Haiti in Two Acts- May 5 @ Cooper Union
When an earthquake, or rather The Earthquake, ripped through the bowels of Haiti in January 2010, 300,000 people lost their lives. Among them were the the President of PEN Haiti, Georges Anglade, and his wife Mireille Neptune.
Today, PEN Haiti is helmed by the novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé and his wife, the poet and novelist Emmélie Prophète. Milcé, Prophète, and the rest of the PEN Haiti staff and volunteers will conduct much of their future activities from the newly opened Maison Georges Anglade, a beautiful mountainside facility named in honor of the organization’s fallen father. Already there are plans in motion to cultivate new youth programs, writer’s residencies, reading series, and inter-cultural exchanges.
However, wonderful as these plans may be, Milcé and Prophète had their minds on more incendiary concerns on Sunday afternoon. Namely, the largely destructive intervention of northern NGO’s in the wake of perhaps the greatest natural disaster their country has even witnessed. Both Milcé and Prophète no doubt have unique and fascinating insights into the literature of their country and its place in the wider global cannon. Understandably though, both they and the author and long-time Haiti scholar, Amy Wilentz, felt compelled to share with us all the road to hell that has been paved with so many misguided good intentions.
Wilentz began by describing the drastic changes she witnessed in the types of people making the pilgrimage to this historically troubled and complex land. Publicity-ravenous charitable organizations, growing hordes of perky Christian youngsters psyched for their ‘Awesome Adventure in Haiti’, militarised bureaucrats, they all came in their droves without an adequate understanding of how Haiti operates or how to best deliver money to those who really needed it.
Speaking through interpreter Daniel Sherr, Milcé described the two-sided war that the country has been fighting for so long. On the one hand, it has the geographical misfortune of being criss-crossed by earthquake fault lines while also sitting in the middle of a hurricane pathway, not too mention its susceptibility to the unpredictable twin afflictions of flooding and drought. Arguably more maddening however, is the political shitshow which Haitians have been forced to watch play out down through the decades. The murky political realm has conjured up dictators, narco War Lords, and now an ongoing struggle between competing NGO’s for who can make the most use of this blighted place.
Prophète, when pressed on the question of what happened to all the donated funds, did not mince her words: “Not a single concrete humanitarian project has been carried out fully.” She explained how the bulk of all monies donated ended up in the hands of the U.S military to maintain security or to fund the lavish lifestyles of the functionaries who were more interested in securing various creature comforts than in making a realistic contribution to the reconstruction effort.
Despite their anger at how skewed the world’s passive perception has been with regard to the ground-level realities of “aid” in Haiti, Milcé and Prophète both recognize that there are also truly good, useful outsiders who can be of benefit to the country. Unfortunately, these people are often the first victims of this toxic, post-quake, interventionist state of affairs.
It is difficult to hear just how naive the developed world can be in its efforts to fix the so-called broken nations of this planet. How misguided the best laid plans of Clinton, the Red Cross, and the thousands of disaster tourists who pour into natural disaster zones every year truly are. But it’s necessary. All too often we fool ourselves into believing that we can pacify entire regions of wounded, grieving people with a flurry of disorganized hand-wringing. In truth the world does not work that way.
PEN Haiti seized a rare opportunity to cut through the bullshit and speak to us about what they knew to be the reality, however unpleasant it might be to hear. We would all do well to dwell upon their advice.