The largest earthquake in 200 years hit the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti on yesterday afternoon. The quake, which measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, was also felt in the Dominican Republic next door and as far away as Eastern Cuba and Venezuela, but fortunately worries about tsunamis did not pan out.
At writing, electricity and telephone services in Haiti are down, so only bits and pieces of information have been coming out, leaving the world without information on casualties.
But visual images on CNN showed the imposing Presidential Palace basically flattened with its white dome tilted crazily on top of the ruins, and a huge cloud of dust, evidently from smashed concrete structures, completely enveloping the city (evidently president Rene Preval and his family escaped with their lives).
Reports also indicated that a large number of government buildings, including several ministries, as well as several hotels and a vast number of private dwellings have been destroyed. In upscale Petionville, a hospital is said to have collapsed, and witnesses reports screams of people who have been trapped in the rubble.
Roads are out, probably due to the collapse of hillsides which have been destabilized by deforestation in this country, where the only fuel available is sometimes obtained by chopping down wild trees and bushes. Also, a great number of Haiti's very poor inhabitants have built their homes on these unstable hillsides, and it is feared that many of them may have plunged down to the valleys below, with an unknown death and injury toll.
There is a UN "stabilization force" (MINUSTAH) in Haiti, with military contingents from 17 nations and about 9,000 troops. This force was brought in to restore order after disturbances subsequent to the overthrow, kidnapping and expulsion of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004. The force has had violent conflicts with Aristide supporters who accuse it of crimes of repression, but it was at first hoped that it at least could be used for earthquake rescue and relief work. However, early indications are that UN barracks collapsed in the earthquake, and it is not known what proportion of the MINUSTAH personnel have been killed or injured.
Offers of help came immediately from the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, France and the United States, as well as international bodies. In the United States, not for profit organizations and the Haitian American community are organizing to help.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with an adjusted per capita gross domestic product of only about $1,300 per annum. The 9 million Haitians have had to put up with a series of brutal dictatorships and multiple interventions by the United States over the years. The Haitian economy has been victimized by neo-liberal policies that have undercut native agriculture and have contributed recently to huge increases in food prices. There are presidential elections scheduled for February 28, but many Haitians are angry that President Preval's government has arranged the elections in such a way that Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, will not be allowed to participate.
In the deadly hurricanes of 2004 and 2008, the loss of life was high, which many Haitians attributed to government neglect. If the response to today's earthquake is found to be lacking, that anger is likely to arise anew.
The Harlem-based 1209Affair.com, a business network, issued the following suggestions for solidarity:
Tonight, Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Rev. Sharpton is holding a prayer vigil in front of the Haitian Embassy
(39th Street and Madison Avenue, NYC) at 6:00 pm. If you can, come by and bring your prayers, good thoughts, etc. Gov. Patterson is scheduled to be in attendance.
You can make financial contributions through NYC, call 311;
Call the Haitian Embassy 271 Madison Avenue, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10016 ... Phone: 212.697.9767. Fax: 212.681.6991 or create your own fundraiser at your job in your community, etc. Creating your own fundraiser: you can get a box and ask for clothes for children, adults, toiletries (such as toothpaste, soap, etc.)
Additional Financial Donations $5
People can text YELE to 501501.
A $5 donation will be charged to your cell phone bill. Yele Haiti is a foundation headed by Wyclef Jean, so all donations will reach the right people!!
Additional Financial Donations $10
can also be made at www.Unicef.org or
texting "HAITI" to 909999
to make a ten dollar donation.
The United Nations Children's Fund - UNICEF - works for children's rights, their survival, development and protection, guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
is the U.S. government number setup to help
you reach your family in Haiti.
Photo: Two men atop a roof look at a fire at the La Saline market in Port-au-Prince, Dec. 22, 2009. Ramon Espinosa/AP