Haitian Earthquake Unearths Political Rot

Last Tuesday, a magnitude-7 earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti. As of Saturday, approximately 50,000 bodies had been recovered. The Haitian interior minister expects that the final death count will be as high as 200,000, or an unbelievable two percent of the total population.

Earthquakes are natural disasters. Despite what Pat Robertson has to say, no one causes them.  No one deserved them. They aren’t acts of divine retribution for some perceived moral offence.

However, though the earthquake in Haiti was indubitably the result of plate tectonics, the humanitarian disaster that followed can be attributed to far more earthly causes.

Haiti is the only nation in the Western hemisphere to have successfully carried out a slave revolution.  Yet, while Haiti was able to defeat its colonial French oppressors, it was never able to shake the scourge of poverty.

It is the poorest country in the Americas.  Average per capita income hovers at a dismal two dollars per day.  80 percent of Haitians live in poverty; 50 percent are illiterate.  Its unemployment rate is so high that no one really bothers to track it; the CIA Factbook estimates that two-thirds of the population lacks formal employment. Haiti’s closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is more than six times richer.

Haiti’s economic poverty is accompanied and exacerbated by political instability.  Dr. Francois Duvalier, “Papa Doc,” and his son, “Baby Doc,” presided over a dictatorship on the island from 1957 until 1986, when the younger Duvalier was overthrown.  More recently, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile in South Africa in a coup d’état. Many Haitian died in the chaos.

Despite the often-violent regime changes, one thing has remained constant: corruption. In 2006, Haiti had the dubious honor of overtaking Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International. Since then, Somalia has claimed the top spot, but Haiti remains among the most corrupt states.

The combination of poverty and corruption meant that even before the earthquake, Haiti was a country on the edge of collapse.  Money that should have been spent on education or healthcare instead disappeared into the pockets of the country’s ruling elites.  Money that should have built the roads and airports and seaports of a modern economy simply disappeared. Essential infrastructure was never developed.

Now the lack of infrastructure, both political and physical, is exacting a dire cost on the Haitian people.  Disaster relief is as dependent on the unglamorous logistics of getting supplies from one place to another as it is on the willingness of individuals and governments to pledge funds.  So, although the United States alone has offered $100 million in relief aid, none of it, money or supplies, matters if it can’t be brought to the people who need it so desperately.

That is why so many Haitians are dying.  They are dying because their government does not have the capacity to coordinate a rescue effort.  They are dying because there are no bulldozers to clear the rubble and rescue those still trapped under poorly constructed building.  They are dying because the Haitian doctors who might have treated the sick and injured have, along with many of the country’s professional class, abandoned a country that offer them so little for better lives abroad.

What happened in Haiti was not a natural disaster; it was a human one.  It is a devastating lesson on the costs of poor governance.  Now, as time runs out on a rescue effort that never really started, the world should not forget to address the underlying causes of this tragedy.  Otherwise, the next disaster is just another tectonic disturbance away.

Mengfei Chen is a fourth-year international studies major.  She can be reached at mengfeic@uci.edu.