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2010-01-13

Haiti Devastated by Largest Earthquake in 200 Years, Thousands Feared Dead

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Haiti has been devastated by a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake, the largest to strike the Caribbean nation in more than two centuries. Buildings have collapsed. Fires rage in the streets. The extent of the disaster is still unknown, but there are fears thousands of people may have died and tens of thousands homeless. We get the latest on Haiti, a country rocked by natural as well as political crises. We speak with journalist Kim Ives of Haiti Liberté and Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat, her family at the epicenter of the quake. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Caribbean nation of Haiti has been devastated by a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake, causing what’s being described as a catastrophe of major proportions.

The extent of the disaster is still unclear, but there are fears thousands of people may have died and tens of thousands lost their homes. In the capital Port-au-Prince, a city of two million people, thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed, including hospitals, schools and hotels. The United Nations headquarters was also reported to be severely damaged, and many of its staff are reported missing.

The earthquake struck about ten miles southwest of the capital at around 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Haiti in more than two centuries. It was followed by at least twenty-seven aftershocks, the largest two of which were 5.9 and 5.5 in magnitude. The quake prompted a tsunami alert for parts of the Caribbean that was later cancelled.

For hours after the quake, the air was filled with a choking dust from the debris of fallen buildings. People were heard screaming for help throughout the city. A Food for the Poor charity worker in Port-au-Prince told Reuters, quote, "There are people running, crying, screaming. People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights. I think hundreds of casualties would be a serious understatement."

AMY GOODMAN: The historic National Palace has also been severely damaged. President René Préval and his wife are both reported to be alive. A number of nations, including the US, Britain, Venezuela and other Latin American countries, are gearing up to send aid.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and has suffered a number of recent disasters, including four hurricanes and storms in 2008 that killed hundreds.

Kim Ives is with us here. He’s a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté. He’s joining us here in our studios in New York.

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian American novelist. Her books include Brother, I’m Dying. It tells the story of her uncle dying in immigration detention in Miami. She joins us from Miami. We want to go now to Edwidge.

We welcome you. Our condolences on your country and what it is going through right now. Can you start off by telling us what you have heard from your own family in Haiti?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you so much, Amy. Thank you for the opportunity to be here.

I have heard very little from my own family, who is — the relatives that I have in Port-au-Prince. I have not heard — we’ve not heard from any one of our family members in Carrefour or in Bel Air. So we’re just watching sort of the news footage and trying to piece together, you know, things approximately where they are there. So we’ve had no contact.

The good news is, we’ve had some contact with our family that’s outside of Port-au-Prince. We spoke last night to my mother-in-law, who’s in Cavaillon, which is outside of Les Cayes. And even as we were speaking to her about 10:30, she kept saying, “The ground is shaking, the ground is shaking.” But she was fine, and her neighbors were fine. They did not have any damage there. But it’s a very different and frightening picture in Port-au-Prince, for we have not had news there.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Ives, you’ve got your computer on the table. You’ve been following tweets as we’ve begun this show. What are you learning about what’s happening now in Port-au-Prince, which many are saying has been leveled?

KIM IVES: Yes, it’s apocalyptic. This is definitely the greatest tragedy that has befallen a tragedy-beset country. It’s just unimaginable, the destruction — the roads, buildings, houses. And one has to think, I mean, so much of the construction is done in just concrete without any steel rebar reinforcement. Last year a school collapsed just by itself. And so, you can imagine, with a 7.0 earthquake, what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: That school was in Pétionville —-

KIM IVES: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: —- which is in a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince up on a hill. And that’s where they said yesterday the first hospital collapsed.

KIM IVES: Yes, I think many of the buildings in that area, especially in the hilly areas where, you know, houses, like in much of Latin America, in many of the cities, are built in giant bowls of houses on top of each other. And last night, most of the radio stations in Haiti were out of commission, but there was an internet television that was on. People were calling into that, and people were describing firsthand how houses had fallen on their house, and their family had been killed inside.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what do you understand is the scope of the devastation? It is very hard to get reports from the ground right now, but we’ve heard the UN building was severely damaged, and so was the National Palace. But also, thousands of buildings have reportedly been damaged or collapsed.

KIM IVES: Well, the Hotel Christopher, which is where the UN mission to stabilize Haiti, the UN occupation force, was headquartered, collapsed. The Montana Hotel, which was the principal foreign journalist hotel up in Pétionville, collapsed. The palace collapsed, the general hospital. The cathedral, the roof fell off it. I mean, this is — these are a century of architecture — two centuries has just been wiped out in this disaster.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There’s also been a report that the UN security chief has been killed. It was just breaking on Al Jazeera before we went to air today.

KIM IVES: I didn’t hear that, but I know dozens and dozens of UN workers are missing. And Jacmel was also very severely hit. We heard from some contacts in Jacmel that total devastation there. Again, that’s just on the backside of the earthquake, which was right in the rim of mountains between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And describe for viewers and listeners what Port-au-Prince is like. This is a city of two million people. Paint a picture of the city and of Haiti.

KIM IVES: Well, a minimum of two million, probably more like three million. I mean, due to US economic policies over the past three decades, millions of people have been pushed out of the countryside into the cities, where they live in makeshift shacks built up on usually state land along the perimeters of the city. It is usually shacks, you know, cinderblocks, tin, sometimes straw. And they very easily fall down in something like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, Kim just alluded to something more than the natural catastrophe that we’re seeing today, which was the very fragile politics of Haiti and what has devastated the country for so long. Could you give us a brief history of your country, founded in 1804, the first black republic in the western hemisphere born of a slave uprising?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, that’s a very wonderful place to start on a day like this. Indeed, the first black republic in this hemisphere, one of the first two republics in this hemisphere. But soon after independence, was not recognized by its neighbors, which it nevertheless helped gain, in some cases, their independence in Latin America and helped the US fight here in Savannah, Georgia. And then a series of debt, because it had to pay to France a large amount of money for its independence. And then two US invasion occupations and a series of dictatorships. It’s been — you know, before and in the midst of this, you know, deforestation sponsored by outside interests, and just a series of a very painful history.

But — and add to that all the other natural disasters — four storms last year, the tropical storm Jeanne a couple of years ago, which covered the town of Gonaives. But nothing, I think, like today. Nothing — you know, this is something — this is really the big one. This is what — people have talked about this, because we would look at these houses on the hillsides. You would look at some neighborhoods that — like Kim was talking about, with the shacks and the overpopulation in Port-au-Prince, but never imagined this. And add to this some fires that we’ve seen in the footage that we’ve seen of Port-au-Prince of the cathedral. You know, I can see parts of my old neighborhood, you know, through this very large veil of fire. So it’s really — it’s totally unimaginable. It seems like the abyss of a very long and painful history of natural and political disasters.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat is our guest. We’re going to come back to her after break, Haitian American novelist, well known for her books. Brother, I’m Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She wrote Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory, as well as other books. Kim Ives is a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté, and he’ll be reading us some of the tweets he has been getting from Haiti.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Then, as we talk about the twin catastrophes that rock Haiti — natural and political — we’ll move on to the US policy in Haiti and what the United States does with Haitian refugees, like Edwidge Danticat’s uncle, who died in custody at the Krome Detention Center in Florida. And then we’ll look at the broader picture of immigration in this country. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Edwidge Danticat, the great Haitian American novelist — she’s speaking to us from Miami, which has one of the largest Haitian populations in the United States, along with here in New York, especially in Brooklyn. And we’re joined from Kim Ives — from Brooklyn, who is a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté.

Kim, can you read us some of the tweets that you’re getting right now from Haiti?

KIM IVES: Well, most of the tweets have been coming from Richard Morse, a musician and manager of the Oloffson Hotel, the historic Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. He has been keeping people abreast, talking about the buildings falling down. “If the Montana Hotel and Hotel Christopher are gone, I don’t know where the UN leadership is.” That was twenty-eight minutes ago. “Hotel Christopher and Montana are flattened,” said from an eyewitness. “Rumors are that Montana has fallen.” The Castel Haiti, which is a landmark which was on the mountain right behind the Oloffson, is, according to him, “a pile of rubble.”

AMY GOODMAN: As is the UN compound, you were saying, where the UN peacekeepers, mainly Brazilian, were stationed. Is this MINUSTAH?

KIM IVES: The Hotel Christopher, yes. The MINUSTAH was stationed in Hotel Christopher, which has apparently been totally destroyed. He spoke of hearing in the streets, and particularly in Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood, which is right around the Oloffson, people singing and praying loudly in the streets and wailing. The wall of the Oloffson fell down on somebody and killed them. So there have been just thousands — I think it’s not a question of thousands; it’s how many thousands, and if it’s even tens of thousands of people who will have died.

AMY GOODMAN: And the palace is devastated.

KIM IVES: And the — yes, the palace, as you can see, is — they said “damaged,” but it’s completely going to have to be razed. It’s on its knees. It’s halfway — the roof — the palace was built by the US Marines about a century ago in 1915, after the original was burned in 1912. And so, this has always been sort of a hallmark of Haiti.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And can you explain why are there UN peacekeepers deployed on the ground? Explain for people. We had the ouster of the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Where does it stand politically right now in Haiti?

KIM IVES: Well, the UN occupation is extremely unpopular. This was sent in after Aristide was removed by a plot essentially by the US, France and Canada on February 29, 2004. US, France and Canada sent in occupation troops, which remained there for three months. And then they handed off the mission to the UN, as they’ve done in the past — in 1995, in particular — to the UN to carry out. That’s mainly done by the Brazilians, are heading that. But it’s extremely unwelcome. People are sick and tired of the millions being spent, having guys riding around in giant tanks pointing guns at them. And, you know, essentially, this is a force to keep the country bottled up. And I don’t know what’s going to happen now, because the dogs of madness have really — are going to be unleashed by this catastrophe.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I want to read a statement that was just released by the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He said, “My wife and I stand with the people of our country and mourn the death and destruction that has befallen Haiti. It is a tragedy that defies expression; a tragedy that compels all people to the highest levels of human compassion and solidarity. From Africa, the ancestral home of Haiti, we send our profoundest condolences and love to the thousands of children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters worst affected.” Where in Africa right now is he speaking from, Kim?

KIM IVES: He’s in South Africa, in Johannesburg. And this is one of the things. Aristide is being kept in exile, even now under the Obama administration, being kept out of the hemisphere. Apparently he’s gotten tremendous pressure since he went on the radio on November 25th and spoke out against the exclusionary elections that the Haitian government is trying to carry out, where the Lavalas Family party, the country’s largest, the party he founded, has been excluded from those elections, along with fourteen other parties.

And now he’s stuck in South Africa. He has no passport, which has long since expired. He has no laissez-passer, which he asked for explicitly in that radio address. And he should be invited. In fact, he should be brought back to help heal the country. I mean, the Haitian ambassador to the US, Ray Joseph, who was a participant in the coup d’état, has called for unity. I think if ever there was a moment when the Haitian government could now demonstrate unity, it would be now in allowing Aristide to come back, which has been one of the principal demands of the Haitian people over these past five years.

AMY GOODMAN: When we asked about the history — 1915 to ‘34, 1991, explain the significance of these dates.

KIM IVES: Nineteen fifteen to 1934 was the first US Marine occupation, carried out under Woodrow Wilson, and finally, during the administration of FDR, it was ended. In ’91, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was inaugurated and —-

AMY GOODMAN: As the first elected president.

KIM IVES: As, yes, the first democratically elected president. Eight months later, he was overthrown by a US CIA-backed coup. He remained three years in exile. They thought the coup could be somehow consolidated. It wasn’t. The resistance to it continued during that period. Finally, Clinton was forced to bring in 20,000 US troops, not to stop the coup, really, but to stop a revolution, which was in the making because of that coup.

AMY GOODMAN: Which would lead to immigrants coming into the United States.

KIM IVES: Possibly, yeah. I mean, the immigrants were being forced out by the coup. If there were a revolution in Haiti, maybe the flow would reverse. But the fact is the Clinton administration brought Aristide back as a sort of hostage on the shoulders of 20,000 US troops, and they remained until about 1999.

He was reelected in 2000. They again immediately started a coup when he was inaugurated on February 7, 2001, involving Contras based in the Dominican Republic and diplomatic and economic embargos, and all the -— the whole works. They forced him out at gunpoint, essentially. A team of US Navy Seals came in and kidnapped him from his home in Tabarre on February 29th, 2004. And he’s been in exile ever since.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And speaking of immigration, what is the status right now of immigrants in this country, Haitian refugees? There was a final act by President Bush before President Obama took office. Explain the situation right now.

KIM IVES: There’s been a big push for what’s called “temporary protected status,” where if a country is struck by a natural disaster or tremendous political upheaval, people can receive a status in this country — it’s renewable every six months — where they won’t be deported. The Bush administration, as one of its final acts, did not — refused that status for Haitians. Everybody thought that Obama, when he came in, would —-

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: How many were affected?

KIM IVES: Thirty thousand. Thirty thousand Haitians are due to be deported, and they are in detention centers, many of them, around the United States. And the Obama administration has never provided that temporary protected status, despite the storms of September 2008. But I think with this disaster, I can’t see how they can’t.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Edwidge Danticat, how does that treatment compare to others coming into this country?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, soon after Tropical Storm Jeanne covered Gonaives, we had, very soon after that, deportations, and some of them were of people that I knew. So in the first -— you know, in this first disaster, which was the biggest natural disaster we had had up to that point, you know, there was no change in the treatment. I’m hoping — I would assume, with all the humanity that there is and political goodwill, one hopes that that won’t be the case that people would be deported to this situation. But the policy has been so inconsistent and inhumane that one cannot assume anything, really. But I am hoping that this is something that will be taken into consideration, that this — that people, these people, that these 30,000 people and others would be granted temporary protected status and that people won’t be deported. The country needs the leadership. The people need all their — all the help they can get from individuals, as well as Haiti’s neighbors. And this is a type of complication, another layer of tragedy, that we would not need.

AMY GOODMAN: All through the night, the cable channels were focusing on what was happening in Haiti, trying to get information, and they were listing relief organizations. Now, we see this in situations all over the world. And the question is, where people give their money, what are the organizations that end up having power on the ground? The United States says that they will also give money. Other countries, I presume, will be also pledging. What about the politics of aid and what you see as the pitfalls and what you see are the tremendous needs that Haiti has right now? Let me put that question to Kim Ives.

KIM IVES: Well, yes, aid has historically in Haiti been extremely pernicious. It has destroyed Haitian agriculture. It’s been a real counter to development in the country, development aid. And even humanitarian aid has been often wasted. For instance, during — after the storms of 2008, $197 million was freed from the Petrocaribe accounts, which Venezuela provided Haiti. A lot of questions remain about how that money, that $197 million, was spent. A lot of it seems to have been frittered away into corruption and various other types of embezzlement.

So, yes, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of corruption and charlatans flocking to Haiti like flies. And it’s important to find good relief agencies. One is the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, HERF, that people can go to the site of haitiaction.net and find out more about that. And that is a place people can donate. But, yes, we can expect terrible things to be happening in the aid front in the coming weeks.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And also, Kim Ives, the issue of food. We saw last year a food crisis around the world in early 2009. Haiti was one of the worst hit by that food crisis. There were reports of people eating mud for — because of starvation. Explain the issue of food and also how the United States affected the food supply in Haiti.

KIM IVES: Well, yeah. Essentially, Haiti was self-sufficient thirty years ago in its production of food, particularly rice. And since the fall of the Duvalier regime, it has really been opened up. The neoliberal regime, one of its principal demands is the lowering of tariff barriers, so that rice grown in Arkansas and Texas and Louisiana can be dumped on the country, which has effectively destroyed the rice farmers of the Artibonite Valley, leaving Haiti now required to import almost 80 percent of its food. So foreign aid has essentially destroyed Haitian food self-sufficiency.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the poverty that that leads to, the deforestation of the mountains. Having spent — gone to Haiti a number of times, people going up into the mountains to make charcoal, to burn whatever wood they can get, and that leads to the precarious natural situation, where you have an earthquake or a hurricane and the mudslides that — from Pétionville down, right?

KIM IVES: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: That make the crisis much worse.

KIM IVES: Exactly. And, Amy, just in the days before this, there was a lot of rain. So a lot of this is mudslides. I mean, the ground was already saturated with water, so it was extremely unstable. And I think that made the collapses even more terrible.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue to cover this story, of course. It’s expected at least three million of the ten million people of Haiti have been seriously affected by this. Disaster specialists say various mathematical models for an earthquake of such a magnitude predict that perhaps 4,000 people could have been killed. We don’t know.

But right now we’re going to turn back to what we touched on earlier, and it’s the issue of immigration. And we want to turn back to Edwidge to tell us the story of her uncle. You may wonder why we’re talking about this today, but Haiti has been the epicenter of natural and political crises, and particularly affected by its powerful neighbor to the north, the United States. Edwidge, what happened to your uncle over five years ago?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Before that, Amy, I would just like to — you know, on the issue of aid, I feel that it’s — you know, there will be corruption and so forth, but I don’t want to discourage people who would like to give. There are some wonderful organizations that are already working within Haiti, organizations like Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health and the Lambi Fund and Doctors Without Borders. So I don’t want, sort of in the more political talk, to discourage people from giving, because in whatever — or to try to help in whatever way they can, because it’s going to be extraordinarily needed.

On — that being said, on the — my uncle’s story, it’s very ironic. I’ve been thinking about my uncle throughout this whole issue, because I’m not even sure now that the building where he lived and where he did all of his work is still standing. He was — he lived in Bel Air, which, as one of the — someone had said, is just shattered and broken right now, for more than fifty years, and in 2004, because of a threat by gangs there, had to leave. And he had been coming to the United States for about thirty years, on and off, visiting. And after this incident at his house with a confrontation with a gang, he was — he came to Miami, where — here where I live, and he requested temporary — he called temporary asylum. He was arrested and brought to jail at the Krome Detention Center. He was eighty-one years old, a cancer survivor who spoke with a voice box. And his medications were taken away, and he died a few days later in the custody of the immigration service.

AMY GOODMAN: He died at the Krome Detention Center, his medication taken away.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Oh, he died at — mm-hmm, well, he died in the hospital. He was taken finally to Jackson Memorial Hospital, after he was accused of faking his illness. When finally it seemed like — it seemed like he was near death, they took him to the hospital.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Edwidge Danticat, also you write about this in your book Brother, I’m Dying, the difficulty of getting information and just dealing with immigration bureaucracy, trying to get information about your uncle, and also what happened after his death. They gave you the body with no — they performed an autopsy and gave you very little information of what actually happened. Can you talk about that?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, they basically — while he was in the hospital, he was attached to, chained to a bed, shackled to a bed, in the prison ward of the hospital. We were not allowed to see him there. And even when he died, we tried to confirm that he had died. And the night that he died, someone had called me to say that, and I called the immigration — I called the hospital, and they said, “No, you have to call to the immigration service.” And we weren’t told officially that he died until the following morning. And then we were basically — they performed an autopsy and gave — said that he died of chronic pancreatitis. And he had never had pancreatitis, much less chronic. And we were just given the corpse and told “Good luck.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Edwidge, we’re going to talk more about the overall issue of immigration in this country and what is happening in our immigration detention jails. I shouldn’t say “ours,” because so many of them are private. We want to thank Kim Ives for being with us, of Haiti Liberté, joining us here in New York. Edwidge Danticat is staying with us to the end of the show, the Haitian American novelist whose books include Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak!, Brother, I’m Dying about her uncle who died in custody here in the United States as he appealed for asylum and for the drugs that he was used to taking.

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