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#4558: Re: Of Hurricanes and Human Rights: A Case for Haiti (fwd)

From: Declama <Declama@email.msn.com>

copyright (c) 2000 Créole Connection / Myriam J. A. Chancy

Of Hurricanes and Human Rights: A Case for Haiti
by Myriam J. A. Chancy

  According to Juan Mendez, director of Americas Watch, there is no human
rights situation that is more of an emergency than Haiti. We consider it a
human rights disaster.

  - Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti

  In report after report relaying news of the passing of Hurricane George
through the Caribbean in September of 1998, Haiti is hardly mentioned though
it too was hit after the hurricane had swept through Puerto Rico and the
Dominican Republic. In US journalistic accounts, it is maintained that the
D.R. broke the full force of the hurricane as it traveled across the island
so that once the storms crossed the Haitian border, what damage occurred was
caused due to overpopulation and poor city-planning. Yet, on September 22,
winds on both sides of the island were reported to have reached speeds of
over 74 miles per hour. Though it is indeed the case that the first islands
hit by the hurricanes were worse off, I was led to wonder at reports that
Haitians in the United States were slow to respond to calls for aid from
their homeland due to the hurricane damage. Such reports would have us
believe that exiled communities of immigrants themselves engineer aid to
their home countries (Pierre-Pierre, Haitian Immigrants... B3). While the
U.S. brought aid to the Dominican Republic through the Peace Corps, little
was reported about aid to Haiti, the poorest country in this hemisphere. By
the twenty-seventh of September, the New York Times ran a short piece on
Haiti below a long, by-lined article on the Dominican Republic. In the D.
R., 200 people were confirmed dead, 500 injured and 300, 000 people living
in shelters. The post-script on Haiti notes that 94 people had been
confirmed dead, sixty missing and presumed dead, bringing the rising death
toll to 154; the injured are un-mentioned; 100,000 are reported homeless. I
wonder, of course, if only those with homes are being counted or if these
numbers include those living in the make-shift shack-towns, crowded in tight
spaces between more safely constructed dwellings. There is no way to tell.

  I invoke these statistics here not to diminish the case of pain and
suffering in the Dominican Republic (and elsewhere) in the wake of Hurricane
George but to highlight the manner in which reporting of George's passage
has been biased at best: it has diminished suffering in Haiti numerically
without considering that the country's lack of infrastructure and already
inhumane living conditions for the vast majority would make any damage,
however small, proportionally quite serious. The added scrutiny of the
Haitian diaspora's tardy response to the storm damage allows attention to be
diverted from the way in which aid has failed to reach Haiti as facilely, it
seems, that it has reached U.S. governed Caribbean islands, and nations
treated with more consideration by the U.S. government. Such reporting fails
to take into account that the Haitian diaspora provides Haitians in Haiti
with $3 million per day of hard currency (Pierre-Pierre, In Haiti... B6) in
an effort to alleviate suffering and misery there.

  AIDS physician Paul Farmer notes that it is journalists who do much of
[the] work of representation (Uses 359) when it comes to Haiti. Narratives
concerning Haitians are created to prop-up illusions which do not correspond
to reality. Referring to the stories told by surviving Haitian detainees of
Guantanamo in contradistinction to those told by U.S. officials and
journalists, Farmer writes:

  Much of the oppositional criticism of Guantanamo leaves the reader with
the impression that the U.S. military, including their doctors, were
themselves frustrated victims of bureaucratic snares. The image offered is
of unfortunates languishing on a base, and not that of active, malignant
harassment. . . . The detainees themselves have an altogether different
version of what transpired. . . a version that is all too often lost in
journalistic and scholarly accounts.

  Narratives from the powerful, including their journalistic versions,
inevitably reveal what Noam Chomsky has called necessary illusions. (295)

  Such necessary illusions clearly exist in order to hold up the feasibility
of a New World Order which is supposed to have come of age, in George Bush's
infamous words of September 1990: A world where the strong respect the
rights of the weak (qtd. Dupuy 2). No such world has come into being but the
lack of accurate reporting on Haiti might make it seem so. The stories told
of Haitians often contradict, yet come to supercede, those told by Haitians
themselves, supporting Farmer's claim that a discernible reality is lost in
the recapitulation of events (Uses 293) concerning Haiti.

  December 10, 1998 marked the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human
Rights. According to an article appearing in the Fall issue of Teaching
Tolerance to mark the anniversary, authored by S. Claire King, most
Americans identify human rights with freedom of speech and association, due
process, and protection from torture and arbitrary detainment. In fact,
human rights, as recognized by the United Nations charter covers a much
wider array of issues including, according to King, adequate food, living
wages, free and equal education, disability, rights, safety from crime,
capital sentencing, equity for women and sexual minorities, housing,
abortion, environmental concerns, immigration policy, religious tolerance,
social security and medical care. King notes that unlike citizens of other
countries (Albania and Costa Rica are cited as examples), Americans have
little awareness of measuring human rights in other than American terms,
i.e., in a country where most (yet not all: Amnesty International does list
the U.S. as a violator of human rights) have access (or presumed access) to
the means by which to make a living, to obtain food, housing and the like,
it would seem that freedom of speech and due process are the only human
rights issues worth worrying about. Others, however, do not have this luxury
of perspective.

  The preservation of human rights, then, does not consist simply of
preventing the violation of civil liberties (i.e., through torture, false
imprisonment, etc.), but that of defending the dignity and worth of the
human person - this according to the preamble of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, drafted and authorized by the General Assembly of the
United Nations in 1948. Article 22 of the Declaration states: Everyone, as a
member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to the
realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in
accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the
economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his[her] dignity and
the free development of his[her] personality. Certainly, natural disasters
are threats to social security and it is through aid organizations like the
Peace Corps (in this Hemisphere at least) that international co-operation
for relief is achieved. The lack of aid relief provided for Haiti in the
immediate wake of Hurricane George is just one more in a series of events
that reveal that the wholistic safeguarding of human rights in Haiti
continues to be seriously neglected by the global community. Perhaps I am
reaching in my assumptions here, and yet, words like dignity and free
development seem appropriate to describe the struggle of the average
Haitian. The American media, in its reporting of Hurricane George,
contributed to the rendering of the Haitian people as a faceless, condemned
mass unlikely to be redeemed even by the arbitrary winds of a hurricane that
has itself been ascribed anthropomorphic qualities, tracked as it is with
faultless human interest from one land mass to another, and Christened with
a name.

  Given the fact that the United States exerts considerable power over
developing countries not only in this hemisphere but globally, how Americans
define human rights is crucial to the ability of non-Americans to be assured
of the provisions outlined in Article 28 of the Declaration: Everyone is
entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedom
set forth in [the Declaration] can be fully realized. Certainly, in the case
of Haiti, this entitlement has never been realized z

  The above is excerpted from a longer manuscript-in-progress on Haiti, the
Dominican Republic and Cuba.

  Works Cited

  Dupuy, Alex. Haiti in the New World Order: The Limits of the Democratic
Revolution. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.

  Farmer, Paul. The Uses of Haiti. Maine: Common Courage Press, 1994.

  King, S. Claire. By Virtue of Being Human Teaching Tolerance Fall 1998:
47-52. n.a. Haiti's Way Out Washington Post (2/2/99): A14

  Pierre-Pierre, Garry. Haitians Bear H.I.V. Alone, Waiting for Word on
Asylum New York Times (5/25/98): A1, B3.

  -. In Haiti, Not All Gifts Well Received New York Times (5/11/98) : B6
  -. Haitian Immigrants Disagree on Lag in Hurrican Relief NYT (9/26/98): B3

  Myriam J. A. Chancy, born in 1970 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti has lived in
Québec City, Winnipeg, Halifax, Iowa City, and Nashville. She obtained her
B.A. in English/Philosophy, cum laude, in 1989 from the University of
Manitoba, her M.A. in English in 1990 from Dalhousie University, and the
Ph.D. in English in 1994 from the University of Iowa. She is the author of
Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (Temple UP,
1997) and Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (Rutgers
UP, 1997). Presently residing in Phoenix, Arizona, she is Associate
Professor of English at Arizona State University, Main Campus, Tempe. She is
currently at work on a novel entitled The Scorpion's Claw and a third work
of literary criticism focusing on Haiti and the Latin-Caribbean.