When the 2010 earthquake reduced much of Haiti’s capital to rubble, killing more than 300,000 people, the international community – including the Cayman Islands – rallied, raising money, collecting goods and organising relief efforts.
An estimated US$7.5 billion has been donated to Haiti by governments and humanitarian organisations around the world since the earthquake, yet three years on, many are disappointed that so little progress has been made.
As many as 350,000 Haitians are still living in tent cities, cholera continues to be a problem and, with kidnappings and violent crime on the rise, many Haitians fear for their safety.
The governments of the United States, Canada and Britain have all issued travel advisories in recent weeks, strongly urging individuals to carefully consider all travel to Haiti and avoid certain slum areas of Port au Prince completely.
Haitian government officials have vehemently opposed these advisories, claiming they are unwarranted and damaging to Haiti’s image abroad, and likely to scare off potential visitors or investors. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe has argued that these warnings are “incompatible with the progress that has been made” and has gone so far as to claim that Haiti is one of the safest countries in the Americas.
Some Haitians living in Cayman, who are in regular contact with friends and family in Port au Prince, tell a different story.
“The violence is increasing,” said Yves Fontaine, a hospital employee from Haiti. “There is the kidnapping going on. People are terrified about it – even to take their kids to school, they are afraid. They don’t know if they will come back,” he said. “About two weeks ago, my cousin was going downtown in Port au Prince to the supermarket when two guys grabbed her, broke her arm and stole her money.”
Pavlov Rameau, an associate professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands, also from Haiti, agrees.
“The security situation there is terrible,” he said. His brother has been in a psychiatric hospital in Haiti for 20 years and has had one nurse taking care of him for many years.
“My mum would send money to her directly so that she could go out and buy stuff for him. Three weeks ago, they killed her. Nine gun shots. She was coming out of the bank after cashing the cheque for my brother. She’s not rich – she’s a nurse,” he added. “That’s the way it is in Haiti. Someone working in the bank probably called a friend and told them there was someone coming out with cash.”
Mr. Rameau has not returned to Haiti in the past two years, partly because he fears for his safety.
Despite the aid that poured into Haiti following the earthquake, and the hundreds of humanitarian organisations working there, reconstruction is slow.
“Some people have been moved from the tent cities, but a lot of the houses are the same way they were right after the earthquake, a lot of supermarkets are still down. Nothing substantial has been done,” Mr. Rameau said.
Mr. Fontaine lost some family members in the earthquake. Those that survived are still homeless. They were living in a tent city outside the National Palace initially, but last year the government evicted them – a decision some believe stemmed from embarrassment on the part of the authorities that not more had been done to rehouse these people. Now they live with friends.
“You can’t rent houses in Port au Prince as there are so few available,” Mr. Fontaine said. “So the rent for any available housing is sky high.”
They have no work and no money. They need food and shelter but in spite of all the aid agencies operating in Haiti, Mr. Fontaine said they are not receiving any kind of assistance.
Indeed, there has been much criticism in the international media of the slow pace of rebuilding, the fact that Haitians have not been consulted in reconstruction plans and of the way aid money has been spent.
“The US can say they are pledging a million dollars to help rebuild Haiti, and that makes them look good,” Mr. Rameau said, “But of that million, probably $800,000 is paying for US troops, US ships and US supplies to be brought to Haiti.”
Rev. Louis Sully, a born Haitian but resident of Cayman for 13 years, was last in Haiti in June 2012 and agrees that aid money is not reaching the people that need it most.
“From what I have seen there, you get let’s say 300 NGO workers coming in. They need to rent Jeeps, because of the state of the roads, and they cost around US$150 a day to rent,” he said. “Imagine the cost for maybe 200 of them each renting jeeps for the time they are there.”
Michael Levitt, a Rotary Sunrise member, who has been to Haiti twice since the earthquake also said he observed a lot of “volontourism” where NGO money was being wasted and not reaching those in need.
This is why the smaller scale initiatives, and donations to specific projects, such as those of the Cayman community may be have a more direct impact in Haiti. Rotary Clubs, for instance, Mr. Levitt said, are entirely voluntary.
“100 cents of every dollar we donate is spent on the projects – we can account for everything. This is not true for every organisation I saw,” he says.
In the weeks and months following the earthquake in early 2010, students, individuals, churches, service clubs and businesses raised funds through concerts, collections, donations and raffles to send to Haiti.
St. Ignatius students raised $6,000 through a concert which was sent to a ministry in Haiti running an orphanage.
Atlantic Star sent $50,000 to purchase lumber that would be used to build furniture for schools.
Missionaries of the Poor donated funds from their gospel concert to a home for pregnant ladies. The Pineapple Club and Acts of Random Kindness teamed up with Canada-based Friends of Ile a Vache to sail two tons of goods collected in Cayman to Haiti.
The various Rotary Clubs in Cayman all contributed to immediate relief efforts initially, coordinated by Rotary International to supply water, food and medical supplies. Thereafter, they turned their focus to rebuilding with a focus on schools and mother and child mortality. The contributions from the Cayman Islands mainly went to the area around the city of Les Cayes and was used to rebuild schools, providing library books and laboratory equipment.
In November 2011, Team Cayman for Haiti spent a week building homes with the Haven Partnership to help rehouse families in Haiti.
Reverend Sully chartered a plane, loaded up with supplies which he took to Haiti and distributed through the United Church there.
He does, however, believe that simple hand outs are not what a long term solution. It’s all very well, he said, to give a family a house, but if they are unemployed, how can they pay their rent?
When Friends of Ile a Vache take goods to Haiti, they also purchase local art there to sell in Canada, the US and England. They now operate an art programme, sponsoring various art shops in the capital and training Haitians to make art from old steel oil drums and any profits are fed back into the programme.
Ministries in Action, with which Rev. Sully works, also aims to help people help themselves. Rev. Sully currently has a micro-lending programme operating there, through which Haitians can secure US$500 dollar loans to start up a small business.
He is also working alongside DMS, the Rotary Club and United Church to launch Cayman Village, a project to build 500 homes, but will employ Haitians to build them, pay them a salary and help them get back on their feet.
This project is not up and running yet however. Like many, he has run into bureaucratic problems and is finding the government unwilling to negotiate on certain issues.
Looking to the future
Even before the e
arthquake, Haiti was the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. It’s a country with a long history of brutal dictatorships, institutionalised corruption and political instability. Some, like Mr. Rameau, are concerned that the current president, Michel Martelly – formerly a flamboyant carnival singer with no college education or experience in government – is not up to the job.
“Would you put Beany Man as president of Jamaica? Would you vote for Britney Spears as president of the USA?” he asks. “Democracy assumes people know what they are voting for. But if you are not educated, if you are hungry, I doubt you will make a good choice when it comes to voting.”
Since the earthquake, floods, hurricanes and a cholera outbreak have only added to Haiti’s woes. But despite the destruction, the deaths, the poverty and the squalor, Mr. Rameau said, the Haitian people have an incredible will to survive.
“They move on. The keep having their carnival. They have their parties and they laugh.”
There’s a long road ahead, but Haitians are resilient in the face of adversity.
They have to be.