Posted: September 22, 2008E
Vicious storms transformed the streets of Gonaives, Haiti, into mud-choked, fetid rivers. Rotting animal carcasses floated between homes where people had scrambled to the rooftops, clutching their belongings and praying for the waters to recede. Thousands more people were forced to the roads, carrying goats and children as they searched for shelter, food and water. Death toll estimates climbed to more than 1,000.
This was Haiti earlier this month. But it was also Haiti in 2004, when Tropical Storm Jeanne killed 3,000 people. And it will be Haiti again -- maybe next week, maybe next year, but assuredly soon -- unless the United States changes our policies that hurt the people of our hemisphere's poorest nation.
In Haiti, the deadly consequences of tropical storms and hurricanes are more of a political tragedy than a meteorological one. Other Caribbean nations, including Cuba, were battered by the storms but suffered only a handful of casualties. As Partners in Health's Dr. Paul Farmer wrote from submerged Gonaives two weeks ago, Haiti is suffering from a distinctly un-natural disaster.
"The real storm damage doesn't come from the ocean waves," says Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. "It comes from the water pouring down from the mountains stripped bare of any trees and into communities with horribly inadequate drainage systems. Many poor Haitians have little alternative but to cut down trees to sell for charcoal, and the government of Haiti doesn't have the ability to install a decent drainage system or coordinate disaster response."
Concannon and other advocates for Haiti, including thousands of Hoosiers who are active in the 68 Indiana Roman Catholic parishes that have relationships with Haitian counterparts, identify several solutions the United States can kick-start immediately.
First, the Senate can pass the Jubilee Act, which would cancel the debt of impoverished countries like Haiti. "Haiti is sending $1 million each week to banks to pay off debt when that money could be much better spent on reforestation or disaster planning," Concannon says. The House version of the Jubilee Act passed in April, while the Senate version, co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar, awaits a vote.
Sen. Evan Bayh should follow Lugar's lead, and Congress should pass the Jubilee Act this fall. Forcing Haitians victimized by oppressive regimes to repay the debts incurred by their past dictators is like forcing a battered wife to repay the pawn shop for the cost of the knife used to attack her.
Second, President Bush can grant temporary protected status to Haitians currently living in the United States, which would allow those non-residents to work without fear of deportation and send money back to suffering families. Haiti's economy is so weak that these remittances already equal an estimated 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Granting short-term lenience for immigrants from similarly struggling countries like El Salvador, Somalia and Sudan has helped provide the kind of short-term relief Haiti needs now.
Third, we can reform U.S. trade policy that has crippled Haiti's agricultural economy. The recent global spike in food costs leaves many Haitians so desperate that they are forced to literally eat dirt. That shouldn't happen in Haiti, which as recently as the 1980s produced all the rice needed to feed the country. Now, subsidized U.S. imports have forced Haitian farmers out of the market. "I know Haitian rice farmers who got so little return on their crops they couldn't afford to pay for help to harvest it," Concannon says. "So they left the rice unharvested in the fields."
Unless we change U.S. policies immediately, it is the country of Haiti that is being left in the water to rot.
Quigley is an attorney and director of operations for the Indiana-Kenya Partnership.