Summit the hill leading to the Hotel Montana, and it’s easy to see the devastation wrought by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake — or at least it was in 2012, when I visited two years after the apocalyptic tremblement de terre that killed tens of thousands.
Many of the ramshackle concrete houses climbing like gray ivy up the mountainsides of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, had collapsed. Our host pointed in the distance to a row of homes where he and friends had spilled out into the yard to safety, later sleeping outside for fear of aftershocks.
Others weren’t so lucky — many died instantly under the crush of rubble. Some were trapped for days without food or water before being rescued. Orphanages were leveled. Damage to ports and airports hindered the distribution of aid. Decades of mismanagement — of infrastructure, of the economy, of housing — came home to roost on that fateful day.
Even two years afterward, downtown Port-au-Prince still appeared to me as a war zone. Everything was frozen in a state of crumbling, as if someone hit the pause button and forgot to return to the movie. Glorious cathedrals were reduced to ruins. Entire blocks were abandoned. The impoverished begged in the streets, loitering with a certain sad resignation to fate.
I remember the feeling of emptiness — the eerie urban silence in the middle of the day — as we walked past the grounds of the presidential palace, the pristinely white structure that had crumpled, as one writer said, like a “melted wedding cake.” It would be torn down shortly after our trip, a symbolic reminder of a government that was ineffectual both in preparation and in followup to the disaster.
In light of all this, the timing of President Trump’s “shithole countries” remark this week couldn’t have been worse. Some reports have indicated he used the vulgarity in relation to African countries, not Haiti, but in the same meeting he questioned the legal status that allowed Haitian immigrants to build lives here in the aftermath of the quake.
Worse yet, not only did his hallmark insensitivity make light of Haitians’ emotional suffering, but it questioned the moral basis of American hospitality and help, implying that we should love those only who love us — and share our president’s skin color.
Haiti is a poor place, yes. It’s not easy even to get through the airport upon arrival. Renting a car can be expensive, and getting around is tough even for the rank-and-file. Mudslides are common during rainstorms. During one leg of our trip, our bus broke down in the pitch-black night. At other times, we saw creeks bubbling over with styrofoam food containers and hillsides robbed of their trees in a rush for charcoal to fuel cooking fires. One of the most depressing sights of my life a maternity hospital in the Cite Soleil district of the capital: the lack there was just overwhelming.
But that’s what makes Haiti’s magnetic spiritual energy so startling. In two centuries since its slave revolution, Haiti’s people have endured many disasters natural and man-made (or a cocktail of the two, in this case) with an unflagging dignity born of a deep culture.
And that’s also what’s so troubling about Mr. Trump’s remark: It’s ugly Americanism at its worst, a suggestion that socioeconomic status corresponds with level of civilization, and that the extent to which we respect and value people should depend on the value we can extract from them. Our transactional president has forgotten — or never knew in the first place — that “international relations” implies dealing with humans, not simply economic assets.
In Haiti, meanwhile, relationships are key — both within communities and in the cooperative programs through which international aid groups aim to help reverse the cycle of poverty exacerbated by the earthquake.
Our goal on the trip was to report on this process: how the unprecedented outpouring of support from U.S.-based aid organizations, particularly the many in Atlanta, had translated into on-the-ground impact.
The results were mixed, to say the least. It’s been well documented that much of the money sent to Haiti in the flood of sympathetic American support was wasted, and I remember viewing some housing developments in particular with skepticism. But I’ll leave that debate for another day.
What I remember more vividly are encounters with the Haitian people: The concert-goers jamming to local beats in the Champs de Mars on my first night, the rape victim sharing her story at a CARE support group, the “mothers of the jar” implementing a village savings and loan program, the goat farmer who spent three decades teaching his people how to maximize their “four-legged bank accounts.” I remember the gregarious traveling salesman promoting his wares cheerfully while hanging out the door of a hellishly hot bus, the electric smile of the Episcopal minister laboring to build a skills training institute, the 80-year-old village woman whose faith in government had evaporated. I remember the rural distillery operator, the mission groups in bright T-shirts, the Haitian-American I befriended who gave me a ride into New York City after our plane landed there.
I was in Haiti five days. I didn’t go to its scenic beaches, the remnants of French colonial forts, textile factories churning out T-shirts or plantations where companies like Coca-Cola are helping grow mangoes and coffee. Still, I managed to come away with a sense of appreciation for the place on its own terms.
You see, there are no “shithole” countries. There are some with bad governance, where “bad hombres” find it easier to game the system, where the powerful preserve influence by disenfranchising the poor. There are those with lower average incomes and less of a voice in international institutions. Let’s not get it twisted, though: Anywhere there are fallible people — and we are all fallible — the potential and perhaps even the propensity for such “carnage,” to borrow Mr. Trump’s term, always exists.
But more importantly, embedded in humanity also is an immutable beauty born of a divine imprint, one that stubbornly manifests itself even in the most challenging of situations. This is what we should respect and celebrate even as we tackle tough policy issues that affect our neighbors in other nations.
Perhaps if Mr. Trump would descend from his obsidian tower long enough, he would see this as clearly as Haiti made it to me and begin to give every person — and nation — the dignity they deserve.
Read a recent Haiti-related book review: Books 2017: A Journey Into Haiti’s Cultural Heart