The World

Haiti Is Not Unlucky

Focusing on the country’s bad breaks lets those responsible for its plight off the hook.

Two people on a motorbike ride past a pile of rubble in front of the husk of the church building
The remains of the Sacré Coeur church in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Sunday, after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the southwest peninsula of the country. Reginald Louissaint Jr./AFP via Getty Images

This article was adapted from Jonathan M. Katz’s newsletter, The Long VersionSubscribe at katz.substack.com.

For over a decade, people have been asking me the same question. “Have things gotten better in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake?” Yes and no, I’d say. I’d note it had been X years since that quake, which I survived as the resident Associated Press correspondent in the country—that the dead were long mourned, the rubble all cleared or repurposed (mostly by hand). I’d name-check the latest disaster, physical or social: Zika, Hurricane Matthew, peyi lòk, the assassination, what have you.

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If the conversation called for it, I might then issue my standard warning. The thing is, I’d say, the underlying dangers are all still the same. Homes and buildings are still built unsafely for a seismic zone. There are still no improved social or emergency services. The roads suck. Nothing got “built back better.” If the same earthquake struck again at the same place on the same fault line, it would be the same catastrophe all over again.

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Well, it happened again. Eleven years, seven months, and two days after the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, a similar—apparently stronger, in fact—earthquake struck Haiti’s southern peninsula. It was not in the same spot (nor even the same fault). Rather, its epicenter was approximately 59 miles west of that of the Jan. 12, 2010, goudougoudoulikely on the larger Enriquillo–Plantain Garden Fault to the south. At least 1,941 people have been confirmed dead, and the death toll is still rising. On Tuesday, three days after the quake, Tropical Storm Grace dumped about a foot of rain on southern Haiti, triggering further landslides and floods.

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Many reacted to the news by saying something like “Haiti can’t catch a break.” First of all, that’s an idea that needs to be thrown out entirely. Haitians’ constant suffering is the result of very intentional decisions (about who gets money, who avoids accountability, and construction codes, among other things) made in foreign capitals and Port-au-Prince—not random chance.

But as far as this latest disaster is concerned, the opposite seems to have been the case. That the epicenter was positioned far enough to the west was an extraordinary break for Port-au-Prince and most of the 2010 quake zone, which as a result escaped largely unscathed. Given that the capital region is home to roughly a third of Haiti’s estimated 11 million people, this was, on the surface of things, a deeply lucky break for the Haitian people on a national scale.

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The location of the epicenter was extraordinarily unlucky, however, for the people of the smaller cities on the far end of Haiti’s southern peninsula including Les Cayes (known by the locals as Aux Cayes or Okay) and Jérémie. Those cities were not directly affected by the 2010 quake at all, but were still reeling from 2016’s devastating Hurricane Matthew, which was followed by an acute food shortage. Thanks to the wanton insecurity of the past few months, the roads to those cities had been effectively cut off from the capital, which is the only place where people can access commerce, international trade, and political power at scale. Those places have now been further crushed.

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It may be hard to understand the reactions of many of us who lived through the 2010 quake to the awful scenes that came out of southwestern Haiti today. I saw a video of a man surveying the freshly made damage. He exclaims at one point, “It looks like douz janvye!” (meaning Jan. 12—in Haiti it’s like 9/11, only bigger; you don’t have to say the year). He was there, navigating the dust cloud from the new quake, and yet he almost instinctively framed it in relation to that increasingly distant prior event.

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I think part of it is the mind-numbingly epochal scale of the earlier quake. (Somewhere between 100,000 and 316,000 people died, millions more were injured or displaced—yet even those figures only give the faintest impression of what it was actually like.) But more than that, for me it least, it is a point of anger, a long-simmering rage, that we had told the world that this had happened and could easily happen again, and yet nothing changed.

The foreign predations continued. Haiti’s domestic corruption under the leadership of people groomed and boosted by Washington, Brussels, Paris, Ottawa, and New York got worse. In 2011, Hillary Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince in her role as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, and in effect ordered Haiti’s then president to change the results of a post-quake election. The leader who emerged from that manipulation, a pro-business pop singer named Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, presided over the wanton theft of state funds. When an inspector general’s report implicated his handpicked successor, Jovenel Moïse, in the corruption, a wave of national protests broke out—only to be brutally suppressed by state security forces and allied gangs.

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Moïse, with the fulsome support of the Trump administration, then presided over the further weakening of the state. He refused to hold a single election during his tenure, overstayed the constitutional end of his mandate, and tried to schedule a likely illegal referendum to revise the constitution in a way that would allow him to remain in office. When he was murdered in his home in July (the architects of the assassination remain unknown), the republic was left with just 10 elected leaders—all members of a remnant Senate. The latest earthquake struck weeks later.

It is no wonder then that Haitians have simply become more immiserated, to the point that a significant number of Haitians have found it preferable to fly to Brazil and literally walk across the continent to the U.S. border than stick it out in their homeland.

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There are some encouraging signs of change from 2010. Instead of blanket appeals to donate to the American Red Cross and other big foreign organizations that have only made the situation in Haiti worse, there seems to be an increasing awareness that small, local organizations are a better way to go. (One list can be found here.) But talking to my friends on the island and watching the images coming out of Haiti’s southwest, I can only ask: How? How, 11 years after entire cities fell down, are we being treated to scenes of more Haitian church roofs collapsing, more Haitian hotels pancaking, and more voices screaming from inside the rubble? Was it not enough last time? Will anything ever be?

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