Mon Apr 22, 2024
April 22, 2024

January 12: Fourteen Years since a Major Earthquake Devastated Haiti

Today marks the 14th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies in Latin American history: a major earthquake in Haiti, which killed some 300,000 people and left another two million homeless. It was not just a natural disaster. The earthquake hit a country devastated by capitalism, with houses that were uninhabitable and less resistant to earthquakes. The Haiti earthquake had a magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter scale. A similar earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 struck Japan less than two weeks ago, killing about 300 people.

The Haitian government, as well as Minustah (the U.N. force that occupied Haiti under the command of Brazilian troops) did nothing to help the people, focusing instead on protecting their own barracks. On this painful day in Haitian and Latin American history, we publish the account of one of our activists who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. The text was written in 2020 and remains valid.


January 12th. Today is the 10th anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti. Ten years ago, we were in Port-au-Prince with a group of students, a photographer, and a professor when the most devastating 35 seconds in the history of that country occurred. Those 35 seconds led to one of the world’s greatest social tragedies caused by a natural disaster.

By Otavio Calegari, Activist MIT Chile

Personally, the experience completely changed my view of life and the world. Also, it helped me to understand how imperialism and colonialism create the most barbaric conditions for a large part of the planet’s inhabitants. On January 12, 2010, I also saw how a people who have been subject to violence and plunder historically can show impressive energy and solidarity to survive.

I had never felt an earthquake before. Years later, when I came to live in Chile, I got used to the tremors. But at that time, ten years ago, I had never felt the power of nature with such force.

In the minutes before the earthquake, I was in downtown Port-au-Prince with two Brazilian colleagues and two young Haitians who were taking us to one of the faculties of the State University to interview a professor – Jean Anil Juste. On the way to the faculty, our car had to take a detour because there were barricades on one of the nearby streets. We later learned that the barricades were a student protest over the death of a professor in the same faculty. The professor was Jean Anil Juste, the same one we wanted to interview. Jean was a strong critic of the U.N. “peace” mission (Minustah) and the work of NGOs in the country. He had been brutally murdered in front of the faculty by two men who shot him from a motorcycle.

The barricades forced us to turn off the road. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. We were listening to a Haitian rap that I will always remember, ‘Pou kont mwen,” by the group Fantom. We got off the tap-tap that was carrying us, a kind of colorful Haitian microbus that is used as public transportation in the country, and we began to hear a loud noise and we did not know where it was coming from. The sound had come earlier, like a loud flash of lightning that had struck the ground with its accompanying thunder. But it came from below, not from above. The shaking came seconds later. The first was strong and lasted a few seconds. The second was devastating. It lasted 35 seconds. We didn’t know what was happening. We were in front of the Champ de Mars, the main square of Port-au-Prince. We saw the square, the poles, the buildings moving. People were struggling to stay on their feet. Near us, the windows of a museum exploded. As I remember it now, it is as if I were experiencing it all over again. It lasted 35 seconds. After that, we realized it was an earthquake – but we had no idea what was happening around us. Haitians were raising their hands to the sky and shouting “Jesus, Jesus,” “Bon dieu, bon dieu.” We started filming with a camera and walking. We stopped filming when we saw the first dead person, a man with only his head and arms visible. Above him, a whole building had collapsed. At that moment we realized that something serious had happened.

We discussed what to do and decided to go to the bookstore where the rest of our group, the other six Brazilians, were supposed to be. We asked the Haitian guys for a ride. The bookstore was about a 20-minute walk away. On the way, we saw the total destruction of the Haitian capital. Most of the buildings and houses had fallen. People were injured, burned, and dead. When we arrived at the bookstore, to our amazement, the bookstore had fallen. We entered the rubble and started calling for our comrades. Nothing, only destruction. No voice, no sound. A man approached us and asked: “Are you looking for the whites? They just left the bookstore… they were outside when the earthquake hit. And then they went that way,” pointing to a street.

We went down that street. As we continued, many people were coming back, running. A gas station had exploded and many people were running in our direction with their bodies completely burned. A huge cloud of smoke was rising from the gas station. We took another road.

Finally, we walked to the house where we were staying. When we arrived, the house had many cracks, but it was standing. Our friends were alive, everyone was okay. Fortunately, we had internet access for a few hours and were able to talk to our family and friends. The news was already spreading around the world on TV channels. They came before our calls to our relatives, who spent hours in agony, not knowing if we were alive or dead. It is estimated that 70% of Port-au-Prince was destroyed. The cathedral, the presidential palace, the main hotels and buildings. Everything collapsed in 35 seconds. There were between 200,000-250,000 dead, no one knows the real number. Over one million people lost their homes.

The country was then under U.N. military occupation. In Port-au-Prince alone, there were more than 1,000 Brazilian military personnel. The U.N. also lost many members, including some of the mission chiefs. A day or two after the earthquake, I wrote a post on our blog, “Haiti, we are abandoned.” In it, I denounced the total paralysis of the military in helping the people. The U.N. military went to rescue their own, the “important” people who were staying in the barracks and the main hotels of the city. As always, the hard-working Haitian men and women were left behind. I believe that thousands of people died under the rubble because they were not rescued. Nothing else could have been expected from the military. They had never helped the Haitian people, and this time was no different

The United States reacted quickly and occupied the airport of Port-au-Prince and the city with thousands of Marines. But it wasn’t to help. They occupied it to suppress a possible rebellion that could come with the tragedy. Nothing could have been stupider. Haitians were concerned with saving their families and friends and keeping food and transportation open so people could stay alive.

We left Port-au-Prince four days later. It is not worth telling everything we saw; it is too painful

Today is the 10th anniversary of the earthquake. It is 16 years since the Minustah entered Haiti, with American, Chilean, Brazilian, Canadian, Bolivian and other troops. The Minustah, although totally controlled by U.S. imperialism, was under the direction of right-wing governments such as Piñera, but also by “left” governments such as Lula, Evo Morales, and Bachelet. However, this occupation has been practically forgotten by the Latin American left, which defends these figures today. They never cared about Haiti. In the end, nobody cared about Haiti. The black people who were the second in the Americas to win their independence, who defeated the French troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte’s son-in-law, who welcomed and supported Simon Bolivar in the liberation of Gran Colombia from the Spanish… the people who were an example for the liberation of all of Latin America and Africa. No one has ever cared about these people. They are black, they are poor. We have to help them, they need help. That is the discourse we have been taught.

The tragedy in Haiti in 2010 was not a natural disaster. It was a social disaster. Haiti is a country that has been deliberately attacked and destroyed for more than the two centuries that have passed since its liberation. First by France, then by the United States. Imperialism never forgave the first black revolution in America. The Haitian countryside has been completely devastated by the United States over the last five decades. From a country that was self-sufficient in rice in the 1970s, it became almost totally dependent on rice imports from the United States. Through USAID, U.S. humanitarian aid has flooded the country with U.S. rice in recent decades, bankrupting most Haitian farmers. This is just one example of how the near total destruction of the Haitian countryside has been deliberately achieved; there are many others. The American plan, at least since the 1970s, was to turn Haiti into a small Mexico, where they could produce different types of products (mainly textiles) with very cheap labor and export them to the United States and other countries. In order to create this impoverished and almost slave-like working class, they destroyed the countryside so that the peasants would go to the cities. They succeeded in destroying the countryside, but they never managed to control the country, which turned into a totally rebellious colony thanks to the insistence of the Haitian people in fighting for a dignified life.

The material with which houses are built in Haiti is very poor. The main cement factory was privatized in the 1990s and then closed. No major construction company is interested in building modern houses for the poor, much less those that are designed to withstand earthquakes.  

The 2010 earthquake was a devastating blow to a nation that has been completely plundered by the voracity of international capital. If in colonial times Europeans went to Africa in search of slaves, today international capital goes to Haiti and Africa in search of a proletariat forced to work for the lowest wages and in the worst working conditions. Black lives don’t matter, as the black movement in the United States says.

After the earthquake, the international press made a spectacle of the tragedy in Haiti from the immediate coverage to the months that followed. All countries and great personalities promised to donate money for the reconstruction of Haiti. Most of the 12 billion dollars pledged never arrived. Of the funds that did arrive, almost none passed through the hands of the Haitian state or workers’ and peasants’ organizations. What did not go through the UN or foreign banks, went through the hands of NGOs, which have effectively colonized the country. NGOs are a cancer in all poor countries. They exist to keep those countries in misery. Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Viva Rio and many others. Their agents live like kings, they have access to vans, internet, clean water, electricity – what most workers don’t have. They go to shopping malls, they swim in prostitution. They pay miserable wages to the workers they employ. And more than that, they don’t solve any of the problems they’re supposed to solve. If they were to actually solve those problems, they would have to leave. And if they had to leave, they would stop getting the money that comes in from donations. So NGOs are not interested in solving problems. They are interested in reproducing them so that they can continue to exist and profit from the misery of others. They are “the lords of poverty,” as Graham Hancock said in his book about “international aid” called Lords of Poverty.

A few months after the earthquake, another tragedy struck. An outbreak of cholera, a disease that had been virtually eliminated from the country decades earlier. Hundreds of thousands were sickened, and more than 8,000 people died in the years that followed. The spread of cholera began with the use of water from the Artibonite River. It was soon proven that the bacteria that contaminated the river came from the waste of Nepalese troops of the Minustah. Numerous protests broke out throughout the country and were harshly suppressed by the U.N., resulting in some deaths.

Today, Haiti is once again experiencing a huge wave of protests. Minustah was replaced a few years ago by new missions with new names. The country is no longer occupied by foreign military, but the U.N. maintains foreign specialists and advisors to advise the Haitian National Police and other state institutions. The possibility of a new military occupation in the coming months or years is not a fantasy. The Haitian police, trained by the foreign military, are unable to control the growing wave of protests.

There have been more than 13 years of Minustah and another two years of other missions. Militaries from many countries have passed through Haiti. None of the country’s problems have been solved. Neither before nor after the earthquake. Haiti is still a virtual American colony. A few days ago, it was announced that many foreign soldiers impregnated Haitian women. This is not news, we all knew it, but the UN did not acknowledge it. Unfortunately, many women have had or will have children as a result of sexual assault by UN troops. This is not a new practice in U.N. military occupations. And complaints are almost never investigated, and perpetrators are rarely punished. The U.N. is a hypocritical and murderous institution.

In recent decades, the Haitian people have shown an enormous capacity to reinvent themselves and to fight back. Forced by necessity, they have sought better living conditions in several other countries of the world, but they have not been welcomed. Racism is a feature of capitalism. But they continue to fight and show the world how to resist.

January 12, 2010 changed the lives of millions of Haitians who lost their homes, family, friends or had to leave the country. It is ten years since the tragedy. It has been ten years of learning with these wonderful and courageous people. To my many friends in Haiti, I send a strong and fraternal embrace on this day.

Capitalism leads us to barbarism, but the strength of the Haitian people can teach us how to free ourselves and build a new, more humane society, where people do not exploit and massacre each other, where the wealth produced is shared, where there are dignified living conditions for all people. Haitian men and women, Chilean men and women, French men and women in the streets today show that this new society is possible.

Professor Jean Anil Luis-Juste, Present!

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