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Devastating Earthquake Renews Focus on Haiti

January 09, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake in the impoverished Caribbean nation is drawing international attention. Despite being located in one of the wealthiest regions of the world, Haiti has been plagued by political insecurities, violence and poverty for decades. How did Haiti reach this point, and how do others view the country given all that’s happened there?

A Brief History

In 1697, France and Spain divided the island of Hispaniola into St. Domingue and Santo Domingo (later renamed Haiti and the Dominican Republic, respectively). Slaves were brought to Haiti to work the sugar and coffee plantations, and the nation became one of the richest colonies of the French empire. Meanwhile, conditions were growing difficult in France. The 1789 French Revolution jeopardized the empire but, according to PBS, its egalitarian principles inspired the Haitian people to conduct a slave revolt in 1791 that finally saw success on January 1, 1804.

In addition to becoming the first Caribbean country to achieve independence, Haiti is the world’s first African American-led republic. Early successes didn’t last long, however, as the country entered many decades of violence and instability. The brutal dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude aka “Baby Doc,” brought the country international attention. “Tens of thousands of people were killed under their 29-year rule,” reported BBC News.

In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide sparked hope for Haiti for when he became the country’s first democratically elected president after the Duvalier rule. However, Aristide was ousted in a coup shortly thereafter. In 2004, he left his country, facing accusations of corruption, broken promises and attacks on opponents. In many ways, other Haitian leaders have experienced worse fates than Aristide. According to MSNBC, one was dismembered by a mob, one was blown up in the National Palace and another was poisoned. Still others were overthrown and some fled.

Recent Developments

Lately, the Dominican Republic has been in the press for taking away its welcome mat for Haitians. Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants aren’t granted citizenship rights, and some of them haven’t been able to obtain birth certificates when necessary. One boy was in negotiations to play baseball for the San Francisco Giants, but the team ultimately passed him by because he couldn’t access his birth certificate, reported the New York Times. Dominican leaders say they are merely trying to prevent fraud committed by Haitian immigrants. Others say Haitians are victims of racism.

Jean-Juste is a Haitian priest fighting “accusations” that he wants to become a leader in Haiti’s government. In June 2008, Haiti’s high court dismissed charges against him for allegedly killing a Haitian journalist in 2005. Jean-Juste’s supporters tried to register him as a candidate for Haiti’s 2006 presidential election, says the Miami Herald, but officials stopped that action because he was in prison. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince subsequently forbade Jean-Juste from performing any official functions as a priest because of his involvement in political activities.

Perspectives on Haiti

In Port-Au-Prince, “lost boys” caught up in Haiti’s criminal system are housed in the crowded Fort Dimanche prison. Minor and serious crimes land boys here. Some kids, however, are there even though they’re innocent of any wrongdoing, caught up in neighborhood sweeps. And, according to an article in the Washington Post, Haiti has no formal process for releasing Fort Dimanche inmates. “This is where you see the total failure of the justice system,” said Maryse Penette-Kedar, head of the PRODEV foundation, which is trying to improve circumstances at the jail. “It’s incompetence. It’s total lack of management.”

Approximately 300,000 children in Haiti are victims of child slavery. ABC News reporter Dan Harris traveled there to see how long buying a child slave would take (for Harris, roughly 10 hours, including travel time to Haiti). In one negotiation, Harris agreed to purchase an 11-year-old girl for $10,000. In another case, a child-trafficker promised to find a girl for $150 (Harris didn’t follow up on either arrangement). After describing these encounters, Harris said, “Having illustrated how horrendously easy it is to buy a child slave in Haiti, let’s consider something exponentially more awful: the real scandal here in Haiti is that children are usually just given away.”

In 2008, First Lady Laura Bush visited Haiti, marking just the second time someone in her position stepped on Haitian soil (Hillary Clinton was first). Of the visit, Haiti Innovation, a non-profit consultancy, said, “Politics aside, this is a sign of progress.” The group called for further “diplomatic engagement, trade and partnership” with other countries to help improve Haiti’s circumstances. While some may feel that “nothing works” in the country, Haiti Innovation disagrees. “Anyone who has lived in the Haitian countryside knows there is a lot that is right about Haiti.”

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