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Caribbean heads take lead on 'working group' for reconstruction in Haiti

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM



David Jessop, Contributor


It is hard to comprehend the scale of the suffering that the people of Haiti have had to endure since January 12.

Then, the capital and areas close to the epicentre of the earthquake of what was already the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, were plunged into circumstances from which it will take decades to recover.

Up to 200,000 persons are dead, somewhere between two million and three million people homeless, the majority without food or water, the dead among the living, and everywhere, the suffering of the seriously injured trying to survive without hospital treatment or medication.

It happened because Haiti, like Jamaica and other nations in the region, lies on fault lines between tectonic plates, and was made worse by the absence of construction standards.

For the most part, the Haitian people have remained as they have always been: calm, dignified and resigned in the face of adversity.

Massive challenge

However, the signs are that if their problems are not addressed rapidly, many more from the capital will leave for the country, approach the border with the Dominican Republic, or find the means possible to go elsewhere.

Global reaction has been positive and immediate. Notwithstanding, it has only been with the greatest difficulty that governments, relief agencies and non-governmental organisations have been able to respond on a scale commensurate with the massive challenge the earthquake has created.

For the most part, this is because Haiti's infrastructure was woefully poor before tragedy struck and because of the weak reach of its government and institutions.

Sadly, it seems that this situation has not been helped by the inability of the United States military or the United Nations to have learnt lessons on how best to provide a rapid humanitarian response to civil disasters in nations in which the State has ceased to function and its infrastructure has been destroyed.

Reports suggest that this has also not been helped by an obsession with security and too great a focus on process.

Most impressively, the Caribbean has played a quiet but central role, with Jamaica and the Dominican Republic having become key to the delivery of short-term logistical support and helping the Haitian government coordinate a longer-term response to reconstruct not only lives and property, but also governance, security and economic development - all of which are essential if the republic it is to be able to function again as a truly sovereign independent state.

Cuba's role has also been exemplary, direct and immediate. Its long-term medical presence in Haiti and the willingness of many of its specialists to volunteer to go to Haiti, enabled it within twenty 24 to begin assisting hundreds of patients in locations in the worst-hit areas.

Cuba has also said that its medical personnel were ready to cooperate with all other health specialists and has agreed to allow medical-evacuation flights from Guantánamo Bay to Miami, through Cuban air space.

Enormous reconstruction

The challenge of reconstruction is enormous and there is awareness, at least for now, that a long-term approach is required by the international community if Haiti is to recover and move beyond its extreme poverty.

To this end, Dom Rep President Leonel Fernández convened for his Haitian counterpart, René Preval, a meeting in Santo Domingo on January 18 in preparation for a broader meeting that will take place in Montreal on January 25.

At the meeting, the focus was on coordinating aid, but as President Fernández said, it was also to try to ensure that when the tragedy was no longer headline news, Haiti would not be forgotten again.

"We are here, President René Preval, with the support of the international community to help you, the government of Haiti, the people of Haiti, overcome the historic wrongs, and so that you can fully join modernisation, progress, welfare and what comes with a spirit of dignity for a people such as yours in this 21st century," President Fernández told those in attendance, who included the prime minister of Jamaica, the prime minister of Dominica as Caricom chair, the Caricom secretary general plus high-level representatives from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and global and hemispheric financial institutions.

At the meeting, it was agreed that a permanent coordinating working committee for the development of Haiti be established "to find definitive solutions to the long-standing problems", but it is clear that if this is to succeed, Haiti will require huge amounts of money, consistent long-term application, and the willingness of those in power inside and outside Haiti to set aside self-interest for a long period.

At a human level, it is becoming evident that the task will not be easy as many Haitians from politics, the arts, academia, the Church and from civil society who sought a better and truly independent future for the republic have perished.

In the coming months when the media have gone, there will be difficult questions to be addressed about how to rebuild the nation in every sense; about the nature of future economic growth in an impove-rished society; about coordination; about the staying power of donor agencies; about the nature of politicians; and about those who see opportunity in suffering: which is to say nothing of how a nation traumatised by destruction and loss regains the confidence to look ahead.

Perhaps the most symbolic images from Haiti were those from just after the earthquake struck.

In one personal video, the capital's 100-year-old cathedral had fallen and become rubble, what was left of its chancel was on fire, and somewhere beneath, the nation's Vicar General Charles Benoit, lay dead or dying. In the streets, distraught people prostrated themselves on the ground as if their God had deserted them.

It was an apocalyptic scene.

Haiti and its people will rise from the ashes, but the task for the donors, as Cuba's President Raul Castro observed last week, "will put to the test the endurance of the cooperation spirit before egoism, chauvinism, ignoble interests and contempt for other nations prevail".

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email: david.jessop@caribbean-council.org.