Understanding the Stories Behind the Stories From Haiti
How do we know the truth of what is happening in Haiti - especially those of us who are in the global north and west, our perceptions shaped by a tragic history, largely unknown, in which our governments have often been complicit? As the immediate rescue effort becomes a sustained task of recovery how do we know when ideology and naked self-interest warp news accounts and recovery efforts?
I'm not a Haiti expert, but I have studied the Caribbean over the years, including some attention to the ways in which US news coverage is sometimes unduly influenced by Washington's priorities and preconceptions. As I watch the emerging coverage, I'm seeing dueling narratives emerge over the effectiveness and implicit assumptions behind the aid efforts. These points are offered in an effort to help us be smarter news consumers.
1. The disaster news cycle can miss the long-term story
The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that news coverage of Haiti remained intense last week, at least on CNN, but bloggers seemed to have moved on. However, the public radio show On the Media reports that many news organizations have already moved their crews out of Haiti, following the pattern of previous disasters. Indeed, OTM said that to veteran journalists, the overarching narratives coming out of Haiti have been pretty much on cue: the first shocking, horrific images, the dramatic initial rescue, the inspiring tales of survivors found in the rubble days after hope of finding survivors had been lost. It's the stories that require prior and a long-term commitment to the country that often get lost,as AP Haiti correspondent Jonathan Katz explains in this interview.
2. The colonial legacy
Why has Haiti had so much political instability over the last 200 years? Why is the country almost completely deforested? Why is there so much colorism and class bias. Some of the answers to these questions go back to the island's colonial legacy. For example, French colonial practices set Haiti's pattern of environmental degradation in motion, as Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University explained to an interviewer for PRI's Living on Earth program last week:
"The initial colonial history was one in which a very large number of slaves were brought in by the French, so that from the very start the population density in Haiti was much larger than in the Dominican Republic.
"And they engaged in cultivation practices that resulted in significant and fast deforestation, lots of trees exported back to Europe, and then when the French were thrown out, the Haitians were left with a very large population with a very weak resource base from which any group of people would find it very hard to recover."
To compound its troubles, Haiti wound up being forced to pay reparations to France after achieving nominal independence in 1804 - an obligation that took more than 100 years to pay off. That's one reason that many observers, such as Foreign Policy's Annie Lowery, say that the United States and others should cancel Haiti's debt to give them a fighting chance at economic recovery.
Unfortunately, some participants in the policy debate still stuck in a colonizer's mindset. Think Progress highlighted one one anti-immigration policy analyst's guess that Haiti's biggest problem is that it "wasn't colonized long enough" to benefit from the civilizing influences of superior French culture. (Mind you, the French cultural practices to which Haitians were exposed during colonization reportedly included pouring gunpowder into a slave's rectum and lighting a match - very civilized, indeed.)
3. The cold war media lens
During the Cold War, US government policy was directed at containing communism in the region. This effort sometimes led to unsavory partnerships, such as backing the murderous "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier regimes in Haiti, while having "extensive involvement" with plotters in the neighboring Dominican Republic who assassinated that country's dictator, Rafael Trujillo. In his 2002 study, Media Definition of Cold War Reality, Walter Soderlund found that the news coverage of the region generally followed the US government narrative, with some exceptions. (My contemporaneous review of the book is here).One drawback of this approach is that the coverage often misses the role that internal and intra-regional dynamics play in countries' policies. That's particularly important when considering relations between Haiti and the DR.
4. Regional tensions and racial dynamics in the story coverage
Speaking of the Dominican Republic, they've had a tough time sharing the island of Hispaniola almost from the beginning. During the 19th and 20th century, there were military engagements over accusations one side had encroached upon the other's territory. Many Dominicans regard Haitians as racially and culturally inferior, and resent the steady stream of Haitian migrants who come to their more prosperous side of the island, looking for work. At the same time, Haitian workers ore integral contributors to the Dominican economy. A 2003 study by an international human rights group, Minority Group Rights International found that Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic are often abused and exploited (.pdf)
The racial antipathy toward Haitians in the DR is mirrored throughout Latin America, and even shows up in Spanish media coverage of the earthquake and relief efforts, according to Maegan La Mamita Mala of VivirLatino. According to Mala, both English and Spanish language media are guilty of "criminalizing," "infantilizing," and "'mammy'-ing" Haitians. (She quotes one Univision television personality who says the crisis in Haiti makes her think of her dear old Haitian nanny.) It all boils down to the racial bugaboo that many Latinos just can't shake:
"All people need to do, according to the Spanish language coverage is look to the other side of Hispaniola, to the Dominican Republic, where even Sammy Sosa has learned that whiter and righter and great pains are taken to separate the Dominican from the Haitian, the “white” from the “black” even though as I told my friend the other night there is only one letter difference between “rara” and “gaga”, an Afro-Caribbean musical and religious tradition."
5. Rebuilding Haiti's economy: the debate over neoliberalism
Here's the thing you might not know - before the earthquake, Haiti was making economic progress. It's government, led by Rene Preval, had brought relative stability and security. It is one of only two Caribbean countries expected to post positive economic growth for 2009. According to a recent Columbia Journalism Review article, that progress came with Preval's leadership and the supprort of the UN, which helped orchestrate a huge economic assistance and investment effort after the disastrous hurricanes of 2008. Former US president and UN special envoy Bill Clinton has also played a key role, just as he has been central to the current recovery project.
However, there are critics. First, there is the fact that most of the investment in Haiti over the last several years has gone through foreign-based NGOs, as opposed to local organizations or government agencies. The explanation for this because past relief efforts have been sabotaged by corruption. However, Patrick Coburn says some of those NGOs have their problems too:
"A sour Haitian joke says that when a Haitian minister skims 15 per cent of aid money it is called 'corruption' and when an NGO or aid agency takes 50 per cent it is called 'overhead'.
"Many of the smaller government aid programs and NGOs are run by able, energetic and selfless people, but others, often the larger ones, are little more than rackets, highly remunerative for those who run them."
As outsiders who want to help, we depend on such resources as Guidestar and Charity Navigator to help us figure out the good agencies worthy of donations. But Coburn's larger point is that what's needed is the restoration of a functioning Haitian government, and the policies of the last several years haven't moved toward that goal.
There's also the worry that international agencies will push the kind of neoliberal policies that critics hold responsible for destroying Haiti's rice farming industry in the 1980s. Sokari points to an interview with activist Pierre Laboissiere contending that Pres. Clinton and various NGOs are already traveling down that road.
Naomi Klein, author of the book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, warned that within 48 hours of the earthquake, the Heritage Foundation was ready to push free-market solutions that she opposes:
6. The controversy over the American militarization of the aid effort
In a recent poll, Haitian Americans expressed far greater confidence in the US and UN than they did in the Haitian government's ability to respond to the crisis. As a practical matter, the Haitian government's capacity to respond is limited at best, having been decimated by the quake, as President Rene Preval explained in this Q&A with the Toronto Sun.
Racewire's Michelle Chen worries that exaggerated media portrayals of violence would buttress increased military involvement. Rebecca Zousmer of Pambazuka news notes that some observers think the US effort looks more like an invasion
than a humanitarian effort. According to Zousmer, quotes the Wall Street Journal's contrasting description of Cuban doctors who had been in Haiti before the quake, helping patients "without a gun or a soldier in sight."
7. Immigration policy
Even before the earthquake one of every eight Haitians lived and worked outside of Haiti and sent money home. Immigration advocates are pushing for a relaxation of immigration rules for Haitians similar to those granted to Cubans. (The disparities in US treatment of the two groups is a long-standing sore spot, by the way.) Pres. Obama has already granted temporary protected status to Haitians in the United States, but commentators such as Democracy Now's Amy Goodman insists that the US needs to do more:
"Haitians need to be allowed into the United States, legally, compassionately and immediately. I visited hospitals and clinics in Port-au-Prince, with thousands of people waiting for care, and amputations happening with ibuprofen or Motrin, if patients were lucky. Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based attorney who represented Haiti for years, says the U.S. must let in those immediately who need medical care, that far too few of the injured have been brought to the U.S. In addition, he told me, the U.S. should bring many more people from Haiti, including all those people who had approved petitions by family members. It's about 70,000 people. These people have been approved, but are essentially in a multiyear waiting line to move to the U.S. Kurzban compared the historical willingness and ability of the U.S. to accept Cuban refugees with what he calls a policy of "containment" with Haiti, preventing people from leaving and blocking the shores with the Coast Guard."
Racewire's Michelle Chen reports on a proposal for a new kind of visa for Haitians and others who seeking to come to the US to make money to send home in the wake of a disaster:
8. Beyond the tragedy, a vibrant culture, a hopeful people
Haiti is rich in music, art and folklore. In this 2008 video Ambreghiny offers a sampling of the ways in which popular music has been a source of resistance and resilience for the Haitian people:
Finally, a song of hope from Canadian Governor General Michele Jean:
This hope, earthquake survivor and UN staffer Monique Ciesca, is what propels her now:
"I have realized that I must dedicate my life to something higher, better, more meaningful. Nothing will ever be the same. The 90 seconds that shook my country, my people, my world, to pieces showed all of us working together to rescue, to help, to comfort, to feed the affected and afflicted, that life is so precious. I must use my time to serve others in a meaningful way.
"The dignity, the resilience, the solidarity demonstrated by my people during this unspeakable tragedy is what should propel us to build a great nation out of this tabula rasa. We must turn this disaster into an opportunity and give Haiti a completely new face for the future."
- LainaD: The politics surrounding adopting "orphans" from Haiti
- Britt Bravo: Keeping your balance while helping Haiti
- Her Bad Mother: Maternal Health in Haiti: Why women and children should come first
- Patricia Kushlis: Haiti in the Aftermath
- Radio INK: Arbitron sends solar radios to Haiti
- Washington Informer: Fear of waning public interest as UN ends rescue mission
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