How we Haitians Can turn the January 12th Earthquake into an Opportunity
The outpouring of support bestowed on Haiti by the international community is as comforting in its compassion as the Earthquake was unforgiving in its destructive rage. This disaster has created such an awareness of Haiti’s subhuman misery, that some foreign journalists have reached unprecedented levels of compassionate reporting, while private citizens from all over the world are setting records in donations, at a time of global economic uncertainty, to say the least.
It is, however, important we all realize that what happened in Haiti on January 12th was not just an earthquake, but rather the foretold encounter between a natural disaster and decades of poor human decisions. Therefore, if the international aid is not matched by a drastic paradigm shift from us Haitians in all aspects pertaining to our social contract, there is no rationale behind rebuilding Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Leogane and Les Cayes. Unfortunately, we have done nothing so far to distill the part of human causation in the catastrophe, thus creating the conditions for similar tragedies to be recurrent. A comparative analysis with the situation in Chile — hit a few days later by an earthquake 500 times stronger than the one that destroyed Port-au-Prince— should be edifying enough in determining the role played by human decisions, or lack thereof, in maximizing the impact of the disaster in Haiti.
The earthquake took all us Haitians by surprise, from our president whose deficit of common sense—among other critical shortages—was displayed on global TV, to our failed elites who had to wake up and smell the coffee for a change, to the masses that have been freely and enthusiastically making poor choices at the ballot for the last two decades, to the diaspora that is unable to find a way back toward total integration in its own country without violating the law of the land, despite being the main source of revenue to the impoverished nation.
Today, Haiti is at a crossroads where we have to make some drastic decisions as to what—from a very heteroclite historical baggage—to jettison and what to bring along with us in the new post January 12th era. While the entire world has been mesmerized by our resilience, we must realize that if this energy is not properly channeled toward a redefinition of the rules of the game, the predicament at hand will get the best of us. The greatness of a nation has more to do with recognizing the defining moments and rising up to them, than with constantly referring to a glorious past when the expectations of the present are not met.
Today, we have to make a decisive choice between a government with not even an evacuation plan for the president, and one that can lead us with confidence through an era of development and prosperity, between a backward-looking mentality and a forward-looking mindset, between individual survival and a collective vista on the future, between corruption and accountability, between self-serving leaders and true public servants, between dependency and self-sustainability.
Neither a well-written plan, nor all the money in the world can solve Haiti’s problems. For a country to achieve sustained development and irreversible democracy, its institutions must rely on a strong conceptual framework, defined by the social contract. The United-States with the “Federalist Papers’, France with the “5th Republic”, Canada with the “Quiet Revolution”, the first quite early, and the two others rather late in their History, have taken the time to shape their institutions in accordance with their values and aspirations. As for us Haitians, soon after our independence, we woke up with a de facto social contract consecrating the survival of the fittest, and a broken social ladder; throughout our History, public corruption, tax evasion, illicit enrichment and drug trafficking have been the factors through which upward mobility is achieved. It is essential that we fix the social ladder by democratizing and improving our educational system, and by starting to enforce our laws. A better educated people will shift from the cult of personality to the valorization of ideas in its political choices.
As Port-au-Prince has been turned into Ground Zero, the government would be well-inspired to show some humility and belated leadership by calling for a political truce, and devoting the remainder of the president’s term to the organization of a National Conference. This event would gather representatives from all sectors and regions of the country along with the diaspora, in an effort to:
– Define a consensual vision for the next 50 years.
– Revise the constitution.
– Perform our autocriticism and identify the cultural and institutional barriers that prevent Haitian citizens from succeeding at home, while they thrive abroad.
– Fix the social ladder that has been broken for some 200 years.
The National Conference would have to produce clear answers to three fundamental questions:
1- How to contain the natural penchant of all governments to strip the citizenry of the exercise of national sovereignty. Addressing this question will allow us to redesign our institutions in a way that prevents authoritative deviances, by establishing an effective system of checks and balances.
2- How, through the definition of a consensual vision, to integrate the interests of all in the determination of the collective interest. It is time that everyone be invited to the table for the long overdue upfront sharing of the national little pie. Once the national vision defined, everyone will be able to envision their own upward mobility and that of their progeny over time, within the bigger picture of a vibrant and developing country.
3- How to instill in each Haitian the sense of belonging without which there is no social link. Once it is determined that everyone had been given a level playing field, all of us will be eager to build the new Haiti, knowing that the fruits of the prosperity to come will be distributed according to the principles of justice and equity.
The National Conference will also provide us with an opportunity to perform the psychoanalysis of ourselves. Our current mentality eloquently expressed through our “popular wisdom” is incompatible with progress and development. Sayings like “pito nou led nou la” (we’d better be ugly than dead) “lower our expectations, whereas those like “depi nan ginen ne gap trayi neg” (Since Africa Negroes have been betraying Negroes) are divisive. We need to boost our national self-esteem and start believing in the likelihood of the Haitian dream. Until we reach this level of collective consciousness, we will not be able to achieve prosperity, irrespective of the amount of money the International Community injects into our economy.
At this defining moment of Haiti’s tumultuous History, those who have experienced the earthquake firsthand are rightly afraid of what the future has in store for the country. By striking us blindly and indistinctly, the earthquake has reminded us that we are sharing the same boat, and that none of us can make it to shore while others are sinking. If we can outgrow our differences and commit to creating a normal country with only normal problems, we can turn January 12th into the long overdue wake up call. If not, the next tragedy will surprise us in our sleep.
Frandley Denis Julien
January 15th, 2010
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