CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA
While millions of Floridians are grittily focused on finding a way back to normalcy, it is worth reflecting on the dominant concern of our times: security.
Hurricane Jeanne hit Haiti hard before it did that loop the loop and aimed right where Frances had gone before. The double blow bent the knees of the most hardened residents of Florida’s Treasure Coast, already weakened by calamitous, toxic outflows from Lake Okeechobee.
The death toll in Haiti, first reported at 500, quickly mounted to more than 1,000 and is likely to double. More than 250,000 are homeless. The storm hit in the middle of the night in Gonaives, where most deaths occurred, without forewarning — no Weather Channel, no TV reporters with goggles leaning into the blistering wind.
When a hurricane aims for the United States, millions of people mobilize in synchronicity. The storm’s passing sets the stage for federal emergency managers, power crews clearing trees fallen from roads or on roofs, transformers shipped by the bushel in flatbed trailers, plywood stacked in perfect bundles, gasoline stations resupplied and rallying the troops.
Every response of our government to disaster reinforces the large-scale systems that provide comfort to people who can afford them, even when the viability of those systems is shaken by the power of nature.
But in Haiti — the poorest place in our hemisphere — every disaster only reinforces the vacuum of power and absence of organization to protect people from survival of the fittest.
In the United States, there seems no end to what we can do. In Haiti, there just seems to be no end.
“Those who didn’t have strong legs and arms to climb up on trees or roofs perished,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. Most of the dead were children, according to Bastien.
History has not been kind to the distance between Haiti and the United States. Haiti’s exile assets are rich with spirit and culture, but neither are homogenized the way Americans are accustomed. Haitians are a deeply religious people, but their suffusion of the other world as a way of explaining the sorrows and joys of this world is anathema to the orderliness we believe keeps our own hearts of darkness at bay.
Consider what 17 Haitians experienced last week who, days after Hurricane Jeanne raked their island, were deported by the Department of Homeland Security from a U.S. penitentiary none belonged in back to a hell none deserved.
If Haitian immigrants comprised an educated middle class like Florida’s Cubans or had a leader as threatening to our government as the one who has outlasted every president who sought to remove him, if Haitians had power, they, too, might have influenced immigration policy so that brothers and sisters could stay if they put one foot on dry ground in our country.
But Haiti’s dictators have only been ruthless or corrupt and compliant. For the most part, Haitians are poor and blacker, too.
Bastien asks with as much sorrow as anger: “Where is the United States?”
I think she is owed an answer. Those images on our television of refugees dazed and shocked as they tumble from life rafts or buckets, arrested as they step on our shore by our police in plastic gloves, are reflected in the blank faces and troubled silence of house cleaners, taxi drivers and dishwashers gripping the bottom rungs of the ladder we all use.
It is pretty clear where the United States is: We are nation-building in Iraq. We can’t summon the resources to help places like Haiti because we are pinned down in other hemispheres, and no color paint makes it a prettier picture.
Today, a million Floridians are waiting for the power to go back on. The waiting is terrible. People’s tempers are short, and patience is thinner than a page of newsprint.
But if you were a poor Haitian in Gonaives, where thugs commandeered relief supplies, you are one misfortune, one infected cut from death.
Today, to poor nations that view America with 1,000-yard stares from their beachfronts, it seems you have to be meaner than fate for the United States to cut you a break. That is not how it feels here: We are all waiting for the next whirlwind without any clear sense of how to protect ourselves from it happening again.
Americans who believe the value of the war in Iraq is that it is there and not here should understand the logic of helping our poorest neighbors achieve peace and prosperity in order to protect our own borders.
Truth is, we really aren’t sure what our missions are, beyond securing our own faith. It is not enough. The threshold for our attention as the wealthiest nation has to be something less than a catastrophe.
Our own comforts obscure how difficult it is to rearrange poverty that people experience as a humiliating stigma they did nothing to deserve. And although we seem to recognize that in a world of globalization we are not an island unto ourselves, too often our relations with the undeveloped world are poisoned by the attitude that if they would just learn to do business like we do, or if they can’t, let us do business for them, then everything would be swell.
Sad to say, if Haiti had enough oil, it would have something we need and we would have something to fight for. That much would be clear.
And still — were this so — our borders would not be secure any more than they are from the winds of a hurricane.
ALAN FARAGO, a longtime writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.