Monday, January 18, 2010

Long Live Haiti

There are people in prosperous countries who still wonder why they are obliged to go to the rescue in places like Haiti, where disasters seem to be continual and in which suffering is apparently as impossible to escape as it is to comprehend. They ask why they should bother helping the survivors when there will only be other disasters there or some place like it, and, because of overpopulation, even more people to rescue in years to come.

A few months ago I watched a documentary called Surviving Hunger, made in 2003, in which Sorious Samura went with a camera crew to live in a village in one of the poorest parts of Ethiopia to try and survive as long as he could eating only what the villagers ate.(1) I invited some Filipino friends to watch the documentary with me. But when we watched as Samura lost twenty pounds in the first seventeen days of his stay in the village on a diet of nothing but wild cabbage, the Filipinos became so sickened at what they saw and heard that I had to stop the DVD before it was finished.

The extreme discomfort of the Filipinos, all of them poor people, at the sight of starvation was not entirely surprising. It actually reminded me of another documentary I had seen several years before which examined infant mortality in Ecuador. There was a scene in which two young women were sitting together, both cradling babies in their arms. When one of them began to talk about how many children she had lost to dysentery, the woman sitting next to her carefully slid away from her on the seat. It was probably an unconscious response - one woman trying to distance herself, if only by a few inches, from the misfortune of the other.

For decades, Americans and Europeans have been subjected to pictures on their television screens of the victims of famine, disease and disaster in Africa, Asia and South America. they have had to develop, whether they liked it or not, a compunction regarding people all over the world who have survived floods, earthquakes, wars, and epidemics, only to find themselves without any means of surviving another day without food or water. In a very real sense, well-off Westerners have had to accept some of the responsibility for the world being the way that it is. They have had to face up to the fact that, no matter how far away the disaster had unfolded, they were living in the same world as its victims.

In the documentary I watched, or tried to watch, with my Filipino friends, Sorious Samura was addressing me, not them. And yet here I am, a beneficiary of the dumb luck that made me an American, and not an Ethiopian, a Filipino, or a Haitian, living among the poor, very nearly as poor as they, but by choice not circumstance. They must think I am crazy. Or, a strangely common suspicion, on the lam.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is also the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that was created, in 1804, from a slave revolt. That left Haiti in the unique position of being a virtual African state in the Caribbean, surrounded by European colonies - British, Spanish, and French. Throughout its calamitous history, it has been invaded, annexed, and otherwise exploited by its neighbors - including the United States. Since the ouster of Jean-Claude "Bébé Doc" Duvalier in 1986, Haiti has tacitly been a democracy, but a very fragile and contentious one. It remains as it has always been, desperately poor, beset with murderous paramilitary groups and private armies, an economy that was never stable enough even to be shattered, seasonal tropical storms and cyclones, and now earthquakes.

The people who have, over the years, grown quite understandably weary of seeing pictures of starving people on their TV screens may never contribute a penny to relief organizations. But whether they like it or not, they are citizens of the same world that makes such suffering possible, the same world that could alleviate all poverty, all famine in the world, but has chosen not to. It has decided instead to pretend that the only solution to these problems is the exportation and promotion of their economic affluence - the "trickle down" effect that will, some day in an unforeseen future, make everyone, if not economic equals, at least self-sufficient.

During the colonial era, which only ended in the late 20th-century and whose effects are still being felt in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the prosperity of the West depended on the labor of the millions in subjection to its rule. The world economy is no longer as limited and poverty is not as abject as it once was. But billions of people remain poor, millions go hungry, and die needlessly for lack of infrastructure, of curable diseases, or of ethnic warfare.

The attention span of the West is short. When a few hundred die here or there, the event does not even register in people's minds. Only when a disaster on an enormous scale happens is the West reminded of the consequences of its inaction and the victims reminded that they cannot depend on such capricious compassion.

(1) Only Samura spent the night in the village and took part in the experiment. The TV crew stayed in a hotel twenty-five miles away.
(2) The first Africans (slaves) in America were brought ashore in Virginia in 1619.

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