One year ago, the worse single urban catastrophe in modern history befell Haiti, the poorest nation in our hemisphere. Goudou-goudou, the Creole word for the January 12, 2010 earthquake, took some 300,000 lives and cost billions in destroyed property and infrastructure.
In the immediate aftermath of the region’s biggest disaster in 200 years, the island nation avoided the expected outbreak of disease and social disorder. Yet, by the end of 2010 the Haitian people ended with both - a still uncontained cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and wide-spread civil disorder due to uncertainties from the elections. It seems as though, a year later, Haiti is getting worse, not better.
With such results, it would be easy to throw up our hands in despair. But it would not be in the long-term interests of the United States to begin minimizing Haiti out of frustration with a weak government and an absence of progress in its recovery. Such a policy would have long-term adverse consequences throughout the region.
What we need to do is reconsider what needs to be accomplished to make Haiti a functioning country again. While the earthquake has created new challenges, it has also laid bare for all to see those that have piled up over a very long time. This explains why there is so little evidence of Haiti rising from the dust and ashes of the earthquake one year ago.
The goudou-goudou was more than just a natural disaster - stronger quakes hit Chile and New Zealand in the same year with less destruction and loss of human life. What brought Haiti to its knees was not so much the shifting of its tectonic plates but Haiti’s grinding poverty-an issue never fully addressed by its government and the international community---which has limited its ability to easily recover from an event of this magnitude.
Notwithstanding the immediate need to rebuild infrastructure and meet the basic survival needs of the Haitian people, a clear, long-term commitment to Haiti’s economic and political development is needed. As usual, the United States must take leadership in this effort.
To start, the new Congress should re-introduce legislation similar to the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act (HR 6021) in the previous Congress. Such legislation would provide a framework to guide long term assistance to Haiti. At the same time, it would encourage both the Haitian government and civil society to look beyond immediate needs and plan for the future.
Any assistance plan must be accompanied by a new and strengthened U.S. resolve to hold Haitians (and their foreign partners) in both the public and private sector accountable, while at the same time training them in democratic governance. U.S. policy should be guided by a mix of generosity and hard-nosed realism, forcing the Haitian political class to reduce corruption and govern transparently.
In addition, U.S. migration policies toward Haiti should reflect the dire situation on the ground, not compound it. As a start, the Administration should use its humanitarian parole policy to bring into the United States the immediate family members of Haitians medically evacuated after the earthquake. In addition, another 55,000 Haitians who have already been approved to enter the United States to join family members could be allowed to enter as they await their priority date. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) should be extended to Haitians who arrived in the United States in the chaotic months aftermath of the earthquake. As a result of these straightforward policies, remittances to the country, so desperate for income generation and economic activity, would be strengthened.
What the United States should not do is to cause more harm by resuming deportations to Haiti, a move being considered by Administration officials and already being decried by human rights organizations. The Haitian government at this time does not have the capacity to accept and accommodate deportees, especially ones with criminal records. The United States also should pressure neighboring countries, such as the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, to cease their deportations.
As we have learned the hard way, recovery from natural disasters has been slow even in the resource-rich United States. It took years for Florida to recover from Hurricane Andrew and five years later New Orleans is still struggling to overcome the impact of Katrina. It is no wonder that a third world country near our doorstep is still reeling from its own catastrophe.
We cannot walk away from Haiti-a neighboring country of nine million people only 800 miles away from the United States. We must work with the new Haitian government to not only rebuild the national infrastructure, but also to rebuild a sense of national identity and unity. This will not be an easy road, but it is the only path forward.