake.
Further, aid to Haiti will be slow and ineffective because of the lack of political and physical infrastructure, a lack due to a history of corrupt leadership (who we backed) and enormous debt (from those corrupt leaders) that we could forgive, but will not.
In the end, aid is still crucial, and we must do what we can to help. But we’re treating this as we treated Katrina: as a natural disaster without human responsibility. We’re wiping our mental slates clean of the suffering we’ve caused, actively and through neglect. We’re offering our assistance, briefly, and then we’ll turn away as the tragedy continues.