United States-based educator and activist Jesse Hagopian was in Haiti in 2010 when a devastating earthquake levelled much of the island, killing tens of thousands of people. In an article published at his I Am an Educator blog, slightly abridged below, he responds to US President Donald Trump’s racist “shithole” comments about Haiti (and other poor nations), describing how the Caribbean nation has been systematically impoverished by Western powers.
Eight years ago today, my family and I survived the earthquake in Haiti. I had been laid off from my teaching job that year and so I had joined my wife, with our one-year-old son, on her work trip to Haiti where she was conducting trainings on HIV.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, our hotel became a makeshift clinic. Over the course of the evening and into the night, we mobilised our meagre resources to attend to hundreds of badly injured Haitians.
My wife and I were deputised as orderlies in this makeshift emergency room, although we had no medical training. We stripped the sheets off hotel beds for bandages, we broke chairs to use for splints, and we transformed the poolside deck chairs into hospital beds.
In the ensuing days, I worked on children who died in my arms and saw hundreds of dead bodies that lined the streets of Port-Au-Prince. I witnessed this death on a mass scale. But I also witnessed the beauty and resilience of a people who had lost everything, but still found something to give to help save others.
Neighbours carried neighbours who were missing limbs on top of doors for miles to get medical aid. People took shallow sips from plastic bottles so the water would nourish life for more people. Hundreds gathered in newly forged communities to sing songs, collectively raising the spirit of hope.
To these people President Donald Trump has a message: You are a “shithole”.
Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations during an immigration meeting with lawmakers, saying, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
There can be no doubt that Haiti has many severe challenges, or that the cesspool of US power, and other dominant nations, are at their root.
This urge to dominate Haiti dates back to its very founding in a mass slave revolt. In fact, the US refused to recognise Haiti as a nation, from its independence in 1804 until 1862. It worried that a Black republic, run by former slaves, would send the wrong message to its own slave population.
Then between 1915-34, the US enforced a violent and bloody military occupation on Haiti. Historian Mary Renda wrote: “By official US estimates, more than 3000 Haitians were killed during this period; a more thorough accounting reveals that the death toll may have reached 11,500.”
Since the 2010 earthquake, the US and the international community’s record on Haiti reveals the same impulse to dominate rather than aid. Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) director Mark Weisbrot said in a January 2014 report: “The lasting legacy of the earthquake is the international community’s profound failure to set aside its own interests and respond to the most pressing needs of the Haitian people.”
Not much has changed since then. The CEPR’s 2018 report reveals that foreign aid to Haiti is still primarily being used to enrich US corporations: overall, just US$48.6 million has gone directly to Haitian organisations or firms — just over 2%. Comparatively, more than $1.2 billion has gone to firms located in Washington DC, Maryland or Virginia — more than 56%.
The difference is even starker when looking just at contracts: 65% went to Beltway firms, compared to 1.9% for Haitian firms.
Even more unforgivably, United Nations troops introduced cholera to post-earthquake Haiti by dumping the waste from their portable toilets into a river tributary near their base in Haiti. (The UN had been overseeing a military occupation of Haiti since a 2004 US-backed coup overthrew an elected left-leaning government.)
Instead of Haiti bringing a hot mess to other countries, as Trump says, it was literally a shithole from the world’s most powerful governments that was dumped on Haiti — with the cholera epidemic killing more than 10,000 people and sickening another 1 million.
This is why Trump’s decision last November to end the Temporary Protected Status for the Haitian refugees in the US who fled after the earthquake will actually be a death sentence for many.
Contrary to Trump’s ugly and racist description, the people of Haiti are resilient and beautiful. It is Trump who is a living obscenity.
To drive home his disgusting anti-Blackness, Trump commented at the same meeting on immigration that he wasn’t against more immigrants coming to the US, but that “[w]e should have people from places like Norway”.
A white supremacist is in the White House. We need nothing less than a new Haitian revolution that connects with the movement for Black lives in the US and brings down structures of racism across the African diaspora.