The first half of a longer polemic on the Haitian Earthquake. Appeared in Boston Review, May 2011
On January 12, 2010 an earthquake struck Haiti. The epicenter of the quake, which registered a moment magnitude of 7.0, was only 15 miles from the capital, Port-au-Prince. By the time the initials shocks subsided, Port-au-Prince and surrounding urbanizations were in ruins. Schools, hospitals, clinics, prisons collapsed. The electrical and communication grids imploded. The Presidential Palace, the Cathedral, and the National Assembly building—historic symbols of the Haitian patrimony—were severely damaged or destroyed. The headquarters of the UN aid mission were reduced to rubble, killing peacekeepers, aid workers, and the mission chief, Hédi Annabi.
The figures vary, but an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the quake, with hundreds of thousands injured and at least a million—one tenth of Haiti’s population—rendered homeless. According to the Red Cross, three million Haitians were affected. It was the single greatest catastrophe in Haiti’s modern history. It was for all intents and purposes an apocalypse.
Apocalypse comes to us from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning to uncover and unveil. Now, as James Berger reminds us in After the End, apocalypse has three meanings. First, it is the actual imagined end of the world, whether in Revelations or in Hollywood blockbusters. Second, it comprises the catastrophes, personal or historical, that are said to resemble that imagined final ending—the Chernobyl meltdown or the Holocaust or the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that killed thousands and critically damaged a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Finally, it is a disruptive event that provokes revelation. The apocalyptic event, Berger explains, in order to be truly apocalyptic, must in its disruptive moment clarify and illuminate “the true nature of what has been brought to end.” It must be revelatory.
“The apocalypse, then,” per Berger, “is the End, or resembles the end, or explains the end.” Apocalypses of the first, second and third kinds. The Haiti earthquake was certainly an apocalypse of the second kind, and to those who perished it may even have been an apocalypse of the first kind, but what interests me here is how the Haiti earthquake was also an apocalypse of the third kind, a revelation. This in brief is my intent: to peer into the ruins of Haiti in at attempt to describe what for me the earthquake revealed—about Haiti, our world, and even our future.
After all, if these types of apocalyptic catastrophes have any value it is that in the process of causing things to fall apart they also give us a chance to see the aspects of our world that we as a society seek to run from, that we hide behind veils of denials.
Apocalyptic catastrophes don’t just raze cities and drown coastlines; these events, in David Brooks’s words, “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” And equally important they allow us insight into the conditions that led to the catastrophe, whether we are talking about Japan or Haiti. (I do believe the tsunami-earthquake that ravaged Sendai this past March will eventually reveal much about our irresponsible reliance on nuclear power and the sinister collusion between local and international actors that led to the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe.)
If, as Roethke writes, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see” apocalypse is a darkness that gives us light.
But this is not an easy thing to do, this peering into darkness, this ruin-reading. It requires nuance, practice, and no small amount of heart.
I cannot, however, endorse it enough. Given the state of our world, in which the very forces that place us in harm’s way often take advantage of the confusion brought by apocalyptic events to extend their power and in the process increase our vulnerability, becoming a ruin-reader might not be so bad a thing. It could in fact save your life.
So the earthquake that devastated Haiti: what did it reveal?
Well I think it’s safe to say that first and foremost it revealed Haiti.
This might strike some of you as jejune but considering the colossal denial energies (the veil) that keep most third-world countries (and their problems) out of global sightlines, this is no mean feat. For most people Haiti has never been more than a blip on a map, a faint disturbance in the force so far removed that what happened there might as well have been happening on another planet. The earthquake for a while changed that, tore the veil from before planet’s eyes and put before us what we all saw firsthand or on the TV: a Haiti desperate beyond imagining.
If Katrina revealed America’s third world, then the earthquake revealed the third world’s third world. Haiti is by nearly every metric one of the poorest nations on the planet—a mind-blowing 80 percent of the population live in poverty, and 54 percent live in what is called “abject poverty.” Two-thirds of the workforce have no regular employment, and, for those who do have jobs, wages hover around two dollars a day. We’re talking about a country in which half the population lack access to clean water and 60 percent lack even the most basic health-care services, such as immunizations; where malnutrition is among the leading causes of death in children, and, according to UNICEF, 24 percent of five-year-olds suffer stunted growth. As the Haiti Children Project puts it: “Lack of food, hygienic living conditions, clean water and basic healthcare combine with epidemic diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to give Haiti among the highest infant, under-five and maternal mortality rates in the western hemisphere.” In Haiti life expectancy hovers at around 60 years as compared to, say, 80 years, in Canada.
Hunger, overpopulation, over-cultivation, and dependence on wood for fuel have strained Haiti’s natural resources to the breaking point. Deforestation has rendered vast stretches of the Haitian landscape almost lunar in their desolation. Haiti is eating itself. Fly over my island as I do two or three times a year, and what you will see will leave you speechless. Where forests covered 60 percent of the country in 1923, only two percent is now covered. This relentless deforestation has led to tremendous hardships; it is both caused by and causes poverty. Without forests, 6,000 hectares of arable land erode every year, and Haiti has grown more vulnerable to Hurricane-induced mudslides that wipe out farms, roads, bridges, even entire communities. In 2008 four storms caused nearly a billion dollars in damage—15 percent of the gross domestic product—and killed close to a thousand people. The mudslides were so extensive and the cleanup so underfunded that much of that damage is still visible today.
In addition to resource pressures, Haiti struggles with poor infrastructure. Political and social institutions are almost nonexistent, and a deadly confluence of political instability, pervasive corruption, massive poverty, and predation from elites on down to armed drug gangs has unraveled Haitian civic society, leaving the majority of Haitians isolated and at risk. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was reeling—it would not have taken the slightest shove to send it into catastrophe.
All this the earthquake revealed.
When confronted with a calamity of the magnitude of the Haitian earthquake, most of us resort to all manners of evasion—averting our eyes, blaming the victim, claiming the whole thing was an act of god—in order to avoid confronting what geographer Neil Smith calls the axiomatic truth of these events: “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster.” In every phase and aspect of a disaster, Smith reminds us, the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.
In other words disasters don’t just happen. They are always made possible by a series of often-invisible societal choices that implicate more than just those being drowned or buried in rubble.
This is why we call them social disasters.
The Asian tsunami of 2004 was a social disaster. The waves were so lethal because the coral reefs that might have protected the vulnerable coasts had been dynamited to facilitate shipping. And the regions that suffered most were those like Nagapattinam, in India, where hotel construction and industrial shrimp farming had already systematically devastated the natural mangrove forests, which are the world’s best tsunami-protectors.
Hurricane Katrina was a social disaster. Not only in the ruthless economic marginalization of poor African Americans and in the outright abandonment of same during the crisis, but in the Bush administration’s decision to sell hundreds of square miles of wetlands to developers, destroying New Orleans’s best natural protection. The same administration, according to Smith, gutted “the New Orleans Corp of Engineers budget by 80%, thus preventing pumping and levee improvements.”
As with the tsunami and Katrina, so too Haiti.
But Haiti is really exemplary in this regard. From the very beginning of its history, right up to the day of the earthquake, Haiti had a lot of help on its long road to ruination. The web of complicity for its engulfment in disaster extends in both time and space.
Whether it was Haiti’s early history as a French colony, which artificially inflated the country’s black population beyond what the natural bounty of the land could support and prevented any kind of natural material progress; whether it was Haiti’s status as the first and only nation in the world to overthrow Western chattel slavery, for which it was blockaded (read, further impoverished) by Western powers (thank you Thomas Jefferson) and only really allowed to rejoin the world community by paying an indemnity to all whites who had lost their shirts due to the Haitian revolution, an indemnity Haiti had to borrow from French banks in order to pay, which locked the country in a cycle of debt that it never broke free from; whether it was that chronic indebtedness that left Haiti vulnerable to foreign capitalist interventions—first the French, then the Germans, and finally the Americans, who occupied the nation from 1915 until 1934, installing a puppet president and imposing upon poor Haiti a new constitution more favorable to foreign investment; whether it was the 40 percent of Haiti’s income that U.S. officials siphoned away to repay French and U.S. debtors, or the string of diabolical despots who further drove Haiti into ruin and who often ruled with foreign assistance—for example François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who received U.S. support for his anti-communist policies; whether it was the 1994 UN embargo that whittled down Haiti’s robust assembly workforce from more than 100,000 workers to 17,000, or the lifting of the embargo, which brought with it a poison-pill gift in the form of an IMF-engineered end to Haiti’s protective tariffs, which conveniently enough made Haiti the least trade-restrictive nation in the Caribbean and opened the doors to a flood of U.S.-subsidized rice that accelerated the collapse of the farming sector and made a previously self-sufficient country overwhelmingly dependent on foreign rice and therefore vulnerable to increases in global food prices; whether it was the tens of thousands who lost their manufacturing jobs during the blockade and the hundreds of thousands who were thrown off the land by the rice invasion, many of whom ended up in the cities, in the marginal buildings and burgeoning slums that were the hit hardest by the earthquake—the world has done its part in demolishing Haiti.
This too is important to remember, and this too the earthquake revealed.
The rest of the essay is available at The Boston Review or on Amazon.com