Haiti's heartbreak as chronic political and economic crises hamper disaster response after quake

Haiti has a proud past but a difficult history. The recent earthquake is the country’s latest disaster, but entrenched crises of poverty and political instability are inhibiting its ability to respond as thousands languish without much-needed aid. 

7.2-magnitude earthquake just the latest challenge for the western hemisphere’s poorest country

This man's baby died in the earthquake in Haiti earlier this month, while his remaining daughter, shown here, suffered an injury to her collarbone. They stood for hours in the blazing heat, waiting for treatment at an overrun hospital in Les Cayes. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Mourning hangs heavy over Haiti's southwestern landscape, with so many rural villages ravaged by last week's 7.2 magnitude earthquake. As the region buries the lost, the living languish with desperately-needed aid still just barely trickling through. 

This is Haiti's latest tragedy — but it's just another layer to its persistent suffering.

In far-away Port-au-Prince, the capital, life lurches on amidst crushing poverty, increasing lawlessness, inadequate infrastructure and ineffective government. 

"Haitians are used to [living] with the concept that there's no state, there's no government," said Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, who once tried to run for president. 

Jacky Lumarque is the rector of Port-au-Prince's Quisqueya University, which is organizing mobile clinics for some areas hit by the recent earthquake and also restoring precious cultural artifacts damaged in the 2010 earthquake, including the painting behind him. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

"If you're in a disaster yourself, you cannot help people in a disaster and the government is in a disaster." 

A debilitating power vacuum compounded by a devastating earthquake — a grim reality fuelling growing resignation that the help so many need may never arrive. 

WATCH | Earthquake response efforts meet Haiti's twin political, economic crises:

Haiti’s earthquake response hampered by economic crisis

1 year ago
Duration 3:55
The response to last week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti has been hampered by the ongoing economic and political crisis there, and experts say the future of the country remains uncertain.

'It's just like nature is against us' 

The earthquake could have hardly come at a worse time. 

On July 7, just a little more than a month before the quake, Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his own home. The origins of the plot remain unclear but even before the killing, Haiti was mired in a deepening political crisis. 

There had been no sitting parliament for more than a year after the country failed to hold new elections, allowing Moïse to rule by decree. Critics blasted him as a burgeoning autocrat. There were large protests demanding his resignation. 

Billboards of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated in July, are still dotted around the country's capital, Port-au-Prince. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

After the assassination, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, appointed by Moïse just two days before his death, became Haiti's de facto ruler following a brief power struggle. 

Henry announced that fresh elections would take place in November, but that was before the earthquake. Now, the timeline is murky.

"It's impossible to have elections right now in a country that is so destroyed in terms of the public administration, in terms of the police, in terms of justice," said Fritz Jean, a former interim prime minister who also served as governor of Haiti's central bank. 

"What we are experiencing right now is a country that is really on its knees."

Then came the earthquake. 

"It's just like nature is against us," Fritz said. 

A woman washes clothes at an encampment in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Aug. 18, four days after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the country's southwest. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

In an interview with Radio-Canada this week, Henry admitted Haiti is woefully unprepared to respond to the earthquake's aftermath.

"We are a Third World country," Henry said. "We don't have many resources." 

And so, after the earthquake, thousands are now homeless, living in squalid makeshift encampments or sleeping beside the ruins of their homes. For so many, food and water are scarce — and so is hope as the anguish appears indefinite.

Layers of crisis 

Haiti has a proud past but a difficult history. 

During the Haitian Revolution, enslaved people threw off their French rulers in what's been described as the only successful slave rebellion in history. But the Republic of Haiti was burdened from the start. 

To maintain its new-found freedom and ward off a French invasion, Haiti was forced to pay about $25 billion in today's dollars to compensate former slaveholders, a debt that wouldn't be paid off until 1947, more than a century later. 

LISTEN | How the Haitian Revolution gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement: 

The Haitian Revolution of 1791 gave birth to ideas about Black liberation and the common good that went on to inform freedom struggles throughout the Black Atlantic. IDEAS traces that lineage and how it connects to today's Black Lives Matter movement. *This episode aired on April 6, 2021, and is part of our series, The Common Good.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where 60 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The Haitian people have endured decades of political upheaval, punctuated by corruption, periods of foreign occupation and cataclysmic natural disasters. 

Many Haitians divide their lives into two categories: before and after Jan. 12, 2010. On that day, Port-au-Prince was wrecked by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people across the region.

A couple surveys the damage to homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 17, 2010, days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit, destroying the capital and ultimately killing more than 200,000 people. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The earthquake was followed by a widespread cholera outbreak linked to a UN peacekeeping mission that killed 7,000 more. 

Haiti has never truly recovered, its long-standing vulnerabilities only made worse by the disaster. Billions of dollars of aid money flowed in, but there are allegations it was mismanaged, either by humanitarian agencies or the Haitian government, and it has made little difference in quality of life.

While the death toll from this most recent earthquake is far lower than 2010, Haiti's political environment eleven years later is much worse, impeding its ability to help co-ordinate aid to devastated regions. 

The state's control is so weak that much of the emergency response is being conducted by air — with gangs in control of the main road from Port-au-Prince to the disaster zone.

The UN has tried to negotiate with the gangs to create a humanitarian corridor, but the situation is tenuous. 

"The lack of security has become too much to handle," Henry admitted to Radio-Canada. "We're determined to once again become a country where people can move freely."

Aid organizations and private institutions are trying to fill the gap, but what's happening now is piecemeal and not enough. 

People unload humanitarian aid from a U.S. army helicopter at the airport in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Aug. 22. (Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press)

Lumarque's Quisqueya University is organizing mobile clinics to send to some of the hardest-hit areas. It's also restoring precious cultural artifacts that were damaged in the 2010 earthquake.

Despite the deep despair across the disaster zone now, Lumarque says even harder days may lie ahead when it comes time to attempt to rebuild.

"The most difficult one is the reconstruction phase," he said, because by then there's little international media attention on the country, and "everybody forgets you, even your own government." 

An opportunity to learn

Haiti's challenge to move away from the morass toward a more stable future is a vexing one. 

"People are fleeing because they cannot have any job, because the state cannot provide the environment to create wealth in the country," said Jean. "The state has no means to offer services." 

This 300-year-old church in Cavaillon, Haiti, was destroyed in a matter of seconds during the quake earlier this month. (Paul Smith/CBC)

The country needs elections for a democratic reset, but in the current security and economic environment, they'll almost certainly prove impossible to carry out before next year. 

Some want more international help to stabilize the country; others fear even more outside influence. 

What's needed, said Lumarque, is a chance for the country to come together and catch its breath.

"You have to have everybody at the table, listen to everybody and design a strategy — first for a new constitution, second is security and third, elections.

"There is an opportunity to learn from these disasters and to become stronger."

People work to clear away debris in Cavaillon, Haiti, after an earthquake struck the country's southwest on Aug. 14. (Paul Smith/CBC)


Ellen Mauro is a senior reporter based in Toronto, covering stories in Canada and beyond, including recent deployments to Haiti and Afghanistan. She was formerly posted in Washington, D.C. where she covered the Trump White House for CBC News. Previously, she worked at CBC's London, U.K. bureau where she covered major international news stories across Europe and Africa.