LATIN AMERICAHAITI: The burden of “elephants”
The New Year in Haiti started with a “bang”: January 12, at precisely 4:53 PM … a terrible 7.3 earthquake struck! In just 35 seconds, over 50 violent shocks leveled nearly 2/3 of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and many surrounding cities and towns in a deadly triangle from Cabaret to Petit Goâve and Jacmel. At least 300,000 people were killed in the blink of an eye; as many were seriously wounded, leaving a homeless refugee population of over one million … All this in 35 seconds!
For over 2 centuries, the Republic of Haiti has been afflicted with “7 deadly plagues”, reminiscent of the biblical accounts of the Old Testament: dictatorship, corruption, illiteracy, epidemics, dependency/occupation, indifference, and the massive “brain drain” of its most gifted citizens. One former Haitian prime minister, Mrs. Michèle Pierre Louis, recently remarked: “The Haitian People are a gifted people, but one crushed by the heavy burden of elephants …” Who, what, are these elephants? A small, local elite, a weak government plagued with corruption, a talented force of professionals leaving the country for good.
What should Haiti be doing to break this curse? First of all, the political leaders must at least listen to the scientists and geologists who had predicted the coming catastrophe 2 years ago. Politicians simply ignored the warnings “so as not to alarm the population” (cf. Phoenix Delacroix: 25 sept. 2008, in www.LeMatinHaiti.com). Adequate building codes designed for quake-prone areas should be adopted as soon as possible, and a process of decentralization (population, industry, services, and institutions) made a top government priority.
There are no words to describe Haiti, other than tragedy: one of horror, pain, hunger, desperation. The recent outpouring of humanitarian aid and thousands of relief volunteer workers who quickly arrived on the scene of the quake is heart-warming to all the victims. Someone cares! But everyone knows that this is always too little and too late. There must be a long-term plan, not only for reconstruction, but for attacking the roots of poverty in this country. It is not the lack of infrastructure that creates poverty, but rather poverty that creates this lack. Poverty is the end result of an economic system which stifles the creation of wealth and discourages local initiatives and investment. Free trade agreements and economic reforms must be central to Haiti’s recovery. Haiti must be enabled to produce and to sell its goods and services in order to escape the poverty trap of international hand-outs.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate have been part of Haiti’s struggle with” the elephants” since 1943. A handful of pioneers arrived with a fresh vision of Faith, armed with the Charism and Zeal of the Founder, St. Eugène de Mazenod ( love of the Church, love of people, love of those most in need). Today, the Oblates in Haiti number over 130 missionaries (including those in formation). We are present in 6 dioceses and 25 parishes. We have established parishes, schools, clinics, cooperatives and credit unions, seminaries, homes for the elderly poor and troubled youth. The foreign-born Oblates have literally worked themselves out of a job well-done in favor of a native Oblate Province, which has itself become missionary to Colombia and French Guyana, as well as to the Haitian immigrants of North America and Europe.
The Oblate Charism includes a special ingredient which we could call”staying power” (it comes from our special fourth vow of Perseverance). We don’t run away when the going gets tough! When the quake hit, our seminarians and priests joined in the rescue efforts to free trapped victims from the deadly rubble, stayed out with the people, slept outside on cardboard, celebrated Mass in the streets, contacted relief organizations and workers for food and water, kept the morale high with prayer and song, and social activities for the youth.
To those who legitimately ask: “Where was God on January 12?” The Haitians themselves gave the answer in sustained prayers and song amidst the desolation of collapsed schools, churches, and market places. They took turns in providing all-night community vigils and watches for the safety of all, sharing all they had with each other, comforting the children who were looking for their lost families, asking if they would go back to school tomorrow. Fathers Bonnard, Printemps, Loubeau, Mario and Wilson are still there, sleeping in tents and ministering to their communities, sustained by the generosity of their brother Oblates both in Haiti and abroad, inspired by the courage of their Haitian brothers and sisters in the face of great loss. There is a similar story in the Bible: The story of Job … one with a happy ending. Where was God when the earthquake struck? God was there with His people. He is there today. (Fr. Alfred CHARPENTIER, omi, 21 March 2010)