Clinging to a sinking ship in the middle of the Atlantic, competing mercilessly with each other for mere survival, waiting for a helping hand that came too late, that upturned sloop that over 100 Haitians were found hanging on to could have been Haiti itself.
Haiti has been in the spotlight again. This time not at the bidding of a natural disaster, a tragedy on an epic scale that demands our attention and suggests an equally immediate and grand response, but in light of a series of events, each of which point to the ongoing desperation of those who live on this island just 680 miles from the Miami, and in even closer proximity to its Caribbean neighbours.
First it was protests, which received relatively little press coverage, but were not altogether ignored; the people rose up and demanded more from their government in the face of increases in the cost of living, and high levels of corruption. Then it was the ruling by the supreme court of the Dominican Republic in September, stripping all of those born to migrants since 1929 of their citizenship. The ruling primarily impacts Haitians – potentially as many as 200,000, some claim. And in the last two weeks, Haitians were again in the spotlight as they found themselves upturned and holding on for dear life in the waters of The Bahamas. Just another Haitian sloop disaster, but this one on a grander scale than most – 30 died, while over 100 clung on for their lives.
Cumulatively, this recent spate of Haitian tragedy represents yet another reason to stop and consider the Haitian situation – that of an economic and social leper in its region, and the world, many of its people so unwilling to continue to live in their own country that they risk life and limb to go abroad, only to be shunned wherever they go.
These tragic incidents should cause a sharpening of the debate that has arisen on reparations, in which Caribbean nations are now suing their former colonial masters for compensation for slavery. If indeed there is any country in the world more eligible for such reparations it is Haiti, given that they not only suffered slavery during the time it existed, but its economic slavery extended until when they were forced to compensate their own former slave masters to the tune of an estimated $17 billion in today’s money. If there is one glaring cause of Haiti’s under-development, it would be the draining of resources from the island into the pockets of France for over 120 years while others were able to use their resources to invest in institutions and develop their people. A chorus of voices called for repayment after the 2010 earthquake, but the calls have since subsided.
The tragedy of Haiti today requires a complex and nuanced response, both from those within and without the country itself. I do not pretend to have the answers in this regard. But if the past several weeks events should serve to highlight anything it is that the plea for reparations from the Caribbean cannot be so easily dismissed, as those who are being called upon have sought to ensure.
While Haiti may have officially rid itself of colonial masters in 1804, it remained in economic slavery – handing over the fruits of its own labour – until 1947. What would some of the world’s most developed countries look like today if they had been forced to surrender billions of dollars to another country over such an extended period of time?
To illustrate the difference on a more local level, there is a distance of just 500 or so miles between the capital of The Bahamas and Haiti, and even less between the closest islands, and yet the disparity in indicators is like a chasm. The average yearly salary in Haiti is $250 while in The Bahamas official figures peg it at $21,000. This is not coincidental, and while many factors would have contributed, the French indemnity is surely of enormous significance. The earthquake of 2010 brought focus to the matter of repayment, but just like the aid that was promised then, the voices spoke louder than the actions that followed.
Meanwhile, although their Caribbean brothers and sisters, not to mention the rest of the world, expressed disgust at a ruling that stripped Black Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship in the Dominican Republic, their actions ooze hypocrisy. While they may unite in protest, The Caribbean has not come together in any meaningful shape or form to discuss the Haitian situation, despite proclamations of solidarity within the region, and the fact that a developing Haiti should not only be an ethical call to action for the region but also represents a hugely untapped economic opportunity for all within it, given Haiti’s population of almost 11 million and the strain unchecked migration places on the resources of other countries.
Of course, the region is in a quagmire, and each country alone is struggling not to slip back, but this does not excuse the decades long turning of the region’s back towards Haiti, and should not entirely preclude action today.
Hypocrisy highlighted by recent events around Haiti does not stop with its neighbours. Most notably, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemns the Dominican Republic on the one hand for its callous treatment of Black Dominicans of Haitian-descent, yet has sought to absolve itself of responsibility for a major cholera outbreak in Haiti, one which has infected over 650,000 and left 8,000 dead since October 2010, reintroducing a long forgotten disease to that country and contributing to the conditions which surely drive people abroad. The UN has pledged to help Haiti overcome the epidemic, but maintains it has immunity from prosecution and has officially rejected legal claims made on behalf of affected Haitians.
The very vulnerabilities that drew these nations and institutions to intervene in Haiti have made it all too easy for them to quietly – or even flagrantly – fail to live up to their responsibilities to do no harm.
While many Caribbean nations struggle, Haiti’s reality suggests the need for soul searching both on the part of its Caribbean neighbours and its former colonial rulers. Haiti clearly has the strongest case for reparations, given its extended enforced financial servitude post-slavery, and perhaps it is for this quite unassailable cause that Caribbean nations should lobby. It would be in the self interest of all to build up their neighbour.
Meanwhile, Caricom itself must come together to look at how it can help its neighbour, rather than engaging in acts of outright hostility, indifference, or posturing. While statements have emanated from the political leadership in the wake of the Dominican ruling, condemning the treatment of Haitians, this is the easy part.
The migrants who survived the Haitian sloop disaster in the Bahamian islands may have been repatriated to Haiti now, but in reality they remain as they always have: clinging to an upturned and unstable reality, fighting for life in desperation and indignity, promised salvation but instead waiting for assistance that always seems to come too late. Recent events are yet another unfortunate reminder for the Caribbean, the UN, and to all of us to re-examine their responsibilities to Haiti.