Commentary: Haiti isn't trendy but it's the real news

The Miami HeraldJanuary 19, 2012 

The news of the day is burning with big questions:

Who’ll be the next head coach of the Dolphins? Why is Rosie O’Donnell killing hammerhead sharks? Is Khloe Kardashian really a Kardashian?

And each of those stories is being devoured and debated by many thousands of readers, far more than are looking at the sober bylined reports from Haiti, which last week marked the two-year anniversary of its catastrophic earthquake.

Even before that disaster, Haiti was a place of such hellish poverty and corruption that people on the outside often turned away because it was all too much, too sad, too hopeless.

And too close to home.

The 7.0 earthquake was freakishly fierce for that part of the Caribbean, and it seemed to be almost a preternatural act of cruelty. No country in the hemisphere was more vulnerable and ill-prepared. Still the devastation was shocking.

Eventually the number of fatalities surpassed 300,000, a mind-blowing figure, almost 20 times higher than the death toll from last year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami. For a few weeks the world took notice — volunteers arrived by the planeload in Port-au-Prince, and supplies poured in along with money.

Two years later, the question is: How is Haiti?

Of course it’s still poor, still in desperate need of jobs, competent political leadership and decent housing. More than half a million Haitians left homeless by the quake still live in tent cities, and a cholera outbreak a year ago killed more than 4,000, including many children.

Last week brought peaceful street demonstrations by those exasperated with the slow pace of rebuilding and the lack of work. Sadly, Haiti has no history of efficient governance and no template to work from.

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, formed with international support to rebuild the country, is in limbo because the Haitian Parliament has balked at extending its legal mandate. More than $2 billion in aid committed by other nations remains uncollected and unspent.

Not surprisingly, donor nations are directing most funds toward established relief agencies and private contractors rather than the government ministries, which have a notorious legacy of waste, neglect and outright theft.

Throughout the long recovery, celebrities (including one of the genetically verified Kardashians) have popped in and out of the country. If nothing else, such fleeting though well-publicized appearances serve to remind distracted segments of the world public that Haiti is still there, still hanging on.

Others are in it for the long haul.

A musician who is a friend of mine has quietly funded a new grade school in the countryside. The actor, Sean Penn, arrived in Port-au-Prince shortly after the earthquake and was so overwhelmed that he’s been a fixture ever since. He manages a tent camp for 55,000 persons who lost their homes in the disaster.

Dr. Paul Farmer, whose intrepid Partners in Health organization has been operating medical clinics for years in Haiti, last week described plans for a 320-bed teaching hospital — the country’s largest.

It is being built with private funds in the city of Mirebalais. When finished, the earthquake-proof facility will treat about 500 patients a day. Given the scarcity of good healthcare in Haiti, this is nothing short of a godsend.

Then there’s former President Bill Clinton, whose interest in Haiti also predates the earthquake, and who has surely spent more street time there than any American political figure past or present. He returned again last week to mark the anniversary of the tragedy by visiting a Timberland shoe factory in an industrial park where about 7,000 Haitians are employed.

Clinton has been relentlessly pushing for more foreign investment in Haiti’s private sector, which is its only true hope for moving forward. While the earthquake brought a gusher of humanitarian funds from the United States, Canada, Brazil and other nations, the long-term prospects depend on firms like the Korean garment company that’s sinking serious money into a Haiti-based manufacturing operation.

Two years is hardly enough time to erase a century of ruinous policies, violent politics and graft, but there is something happening that resembles progress. For example, more people in Port-au-Prince can now get clean water than before the quake.

A new hospital here, a new factory there — these are small miracles but must be multiplied for Haiti to lift itself from the rubble of 2010. It won’t happen without the likes of Farmer, Clinton and others who are keeping this important story alive.

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