Updated: Dec 21, 2022
Recently, photos and videos surfaced of horse-mounted Border Patrol agents accosting Haitian migrants at the border. The disturbing scene put Haiti back in focus following the August 14th earthquake that killed, injured and displaced thousands.
In the months since, recovery has been complicated by a fuel shortage, and aid distribution has collided with a simultaneous gang violence crisis. This earthquake has brought great devastation to a country still reeling from previous natural disasters and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Haiti is often in the news for tragedy—and this can have a flattening effect on our perception of the vibrant Caribbean nation, a place steeped in culture and forged in self-liberation. Here’s why what’s happening in Haiti is more nuanced than you think:
Why Haiti’s earthquakes are so destructive
Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, a country which has historically weathered earthquakes better. It’s often repeated that Haiti’s buildings take more damage because they don’t have the right construction.
While it’s true that Haiti’s infrastructure has suffered due to poverty and corruption, something you may not have heard is that Haiti actually gets worse earthquakes than the D.R. Haiti is situated closer to the fault lines that rock Hispaniola—one even runs directly through Haiti’s capitol—so the effects of any seismic events are more strongly felt.
Why Haiti’s recovery is harder
Preparing for these events and picking up the pieces is hard for Haiti because their economy has been throttled by racism. Their present-day poverty goes back to isolation they faced on the world stage for being a successful slave rebellion.
Haiti started as a French colony that supplied 40% of Europe’s sugar and 60% of their coffee. In 1804 the enslaved people of Haiti overthrew the French regime, becoming the world’s first Black-led republic.
They were made a global pariah: France and the United States put trade embargoes on Haiti as retribution and a message to others who might rise up. Then in 1825, France extorted Haiti for “reparations” to their slaveholders. This debt took a staggering 122 years to pay off, and decades of constant insolvency kept stability from taking hold in the government.
The United States formally occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, but has used them like a plantation ever since for products such as clothing and cocoa. The U.S. even persuaded Haiti to shift away from agriculture towards manufacturing and export, which proved ruinous for them. We’ve also supported Haitian dictators because their rule lined up with our economic interests.
In short, Haiti was shunned by the world economy—then exploited. It’s why law professor Bill Quigley has argued that we owe Haiti billions.
The effects of this colonization pervade socially, too. When citizens protested Moïse’s refusal to concede office earlier this year, they were met with repression and rubber bullets. Mamyrah Dougé-Prosper, Visiting Assistant Professor at Davidson College and International Coordinator of Community Movement Builders, sees this as part of “imperialism’s thorn”. She points out that white Marines patrolled Haiti during the era of Jim Crow, infusing Haiti’s military industrial complex with the same dehumanizing logic.
How you can help
Donate—but not to the Red Cross, who have reportedly misappropriated funds meant for Haiti before. This is a sentiment shared by many social media users identifying themselves as Haitian. Instead, they suggest giving to these organizations:
Kay Trans, a home for displaced LGBT youth.
Learn about Haiti. We have a mental model, or schema, of every country we can name. But we don’t always evaluate those schemas or where they come from. Think about what your sources are on Haiti and switch up your media diet. Pay attention to Haitian voices and Haitian joy.
Watch this interview from Black Power Media featuring Mamyrah Dougé-Prosper.
Follow these accounts on Twitter:
@Jacquiecharles (Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean Correspondent Miami Herald)
@JStPaul1 (Jean Eddy Saint Paul, PhD, Prof. Sociology at Brooklyn College)
@MySoulIsInHaiti (Bertin M. Louis, Jr, ABA_AAA President-Elect)