Port au Prince, Haiti, January 12, 2010, 4:53 PM. We were eating dinner when the earthquake struck. As Californians we knew the meaning of the distorted room with plates sliding from the table and pictures tumbling from the wall. We grabbed hands and ran outside. The building held, unlike many others nearby.
Once we realized we were uninjured I spent a moment, long and deep and dense and wide, taking in the fact that I was in a city unequipped to deal with this event. Port au Prince has no reliable municipal electricity, no primary health care, no potable piped-in water, no effective building code and no emergency response plan. I wondered whether I and my loved ones would survive.
Our Haitian host, Jean Kernizan, went outside his gate with my husband and daughter to assess the loss. Within moments they returned, sobered by cries coming up from ravines of rubble and hundreds of frightened citizens flooding into the street.
Kernizan kept his gate open, and people crowded into his courtyard seeking treatment for wounds and injuries. I was afraid we would be overwhelmed by the multitude. I had the usual traveler’s supplies for a trip to a developing country—hand sanitizer, aspirin, antibiotics, anti-diarrhea medicines and pain killers. If I handed them out to the people in the courtyard they would be gone in an instant; yet who knew how long we would be there and what we would require for ourselves?
I asked my host what his plans were. He said we could not let everyone in, and I was reassured by his good sense, though we both knew this meant excluding many in need. Still, we spent the night in that courtyard administering first aid.
We used what we had at hand—rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, gauze pads, anti-bacterial soap, and splints made from wooden strips and torn undershirts. We handed out two of my Vicodins to adults in pain; I kept the rest of my stash. Blood was everywhere and we had no rubber gloves. I had a firm hold on the sanitizer, to make certain we all cleaned our hands at regular intervals. Kernizan saw to it that the people were fed, but he also made sure we kept more food and drinking water for ourselves.
The people could have stormed our operation at any moment and taken over, but there was not the slightest move in that direction. Heartfelt thank-yous for our care came from people in the midst of grief and fear. In the two days that followed not a single person went anywhere on Kernizan’s property without permission. Eventually he asked the people who were still in the courtyard to leave, so we could prepare our own departure. Everyone exited with quiet dignity to their own uncertain future, the last family bearing its injured loved one away on a stretcher made of a wooden door.
By the middle of the second day we understood that outside help would not arrive soon, so we piled into a vehicle and headed for the American Embassy. On the way we were caught in a huge traffic jam by a mobbed gas station. Civilians, all men, were yelling, directing vehicles to move as little as an inch one way or the other. Haitian citizens unraveled the knot without a single scratch to a car or truck. We reached our destination at the American Embassy, where there was a makeshift clinic.
Finally I surrendered my meager supply of medicine to the common store. Late that night we were evacuated by military transport.
So, I kept what was most needed to be sure of my own safety and that of the people I loved. This is what we humans do. But what if I had taken from the Haitians what little they had? What if I had robbed them of their meager piles of charcoal and mangoes that I saw on the way to the airport? Surely we would all agree—that would be wrong.
Yet this is what America, along with the French and the Haitian elite, has done to the Haitian people, who live so close to our shores. First we benefited from their slave labor, a crucial part of the three-cornered trade in sugar, manufactured goods and the slaves themselves. Next we helped the French enforce reparations as punishment for Haiti’s successful slave rebellion.
Reparations? Doesn’t that mean giving black people compensation for having been slaves? Well, no. With threats of re-conquest and economic embargo, the French forced former slaves to pay their former owners the estimated value of what they had lost—the slaves’ own bodies! The amount was 150 million gold francs. Uncle Sam was the collection agency for decades, per the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which prohibited European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. This adds up to $21 billion in today’s inflated dollars with five percent interest, compounded. This money needs to be paid back.
More recently American neo-liberal policies have ruined Haitian agriculture in the name of free trade, by forcing Haiti to lift a tariff that protected their rice growers. This led to subsidized rice from the United States flooding their market. Hence the mass migration of small farmers to Port au Prince, compounding slums and the earthquake’s damage.
Today we still steal Haiti’s labor. Our federal minimum wage is now $7.25. Per hour. Haiti’s minimum wage is now just over three dollars. Per day. But guess who is exempt from the this most minimal of minimum wage? American sweatshop companies in the “export zones.”
Finally, we have robbed Haiti of democracy. We aided two coups against Jean Bertrand Aristide, the first President freely elected in Haiti’s history. Aristide to this day is denied a passport, forbidden to return to his own country. He is an educator and a psychologist, loved by many people. Haiti needs him back, to help rebuild the country.
Something is wrong here. No one asks that we give up our private stash of medicine, food and water to the Haitian poor. Okay. We want our own stuff. We need to be safe when disaster comes. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to take away Haitians’ food, money and popular government. We should not rob them of the little they have as a cushion to survive the disaster of daily life, let alone a major earthquake.
This debacle of ripping off the Haitian poor to add to our huge wealth is inconsistent with modern American values. We owe it to Haiti to rebuild a livable city, using Haitian workers paid a living wage. Otherwise we compound nature’s injury with misconduct of our own. We would not treat people in this fashion if we understood them to be like ourselves. We must expand our notion of the human family to include others who seem different, but who, along with the rest of us, deserve to have what belongs to them—their own country and the fruits of their labor.
BARBARA RHINE is a practicing attorney in Oakland, CA and a former law professor. For those who wish to help she recommends supporting the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund at www.HaitiAction.net, an organization co-founded by her hus band in 2004.