Piecing Together an Understanding of Haiti Today

This weekend came and went, and I never left my couch. My camera bag - meticulously packed for three hectic days across three cities - lies useless on the bedroom floor; memory cards untouched and road snacks un-nibbled. For the second time in a row, our assignment in Haiti has been postponed due to civil unrest and political instability. I don't really know what's going on there at the moment, and with the one-track mind of sensationalist mass media focused solely on Egypt (and the Super Bowl, I guess), I'm finding it hard to understand this new situation, which has red alerts and closings already resulting from the anticipated nation-wide chaos.

Boys in Haiti
Boys in Haiti

Man, those kids are cute. So, redirecting focus from destruction and disease to the timeline and facts visible, I'm hoping to gain some clarity. Note: I am not a journalist, nor am I attempting to be, but I'm interested, motivated, and capable of compiling trustworthy tidbits to come to a reasonable conclusion. Join me, won't you.

A Timeline for Haiti, Earthquake Onward

Baby step with me through the recent events in Haiti relating to the current social plights and political instability.

January 12, 2010 at 4:53pm

Léogâne is the epi-center of a 7.0 earthquake, killing around 300,000.

October 21, 2010

Cholera outbreak confirmed.

November 28, 2010

Presidential elections occur and appear "fair enough" by international observers.

December 7, 2010

Election results in, but riots break out protesting the run-off candidates. Voting validity in question. The P-a-P airport closes.

December 8, 2010

Cholera outbreak reportedly caused by UN Peacekeepers.

December 10 - 12, 2010

Our first scheduled and subsequently postponed trip to Haiti. Not a chance.

January 12, 2011

One year after the earthquake.

January 16, 2011

Jean-Claude Duvalier, a.k.a. Baby Doc, returns to Haiti after almost 25 years in exile in France.

February 3, 2011

Run-off candidates announced, leaving Préval's party representative out of the running. The OAS, UN, and U.S. support the announcement.

February 7, 2011

René Préval expected to announce he's staying in power until May 14, 2011 when the newly-elected president can take over.

March 20, 2011

Voting opens for the Presidential run-off elections.

On Thursday night, we faced a heavy question of whether to visit Haiti this weekend (February 5 - 7) or not. With the U.S. Embassy's red alert urging only essential travel to Haiti for American citizens and Project Medishare closing down until Monday for fear of particularly threatening unrest, we had every reason to vote for the safe and pragmatic option. Being the ignorant bull that I am, I wanted to charge anyway, hoping the hype was exaggerated and the stories would still be there. The butt-shaped crater in this couch certainly knows which way we ultimately leaned.

U.S. Embassy Red Alert
U.S. Embassy Red Alert

Plights and Treading Water

Rene Preval
Rene Preval

Haiti received a massive blow from the earthquake, gained some potential leverage with aid including two billion from American charities alone, and has been treading water in preparation for some political stability that will hopefully result from the democratic elections. Sadly, this process appears far from transparent and riddled with curveballs and dramatic spikes.

Rene Preval, the nation's soon-to-be outgoing president, announced Monday he was not going to leave the office nor choose a temporary successor until the democratic elections on March 20th bear fruit of a fairly appointed ruler. Seems straightforward enough to me; emergency law laid the groundwork for this possibility long ago, and foreign powers support this more stable of options. Especially in the wake of the Egyptian uprising, it seems there was a fear that Haitians would lash out (as they had done when candidate "Sweet Micky" was prematurely excluded from the run-off) and cause mass hysteria around the country, determined to 'dethrone' a man who hasn't done much for his rubble-strewn country.

Already in this situation, there are underperforming leaders, disputed candidates for future elections, natural disasters, impoverished communities, and the potential of resources withheld or unfairly distributed. And we haven't even gotten to the really dramatic part.

The Hollywood-esque Developments

Photo courtesy of Marjorie Valbrun and Washinton Post

As I dig deeper into Haiti: The Tumultuous History - From the Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation, I'm learning what awful events and toxic mindsets have contributed to the hindered progress of Haiti, socially and politically, since the land's first occupation. Inhumane colonial forces raping people and land of potential. Power-hungry leaders rise in the name of the people and fall into the same evil practices of deceit and oppression. Some of the most shocking and violent massacres resulting from distrust and revenge have solidified a memory of racial lines being a key indicator of identity and survival. This is my subway book. It is not easy reading.

A period I haven't yet reached in my reading is the era of the Duvaliers, more specifically the rule of "Baby Doc." Darn my slow reading comprehension, for now's the time to be aware of this man's track record. Rubbing salt into their crumbly wound, Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti from his exile in France, in a move that had the world's populations saying, "What the hell?"

A former dictator and self-claimed 'President for Life,' Baby Doc adopted power from his father, known as "Papa Doc," at the age of 19 and treated it with the same care and consideration a 19 year-old treats his or her liver/brain (so, not very well). And now he's back to a country still reeling from massive natural disaster and scrambling to stand politically - apparently open to another 'term' of President for Life and unfazed by the potential for being charged with crimes against humanity. Ballsy.

This is ridiculous; not to say America and other world governments don't have their share of dramatic and inexcusable moves. How does power honestly cripple and poison so many minds of leaders and bring them to abuse humanity? How can this man not be self-aware enough to realize people may just not want him around after what he did to their country for decades?

To top that debauchery off, another exiled ruler is typing up his laces, packing up his passport, and heading back home. If Aristide returns to Haiti after his seven-year exile in South Africa, his presence could hint at pressure for a compete "do-over" of the presidential election, further delaying any sort of political authority, which is desperately needed. And who knows what would happen of Duvalier and Aristide put their heads together. The population of Haiti deserves more than this.

Processing This Confusion

All of theses signs point to Haitians being some of the most resilient populations on the planet and in history. With a story that bleeds off the pages it's written, it's no wonder the residual pain still plays a role in Haitian society today. I only hope that a leader comes to power soon that empowers his or her countrymen with the tools and resources they need to make their own progress happen. And while I'm wishing and hoping, I'd also like to see some integrity and humanity be at the forefront of this next leader's mind. To be president should be to be selfless.

Being an outsider and a relatively recent observer of all things Haitian, I'm tempted to assume things I can't prove from my post here in New York, listening to mass media and a sifting through a lot of crap journalism on the internet. I know I'm only privvy to part of the reality, a reality to which I wanted to be a witness this past weekend.

And so I continue my self-taught lessons in world history and cross-cultural relations. I highly encourage your involvement in this grapple for understanding. I'm looking forward to the day when I can help celebrate Haiti for its unique culture and drop the obsession with its disheartening troubles.