One week ago today on Tuesday, January 12th at 4:53pm local time, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale rumbled from 6 miles under the Caribbean island of Hispaniola not far from the capital city of Port-au-Prince in the nation of Haiti.
Widespread damage and massive death resulted almost immediately, and as the ensuing week has passed the death toll estimates have risen into the hundreds of thousands. It was the worst quake to strike at Haiti in over two centuries, and is going to prove to be one of the largest natural disasters in human history.
There is a story here that is being mostly buried under the literal rubble that is now the nation of Haiti. It is a story that most humanitarians would say is secondary at this stage to the human loss and suffering. They are correct on one level. Help is needed, massive amounts of help, and it is needed quickly.
But that story needs to be told as well, because it tells the story of a nation that was a complete mess even before the earthquake struck. It is a story of a nation run by criminal gangs and thugs with little or no national authority. It is a cautionary tale about allowing anarchy to take hold and destroy lives.
For those who are not aware of the basic facts, Haiti makes up the western end of the island of Hispaniola which it shares with it’s neighbor on the east side, the Dominican Republic. The island is approximately 700 miles southeast of Florida.
It was on December 5th, 1492 that Christopher Columbus landed in the ‘New World’ at Hispaniola and claimed the island for Spain. The island was already inhabited at that time by a native tribe known as the Taino. Over the next couple of hundred years the Spanish continued to develop the island, and also began importing African slaves.
In the late 17th century, French buccaneers began to settle the west side of the island which would later become Haiti, and pirates used Hispaniola regularly thereafter due to it’s strategic location in the Caribbean. Famed French pirate Jean Lafitte, who frequently operated off the southern United States, was born here in 1782. John Audubon, the famed French-American ornithologist for whom today’s nature society is named, was born in what is now Haiti in 1785.
The Spanish and French fought for control of the island, and in 1697 signed a treaty that gave the French control of the western end which they named Saint-Domingue. They brought in thousands of African slaves who made possible the French settlers wealth in the coffee, sugar and indigo industries.
In 1791 a revolution of sorts began to break out among the slaves, which was inspired itself by the French Revolution. The French tried to maintain control by abolishing slavery, and a former slave took over the reigns of governmental power for the first time.
Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to retake control and reinstitute slavery a few years later. These efforts proved not only fruitless but disastrous, as more than 50,000 French troops were lost in the efforts. On January 1st, 1804, the slaves formally declared independence and renamed their nation as Haiti, thus becoming the only nation ever born directly of a slave revolt.
In July of 1825, France again tried to reconquer the island. This time the Haitian government did not fare so well, and was forced to negotiate a peace that allowed it to retain its independence and name, but at the cost of financially reimbursing France for what it deemed were lost slave wage profits.
In the aftermath of this deal with France the Haitian government lost support and in 1843 was removed in a coup. This began a string of dozens of such governmental coups over the ensuing century and a half, leading right up to today.
In 2004, the latest coup removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the United Nations has been trying to restore order ever since.
Haiti is a nation with a supposed political structure, but which in actuality was being run on a day-to-day practical level by gangs, some organized and some not, but all violent in nature. These gangs divert or hijack any material aid sent to the country by well-meaning humanitarian groups, with only the Brazilian-led U.N. mission keeping any semblance of order.
It was the mess of a nation called Haiti, a nation that really didn’t need any more trouble heaped upon it, that was devastated last week. But the real fact is that Haiti’s 10 million people were already living under intolerable, unmanageable circumstances long before the earthquake.
In the aftermath of the quake, the United States has been requested to come to the rescue and provide security for the massive undertaking that will be the rescue, relief, stabilization, and recovery operation that will be going on in the country over the coming months and years.
With a little luck and a lot of sustained American intervention, it is possible that what is reborn of Haiti can actually be better than what came before, and can provide the Haitian people with stability and an opportunity at having a real society that is free and safe for all it’s citizens, not just the elite few or the street-wise strongmen that were contributing to its ruin long before the earthquake.