Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

New level of compassion shown in Haiti relief efforts

There used to be a billboard just outside the airport in Port-au-Prince that read: “Mon père a fait la révolution politique ; moi, je fais la révolution économique.”

Loosely translated, Haitians understood this message from then-president Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier to mean: “My father (dictator François Duvalier) persecuted, jailed and forced his political opponents into exile; I will milk the public treasury.”

As the world focuses on yet another natural disaster in that unfortunate land, it should be understood that the misery of the majority of its people is in part the result of self-serving leadership that has dominated the world’s first black republic, the product of a successful slave revolt that lasted from 1791-1803.

An impoverished nation

When this nation of 9 million people – poorest in the Americas, with a per-capita income of $1,400 – suffers an earthquake in the capital, home to an estimated 3 million people, the suffering is immediate and brutal.

It is estimated that four in five Haitians are impoverished and undernourished. Those who do have work, including for such Canadian firms as T-shirt maker Gildan, earn $2-$3 a day.

Slums like Cité Soleil in the capital have grown exponentially as a result of massive deforestation. Haitians cook with charcoal, the only fuel they can afford. The erosion caused by deforestation and the flooding of the country with cheap U.S. rice has combined to devastate farming, drawing more rural dwellers to the city, where they are housed in sub-standard cement dwellings. Most of these homes collapsed when the earthquake struck.

A debt unforgiven

While Port-au-Prince’s unfortunate location atop tectonic plates is problematic, foreign debt and neo-colonialism are other underlying problems. France never could accept being defeated and outmaneuvered by a bunch of slaves. In 1825, in return for a pledge not to reinvade, France compelled the Haitian government to pay 90 million gold francs (about $22 billion) as restitution to France and French slave owners. It took until 1947 to erase that debt.

The U.S., under slave-owning president Thomas Jefferson, feared the revolt would spread to its shores. It cut off all aid and tried to isolate the second independent entity in the Americas. U.S. Marines invaded in 1914 to remove Haitian funds in a dispute over American firms building Haiti’s railway system and stayed until 1935. American racism contrasted with the invaders’ improvements to the country’s road, bridges, schools and hospitals, but Haiti’s debt increased. In September, the International Monetary Fund pegged Haiti’s external debt at $1.8 billion. Many say that with this debt, compounded by a series of natural disasters, Haiti never had a chance. We disagree and strongly urge Montrealers to continue responding to its cry for assistance.

Helping to clear the debt

Canada is to be commended for its leadership on the crippling debt issue – and that includes the Harper government. Forgiving $2.3 million in loans last September brought the total of Canada’s debt relief to Haiti to $965 million. We join our voice to the worldwide movement calling on major lending nations to forgive all of Haiti’s debt as 19 members of the Paris Club of creditor nations have already done. We urge the Marshall-Plan effort to rebuild houses, hospitals, schools, government institutions and infrastructure, to assist in reforestation and restoration of agriculture. Canadians, especially Quebecers, home to a 100,000-strong diaspora, have been generous. While the U.S. telethon last month collected $61 million, Canada, with one-10th the population, gave $20 million in response to two telethons, which was doubled to $40 million by the federal government.

Bravo to the credit card companies

Even MasterCard, Visa, and American Express, responding to criticism for charging up to three per cent of charitable donations for transaction fees, suspended these charges on Haitian relief donations to the Canadian Red Cross, Médecins sans frontières, UNICEF Canada and World Vision. Bravo!

Israel and Cuba lend a hand

We were also gratified to see the rapid dispatch by Israel of a 218-person search-and-rescue and emergency medical team, fully equipped to go into action from Day 1, and still rescuing survivors on the seventh day after the earthquake.

Cuba, with its remarkable medical system, also stepped up to the plate. In addition to the 344 doctors and other health professionals working in Haiti under an agreement with the government, Cuba sent 30 physicians, with food, medicine, plasma and other supplies.

They opened makeshift clinics in their residences because local hospitals were destroyed, reopened the Social Security hospital and began treating the injured when they reopened the national hospital in Port-au-Prince. Cuba has also allowed the U.S. to use its airspace for relief efforts. Perhaps Haiti’s tragedy, shocking as it is, can lead to a new spirit of co-operation, even rapprochement, in the Caribbean.

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