Hope for Haiti amid disaster

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For Ed Hourihan, a trifecta of disasters that have struck the island nation of Haiti recently hit closer to home than for many Rochesterians. For Pepin Accilien, they hit even closer.

Managing member of Bond, Schoeneck & King PLLC’s Rochester office, Hourihan is a longtime board member of the Haitian Health Foundation.

HHF is a nongovernmental organization, a U.S.-based nonprofit that since the 1980s has provided medical and dental care to 250,000 poor, rural Haitians. Its 350-strong staff is mostly made up of Haitians, many of whom it recruited and trained from among its clientele. 

Since the late 1990s, HHF also has fostered projects to provide clean water, modern sanitation and economic development in the hope of moving impoverished Haitian families beyond hardscrabble subsistence farming. 

Since 2018, civil unrest in Haiti and later the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted what had been Hourihan’s annual trips to the island. For more than a decade before then, he spent a few weeks each year assisting doctors and HHF-trained Haitian medical assistants as they fanned out to the countryside to provide medical and dental care to the country’s rural poor.

A vice president of Savin Engineers P.C., Accilien runs the firm’s Rochester office. Among projects he currently oversees around New York is the Rochester City School District’s multimillion-dollar, multiyear Schools Modernization Program. 

Accilien left Haiti with his family as a teenager in the 1980s, with plans to return. However, growing corruption in Haiti prompted him to stay in the United States.

Accilien is now an American citizen and the father of U.S.-born children. But he keeps close ties to his native land and to a network of fellow members of the Haitian diaspora who, like Accilien, hope to see the long-troubled island nation achieve a measure of peace and prosperity that has eluded it since its 18th century founding as the Western Hemisphere’s first Black-ruled republic.

Like many who have a more than passing acquaintance with Haiti, Accilien and Hourihan see hope for the Caribbean nation to overcome a troubled past, one plagued with political and social unrest, poverty and environmental degradation virtually since the island republic’s 1804 founding as an independent state after a slave revolt freed it from French rule. 

Accilien acknowledges that overcoming more than two centuries of turbulence and instability will take some doing. But he sees stability and some measure of prosperity as not just achievable goals but ones that must be achieved against what seem to be very long odds.  

Threefold disaster

To say that Accilien finds the current situation in Haiti frustrating is to vastly understate his despair. 

On July 7, the politically unstable Haiti was thrown into complete chaos by the assassination of President Jovenal Moise. Moise was shot to death by a team of mercenaries that invaded the presidential palace. That death squad, which reportedly included U.S.-trained Colombian nationals, was apparently assembled by a Haitian expatriate who sought to replace Moise.  

On Aug. 14, roughly a month after Moise was killed, a powerful earthquake hit Haiti. The magnitude 7.2 quake was more powerful than a 2010 earthquake that had brought Haiti to its knees. Unlike the 2010 quake, which was centered near the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the 2021 quake is centered in a rural area some 80 miles from Port-au-Prince in the Grand’Anse department, a region that includes Jeremie, the site of HHF’s main clinic. 

Reports from Haiti said that after the earthquake people were sleeping outdoors on makeshift beds, fearing aftershocks that might cause further collapses. Three days after the quake, survivors were drenched as torrential tropical storms lashed the island. So far, more than 2,000 are dead. Many more are homeless and injured. 

“Things are going from bad to really bad,” wrote HHR country director Nadesha Mijoba, who oversees the NGO’s operation in Haiti, in a Aug. 22 email. “The injured are now beginning to come in with horrible infections, a lot of dehydration, fevers, terrible head injuries and we are preparing for the public health crisis that is about to unfold if we don’t get aid here soon.”

For Accilien, that the threefold disaster left hardly a moment between its ill-timed events to give the troubled nation time to recover was bad enough. But even though it might be understandable that Haiti’s ills have been largely eclipsed in the American press by the unfolding debacle of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, domestic U.S. political news and the still-potent pandemic, the relatively scant attention Haiti’s disasters are receiving in his adopted land adds to his distress. 

Hourihan shares Accilien’s frustration as does HHF’s Connecticut-based executive director,   Marilyn Lowney, whose father, Jeremiah Lowney, founded the NGO. An orthodontist, the elder Lowney began by traveling to Haiti to provide free dental care. Marilyn Lowney, who was then a teenager, went along.

“All he could do then was extractions,” she recalls.

While her father had taken refresher courses in regular dentistry to brush up on skills neglected as he practiced orthodontics, Haiti lacked resources that would have allowed for restorative measures like root canals that could have saved patients’ teeth. In recent years, HHF has been able to provide some restorative dentistry, but challenges to providing dental and medical care still abound. 

The NGO relies as much as possible on Haitian medical professionals and locals it has trained as well as on U.S. volunteers like Hourihan and Lowney herself. 

Even before the current round of disasters, conditions were often less than ideal. Political and social unrest have fostered a gang culture, Lowney says. Haitian doctors might be kidnapped and held for ransom. Supplies could be hard to move. Gang-related dangers led to the cancellation of his 2018 trip to Haiti, Hourihan says.

Roots of crisis

Haiti’s long, nearly unbroken history of entrenched poverty, civil unrest, and corrupt regimes has contributed to a sort of donor fatigue, Accilien concedes. Some, like former President Donald Trump, are tempted to write Haiti off as a “shithole” country, he notes. But not all of Haiti’s ills are traceable to its own citizens’ actions or deficiencies, Accilien believes.

Haiti takes up roughly a third of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island believed to be Christopher Columbus’ first landing place in the Americas. The rest of the island is home to the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, a land less troubled than its neighbor to the west, where French and Creole are the official languages. 

Going from Haiti to the Dominican Republic is like “crossing from night to day. It’s hard to believe you’re on the same island,” Hourihan says. The Dominican Republic is greener, more stable and less impoverished. The contrast is stark. Per-capita income in Haiti is $868; in the Dominican Republic, it is $8,050. 

Those discrepancies in part trace to Haiti’s longstanding lack of political stability, Accilien says. But he sees that instability as tracing in no small part to the republic’s 19th century founding and the treatment the new nation got from France and other Western countries including the United States over the following 200 years. 

Spain ruled the entire island of Hispaniola from Columbus’ landing in 1492 to 1625, when it ceded the island’s western third, which had been largely settled by French buccaneers, to France. 

The French called the western region of the island Saint Dominique, turning Spain’s name for its eastern Hispaniola colony, Santo Domingo, into its French equivalent. 

As colonial rulers, the French cleared vast swaths of forest to put in plantations, where they worked using enslaved Africans as a primary source of labor. 

In Santo Domingo, the Spanish also used slave labor, employing both native Taino people and imported African slaves to work gold mines and sugar plantations. But many Spanish planters eventually left the island, leaving behind a mixed population of mostly poor whites, Taino and Africans, the ancestors of today’s Dominican Republic citizens. 

In Saint Dominque, slaves took advantage of instability during the French Revolution to launch their own rebellion in 1791. In 1804, they won independence and founded Haiti. In the years that followed, France demanded and got hefty reparations from Haiti as compensation to slave owners for the loss of their human property. In later years, other nations including the U.S. also took money out of Haiti. 

For a time in its infancy, Haiti existed as a kingdom of sorts, first under Emperor for Life Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the slaves, who after promising amnesty to sympathetic whites, massacred thousands of white men, women and children. Fearful of the destabilizing effect a successful slave rebellion could have on U.S. slave states, President Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize Haiti. After Dessalines’ death, Haiti fell under the divided rule of competing kings. 

The Haitian republic dates to 1820. It briefly conquered Santo Domingo, freeing the former Spanish colony’s slaves, but lost control of western Hispaniola in fairly short order

In 1824, France threatened to invade and reconquer Haiti, demanding that the fledgling Caribbean nation pay 150 million francs as reparations to compensate former slave owners for the loss of their human property. Haiti made that payment and made successive ones. 

In a 2017 articleForbes contributor Dan Sperling calculated the current value of reparations Haiti paid to France at $21 billion, an amount that he wrote would have been “a staggering burden for any fledgling nation,” but unthinkably harsh for a country established by Black slaves who had fought for and won freedom. 

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries up to the present day, Haiti has rarely if ever achieved political stability. Between 1915 and 1934, it was occupied and controlled by the United States. For much of the latter half of the last century, it was controlled by Papa Doc Duvalier, a dictator who declared himself president for life. After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, ruled. Until Baby Doc fled the country in 1986, father and son enforced their rule through a shadowy militia called the Tontons Macoute, a Creole term that roughly translates to bogeymen. 

Post-Duvalier Haiti has seen a series of coups and military takeovers. A reformer and Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, won election as president in 1990 but was ousted a year later in a coup. Later, Aristide was reinstalled under protection of a friendly U.S. military occupation. In 2004, he was ousted by a revolution. Since then, political chaos has mostly ruled in Haiti. In 2004 and 2008, tropical storms killed 3,006 and 331, respectively. Some 800,000 were in need of humanitarian aid after the 2008 rains. 

Grass-roots hope

After the 2010 earthquake, some $13 billion in international aid poured into Haiti, but political stability proved elusive and critics decry the country for failing to put the aid to good use. The International Red Cross came under heavy criticism for misdirecting aid. 

“(Foreign) aid has propped up the country and its leaders, providing vital services and supplies in a country that has desperately needed vast amounts of humanitarian assistance. But it has also allowed corruption, violence and political paralysis to go unchecked,” New York Times Caribbean bureau chief Maria Abi-Habib asserted in a recent column that singled out the Red Cross for spending more of donated dollars on its own overhead than on aid.

Pepin Accilien

Accilien sees Haiti’s failures and travails in large part as the fault of a native wealthy and upper-middle-class elite that clings to privilege and is threatened by any power ceded to the republic’s far more numerous poor. But he also blames the huge sums paid to France as reparations as a big factor in fostering instability. Deforestation under French colonial rule left the country less able to cope with the tropical storms and hurricanes endemic to the region than the more-forested Dominican Republic, he believes.

Despite the responsibility Accilien assigns to those he calls Haiti’s elite for his homeland’s disarray, he sees the country’s hope as coming less through foreign intervention than through a buildup of networks and resources already at work within Haiti.

Haitian journalist Michele Montas, who served as the senior liaison connecting United Nations peacekeepers and the Haitian government in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, agrees.

“In the chaos that immediately followed the quake, many well-intentioned celebrities and donors from international and religious groups were trying to decide how and where to use the aid they had collected. In many instances, they failed to consult with grass-roots organizations about people’s most pressing needs. The relief efforts were often counterproductive, ineffective and wasteful,” she wrote in a recent New York Times guest essay

“Trust the Haitian grass-roots networks that are in direct contact with the victims and have a record of coordinating relief efforts,” Montas urges, pointing to several home-grown Haitian organizations featured in an Aug. 18 NBC News feature.

Accilien concurs. To Montas’ list he would add HHF and Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti in Creole). Accilien’s friend and fellow Haitian diasporan, former Rochester City Schools superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, is an adviser to Anseye Pou Ayiti.

“None of us are under any illusion about the challenges that we face as the APA movement gains momentum,” Brizard wrote in a 2015 Huffington Post essay introducing the then newly formed nonprofit. “Through APA, we will invest in local teacher leaders as the way to transform Haiti and create a new narrative for what is possible in this proud nation. We have intentionally placed our cohort members in rural, underserved communities instead of the capital of Port-au-Prince. And we want to join forces with others who believe in education as a human right, and that all children deserve access to quality education.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Photos of Haiti courtesy of HHF.

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