Haiti was the first independent country of Latin America. In the last years of the 18th century the French colony of Santo Domingo, which occupied the western half of the island of Hispaniola, saw the coffee and sugar cane plantations that had produced such immense wealth for Europe set ablaze. The fires were started by black slaves, whether brought over from Africa or born in the colony, who had the audacity to think that the enlightenment dream that liberty, equality, and fraternity were possible for all men applied to them as well, the most exploited and unequal, though men nonetheless.
The challenge presented to the world and history by black Haitian ex-slaves seemed too audacious and was promptly reduced to a secular curse. Since that time Haiti would be the site of invasions and occupations, dictatorships and violence, misery, suffering, ignorance, fear, and fanaticism. The dreams of utopia extinguished, Haiti would become a window into hell on the face of the earth.
Haiti needs the help that is arriving today, but it has needed this help for a long time – help to extract itself from its ancestral misery, its intense ignorance, and its poverty
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, the most illiterate, the most afflicted by violence and disease, hunger and ill health. Nine million men, women and children, almost entirely black, live on a rough and depleted stretch of land periodically overrun by the kind of violence that erupts among the poorest, least educated, and dispossessed: radical and without limit. In Haiti, hundreds of children, women, and old people die each day of hunger, malnutrition, curable diseases, and desolation.
Until the fury of nature devastated the Haitian capital on 12 January, leaving a toll of the dead still impossible to quantify, who talked about Haiti? Who remembered Haiti and its eternal agony?
Today the governments of many countries are expressing their concern and offering humanitarian assistance to the ravaged country. Thanks to an earthquake that seems straight out of the Book of Revelations (though fury of this nature cannot be divine), Haiti is being talked about, helped, and remembered. The assistance and rescue teams that reach Haiti will certainly save lives, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless and dispossessed. But when the crisis is past, who will continue to help Haiti?
The tens of thousands of dead that now lie beneath the ruins of a catastrophically poor city, in open improvised ditches and even in the streets, are moving in a particular way. But what of those who died of hunger and despair the day before? Who was moved by them?
Now when we speak of Haiti we should use words not only of condolence but also of hope. Haiti needs the help that is arriving today, but it has needed this help for a long time – help to extract itself from its ancestral misery, its intense ignorance, and its poverty, which are as, if not more, devastating than the most destructive earthquake. The fury of nature has reminded us that Haiti exists. Let us hope that tomorrow, when the tragedy no longer dominates the headlines and the appeals of international organizations, when the dead are buried, we will not forget that Haiti still exists, poor and miserable, and that its people will continue to die unless a real effort is made to change the tragic destiny that an unjust world inflicted on the descendants of the slaves who two centuries ago fought for liberty, equality, and fraternity among men. As if it were possible.
Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than 15 languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.
more coverage/comment on Haiti:
Aid or invade? Blog by Sokari Ekine
Haiti: disaster aid or disaster capitalism? Richard Swift reports from the Caribbean.