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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/10/11

Haiti: Can We Find Truth in Empathy?

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Flying into Miami on American Airlines flight 1908 from Port-au-Prince was terrifying. It wasn't the competence of the pilot that was of concern. Rather, descending out of the darkness into the beautiful but blinding lights of the American urban landscape was more disorienting than severe turbulence.   The mind--still seared with the sights, sounds and smells of Haiti--was waking to a different reality, but the last week had not been a dream. It was all too real. As my friend fetched me from the door at customs, he asked about what I had experienced on this trip. I said that I was afraid to start talking because I might not stop, and then directed the conversation to his family.

But, disjointed words flowed as we drove and later dominated the dinner conversation at his home. It was compulsive speech--a disgorgement of emotion and anger. I apologized. His wife, who is a cultural anthropologist and also my friend, told me that when I write about my latest experiences, I should term my responses "empathy" and not "compassion" as I had in my past writing. There is truth in empathy, she said, and what I was experiencing was attunement to the emotions of the Haitian people. Just tell the stories. Put yourself back into that space and explain how their emotion transferred itself into your intellect.

The intellect stretches to describe and explain the harm and abuse that Haiti endures.

The January 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed up to 300,00 and left 1.5 million or more homeless served to rip the scab off a wound that international interests inflicted on this island nation over 200 years ago. Now, Haiti is bleeding more profusely, and those same international interests are scrambling to dress the wound, but not cure the infection that threatens to turn cancerous, if it has not already. Haiti is not bloody enough for the cameras today, so the major news organizations have dashed to Egypt, where there is great promise for fresh blood that will wash across the camera lenses and raise ratings, without exposing yet another infection caused by years of international meddling. 

Dying is fascinating. The living are not as interesting. And it is the living who make up the connective tissue that holds Haitian society together. Unless they are allowed to heal, Haiti cannot heal. The displaced and dispossessed are invisible because we do not look closely, preferring to hold ourselves at a safe distance.

Press view from balcony at le Plaza Hotel
Press view from balcony at le Plaza Hotel
(Image by Georgianne Nienaber)
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Stand on the balcony of the Plaza Hotel on the Champ de Mars and you will see what CNN shows you. The locals call it "Anderson Cooper's balcony." The gates of the hotel are guarded, buffering the guests from the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp that is located less than 200 feet across the street. The camp is one of at least 1300 that appeared after the quake.

The people who now live there once had homes, businesses, and family members who were lost in the earthquake. These are individuals and not acronyms called "IDPs."

We crossed the street to find friends and acquaintances we made over the last year. Immediately inside the rabbit's warren of huts, tents and shacks, we encountered a man named Henry.  We politely said hello, and then Henry wanted to show us where he lived with his wife and six children--a small shack made of salvaged material, but proudly featuring a ceiling fan that was miraculously connected to an electrical source. Whether the contraption was battery or AC-powered was unclear, since the wires disappeared through the rusted tin roof, but it did provide a whisper of air movement in the sweltering interior.

But, something else was more disturbing than the horrible conditions the family, which once had a home and small business, had to endure. The day before, on February 7, small demonstrations took place in Port-au-Prince. The reasons were not entirely clear, but generally the 300 or so demonstrators wanted the immediate removal of President Rene Preval. His term is up. But the election process has been delayed due to vote recounts, fraud, international pressure, and meddling.

Ballot boxes that should be under lock and key have been converted to breadboxes at roadside stands. Can you imagine the hue and cry if that happened during the 2000 US presidential race? The outcome of this electoral process will determine Haiti's immediate future and the fate of the homeless in the earthquake zone.

The November 28 elections were critically flawed by all accounts, but the members of the organization in charge of examining fraud, the expert verification mission of the Organization of American States (OAS), are from the United States, Canada, and France. Jamaica is the only Caribbean nation on the team. Mark Weisbrot of the independent think tank CEPR has an excellent analysis here

That is the background behind the demonstrations, but you can see how the background is already distracting and distancing us from Henry's story.

The demonstrators acted out of hand and out of anger, but there is some speculation that they were paid to do so. I have no proof of this, but that is what people on the street were saying. Riot police were called as stones were lobbed and a few tires were set on fire outside of the camp. Police who could not shoot straight fired tear gas canisters, and the canisters landed in the camp, where the residents are sick and tired of it all and just want a new government. The people are apolitical--at least the people we spoke with are. At this point any new government, any new president will do after a year of living in conditions not fit for animals.

One of the tear gas canisters landed near the area where three of Henry's children were playing. He ran to them, scooped two up in his arms while the smallest scrambled onto his back, and carried them away from the fumes.

Henry was angry that his family was paying the price for the actions of a few. This has happened more than once. Thieves, pickpockets and rapists use the camp as an escape route. Disappearing within the passageways is as easy as hiding in a cornfield. The children are not safe and must be under the watchful eyes of family protectors at all times. 

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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