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Catastrophes – and hope – in Haiti

Haiti has a long history of natural, political, and human catastrophes. What do Haitians do now?

The Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel Air

The Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel Air. Photo credit: Marcello Casal, Jr., Agencia Brazil, CC BY 2.0

A State Department warning to Americans to avoid travel to Haiti follows the kidnapping of 17 foreign aid workers and family members in a long line of tragic stories from Haiti in 2021. Beginning decades ago but accelerating this year with political unrest, natural disasters, and economic and social problems, any prospects for progress in Haiti seem to be demolished by the next catastrophe.

The political earthquake of the year was the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Moïse replaced an interim president in 2017, who had replaced a president who stepped down for constitutional reasons, who himself came to power after 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and left more than a million homeless. The fallout from this summer’s assassination of Moïse continues, with the arrests of Columbians and former Haitian police officers, questions about former Ministry of Justice official Joseph Badio, and the current interim prime minister’s connections to Badio.

In August, Haiti suffered an actual earthquake, a 7.2 magnitude quake that killed more than 2,000 people and left more than 650,000 people in need of humanitarian aid.

This natural disaster built on years of similar ones. A partial list includes historic storms in 1935, 1954, and 1963, a series of devastating storms in the 1990s, four major storms in 2008, and Hurricane Matthew that destroyed 200,000 homes in 2016. Weeks after this summer’s assassination of Moise and two days after the earthquake, Haiti was hit by Hurricane Grace. Damaging flooding and landslides also hampered relief efforts for earthquake victims.

These political and natural disasters amplified the ongoing economic and social problems in Haiti. USAID assessed that more than one-third of Haitians live with “severe acute food insecurity.” Even before 2021’s troubles, the World Bank called Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world, with a negative growth in 2019 and 2020. Sixty percent of the country live in poverty and nearly a quarter in extreme poverty.

Together, these conditions have facilitated the rapid growth of violent gangs in Haiti. Gangs are not new to Haiti, but they are alleged to act with unofficial “governing powers” in some regions and with extrajudicial violence with the cooperation of government officials.

Drack Bonhomme is founding director of Haiti’s international relations think tank and graduate school, L’Ouverture Institute for Diplomacy & Global Affairs (LIDGA). Bonhomme spoke about these natural, political, and social crises at The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

“The kinematics of Haiti are catastrophic, the picture is really disastrous,” Bonhomme began. The indigenous people called the island Haiti, meaning mountainous land, and now “the problems are like mountains.”

Bonhomme described natural disasters – especially Hurricane Hazel in 1954 – as devastating the economy. Hazel damaged sugar and coffee production as well as tourism. In subsequent decades, disease and natural disaster, including HIV/AIDS and the 2010 earthquake, have had a continuing series of negative impacts.

Haiti’s political troubles also have deep roots, including the family dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Haiti today faces an “unprecedented constitutional crisis,” said Bonhomme, where “the three branches of government are non-existent.”

Bonhomme believes the limited international responses to Haiti’s current problems are worsened by the all-consuming nature of the Covid-19 pandemic. The international community is too busy with the pandemic, Bonhomme said, to focus on more traditional questions like natural disasters and political crises.

But he believes there is more that Haiti can do to help itself. First is working with donors and aid agencies to help Haitians figure out a way forward themselves – as the Marshall Plan offered reconstruction aid in postwar Europe based on what each country’s own plans were. Second is to draw more from the successful diaspora. The Haitian constitution limits the ways diaspora can contribute, other than remittances, to the re-development of the country.

But Bonhomme is optimistic. “The Haitian people are very resilient, a religiously spiritual people,” he concluded. There is a “hope within the soul of the Haitian people, they keep looking for the light…and that sense of hope is still shining inside of them.”

Watch Drack Bonhomme’s full presentation



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks