It had been almost two days since my mother heard from her entire family in Jérémie, Haiti. The Atlantic Ocean is literally her mother’s backyard— the coastal town, known as “the city of poets,” which sits on the sharp edge of Haiti’s southern peninsula, received the hardest blow from Hurricane Matthew. According to U.N officials, at least 1,000 Haitians are dead throughout the island and 1.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance: No amount of poetry can describe the fluctuating levels of fear, faith and guilt from our family in the United States, waiting to hear word of their survival.
My mother, who was a Haitian refugee from the early ‘80s, sat anxiously in her South Florida home, thoroughly protected by steel hurricane panels, listening to a local Haitian radio station for the ever-rising speculation on the death toll and infrastructure damage. A crumbled stack of used calling cards lay scattered on the kitchen table, near bags of food and supplies. Hurricane Matthew was heading our way, too, but certainly not with the looming risk of famine and cholera outbreak in the aftermath of a Category 4 storm.
Still, my mother kept her faith in the unpredictable god that released yet another deadly catastrophe upon Haiti– this time during its main harvest season. She kept dialing and praying. The calling card minutes were running out. There were no outbursts of emotion, just awkward calmness in the midst of uncertainty. I didn’t allow my growing anger toward the root causes of Haiti’s condition or my lack of religious faith to thwart my mom’s coping method. It wasn’t my place. No one knows the dark waters like my mother, or the amount patience it takes to wait for life and death to answer her calls.
The family finally called her back. They’re alive. Everyone. My grandmother, with her small 78-year-old frame, made it out of her home just in time before the dark waters swallowed the walls. She fell twice, they said. The entire family found refuge at my mother’s second home in Jérémie, located on an uphill lot. Admittedly, most of them took this particular storm for granted.
And as we passed the phone around, I felt more comfortable with the evolution of my guilt. It was pure anger now, gradually building as I paid closer attention to hindsight. My survivor’s guilt was driven, in part, not simply because I felt fortunate to be born in a country with solid infrastructure, but because I knew I’d have to bare witness to the second hurricane: the continuation of poverty porn and disaster capitalism in Haiti.
The poverty porn, the exploitation of Haiti’s desolate condition for financial or charitable gain, began—as usual, with subtle comments that sought to dehumanize the lived experiences of Haitians, who are too often rendered the sum of the socio-economic issues that beset Haiti. As neoliberal and conservative pundits ignore decades of exploitation and destabilization that undergirds Haiti’s quasi-sovereignty, an uninformed meteorologist continued the pattern of dehumanization by saying “Haitian children eating trees” was the cause of Haiti’s deforestation. The controversy was reminiscent of the responses after the 2010 earthquake, when New York Time’s David Brooks said “intrusive paternalism” was needed for a “progress-resistant” Haiti. Televangelist Pat Robertson, around the same time, said Haiti was being punished because it had “made a pack with the devil.”
The Western narrative has perpetually cemented Haiti’s place in the world inside a box of cautionary tales; it made it easier to masquerade exploitation as development strategies, effectively understating the horrible residual effects of foreign intervention and foreign-backed Haitian political elitism. France still owes Haiti close to $20 billion dollars but exploitation, at this point, is simply tradition.
Why did Bill Clinton force Haiti, “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,” to subsidize U.S rice from his home state of Arkansas, cut Haitian import tariffs from 50% to 3%, and effectively destroy Haitian sustenance? It’s tradition. And why did the American Red Cross, who raised a half a billion dollars after the 2010 earthquake, build just 6 permanent homes in Haiti? Tradition.
I’ve handled my survivor’s guilt with complete anger because I want to break from tradition. It’s certainly not much but, at a bare minimum, that means exposing the systemic issues that beset Haiti, putting the complexity of Haiti’s situation in context every chance I get, and helping local Haitian organizations and institutions build the necessary infrastructure to prevent such catastrophes in the future.
That’s my coping method. What’s yours?