Economics Environment Human Rights Latin America Politics & Government

Lessons from Haiti’s 2010 Earthquake Shows Latin America is Haiti’s Greatest Asset

“In the unity of our nations rests the glorious future of our peoples”- Simón Bolívar

Over a decade ago, the Americas witnessed one of the greatest natural disasters in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. According to official estimates, the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake claimed over 300,000 lives and displaced about 1.3 million people, mainly in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. 

To this day, Haiti has not entirely recovered largely due to decades of poor governance, a weak economy, and a chaotic international aid regime in which NGOs and government institutions failed to coordinate efficiently and effectively. The earthquake was just the tipping point for the country’s infrastructure, healthcare system, and disaster response programs.  

Within the first few weeks of the earthquake, American media was flooded with images and videos of US soldiers and aid workers entering Haiti to help with recovery efforts. Similarly, international media outlets highlighted the work of western humanitarian groups as well as the efforts of western international actors. In reality, their impact was at times marginal, chaotic, and even counterproductive.

Considering Haiti’s proximity to North America and the gravity of the disaster that attracted international media attention, many NGOs operated in Haiti only for the optics. While the coverage of Haiti’s earthquake was at its peak, many organizations claimed to have aided Haiti in its recovery efforts while going unrecognized by major Haitian institutions. For example, according to the United States Institute of Peace, there were about 10,000 NGOs in Haiti prior to the earthquake in 2010. However, out of the 10,000 NGOs that supposedly operated in Haiti, the Haitian Ministry of Planning and External Co-Operation (MPCE) only officially recognized about 300 of them around the time of the earthquake. This means that most of them were essentially useless. 

Furthermore, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the lack of coordination between NGOs and the Haitian government severely undermined their ability to effectively address the natural disaster and provide humanitarian assistance to the people. 

The chaos of foreign assistance from the West was further exacerbated by the reintroduction of the cholera epidemic by UN peacekeeping volunteers, who arrived a few months after the earthquake hit Haiti. According to the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP- in French), in the last ten years, over 820,000 Haitians have contracted cholera resulting in nearly 10,000 deaths. Yet, it wasn’t until 2020 that Haiti reported zero cases and deaths from cholera. The UN does its best to help mitigate crises around the world, but when given a large influence, it often exasperates whatever problem it came to alleviate. 

Despite the extreme disorganization of NGOs in the country, there was one beacon of hope for Haiti: Latin America. Specifically Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

According to the PAHO, Cuba has maintained a strong medical presence in Haiti since 1998 and housed over 330 healthcare professionals on the scene at the time of the earthquake. In fact, Cuban healthcare professionals were among the first to provide emergency response to Haitians in the immediate aftermath of the quakes, taking on more than 20,000 cases within the first ten days and performing 1,954 surgeries. 

Cuba continued to send more medical professionals in the weeks after the disaster and then increased aid after the cholera outbreak. While most NGOs crowded the capital city of Port-au-Prince, neglecting the communities in the countryside, Cuban medical teams, per policy, focused their efforts on reaching the more remote, rural neighborhoods. Cuba initially sent 908 medical professionals to smaller Haitian provinces to combat the spiraling outbreak, increasing that number to more than 1,700 about five months later. 

Accordingly, the mortality rate in communities with an active presence of Cuban medical professionals was less than 1%: 2.5 points below the national average of 3.5%. 

While receiving little to no media attention, Cuba has been the most responsive and has provided the most efficient assistance to Haiti. Although Haiti is still reeling from the effects of the earthquake and the cholera outbreak, it is clear that without the presence and support of Cuba both before and after the disaster, Haiti would be in a far worse condition than it is now. 

Another pillar Latin American country that had a significant impact on Haiti’s recovery process was the Dominican Republic: Haiti’s neighbor on the island of Hispaniola. According to the PAHO, the DR helped Haiti on several different fronts compared to other nations and NGOs. 

First, due to the mass injuries caused by the earthquake, tens of thousands of refugees fled to the border of the DR looking for medical care. The DR, a nation with a generally tense relationship with Haiti, allowed refugees to enter the country while also providing urgent surgical care at all major border points. It also immediately deployed personnel to the capital, the main site of the disaster, to assist Haitian officials. In January alone, Dominican medical professionals tended to 1,989 patients while performing amputations on 212 and registering 15 deaths. 

The DR played the most critical role in Haiti’s recovery in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake by offering its city of Santo Domingo to be an intermediary aid station in the transportation of aid and personnel to Port-au-Prince. The major airport in the Haitian city was reserved for the deployment of the US military and other government-based entities, so many small and large-scale NGOs could not directly fly into the main site of the disaster. Therefore, the DR set up a system where all foreign assistance could enter through the Santo Domingo airport and travel by land through the border checkpoint of Jimaní by waiving standard immigration procedures. If not for the DR transporting supplies, providing refuge, and administering medical aid to migrants, the death toll in the first few weeks after the disaster would have been much higher. 

In addition to Cuba and the DR, nearly every Latin American country provided some form of aid to Haiti to help with the effects of the earthquake and the cholera epidemic. However, according to the PAHO, unfortunately, “many Latin American or Caribbean countries did not report their assistance to the OCHA Financial Tracking System.” For this reason, many of these nations did not receive the recognition they deserved. 

While the UN played a vital role in helping Haiti deal with the earthquake disaster, in conjunction with western NGOs and governmental organizations, the media has vastly overrepresented their role while downplaying the vitality of Latin America’s contributions. It is undeniable that without the Cuban medical teams and the Dominican Republic’s opening of airports and borders, none of the foreign assistance being offered by the international community would have reached Haiti. And unfortunately, Cuba’s response to Haiti’s earthquake isn’t the only time its efforts have gone unrecognized by the media. 

The Global South faces various limitations and restrictions because of its reliance on Western assistance, especially in the wake of an unforeseen natural disaster like an earthquake. Therefore, it is imperative that mutual aid systems within Latin America are strengthened. This was a concept popularized by former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who began deploying medical teams to other Latin American countries, including Haiti, in the late 90s. 

Castro was a Cuban revolutionary who firmly believed that the West was not Latin America’s savior. In 2001, President George W. Bush attempted to establish a new “free trade” agreement with Latin America and the Caribbean called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Castro, along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, believed that this treaty would only work to implement the same neoliberal economic policies that would increase the wealth of the already wealthy, while increasing the poverty already experienced by the poor. Therefore, the two leaders proposed a new mutual aid system meant to be the antithesis of Bush’s agreement called the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America with the Spanish acronym, ALBA. Its main objective, as stated in its charter, is: “to convert our countries, not into ones of free trade, but in zones free of hunger, illiteracy, misery, and marginalization.”

By 2004, this system fully functioned with the cooperation of eleven states: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Ecuador, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, and Grenada. Fortunately, the ambition was not just in its charter as it produced tangible achievements that stunned the international community. 

In less than a decade of its founding, the success of ALBA’s “Yes I Can” campaign led to the UNESCO naming five ALBA members, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda, and Venezuela, “illiteracy-free” territories. With literacy programs and more, ALBA’s initiatives have been targeting the advancement of women in various countries. Even in Haiti’s time of need, ALBA members collectively pledged $2.4 billion worth of aid in the wake of the earthquake, later seen in the dozens of primary care health centers, hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities built and operated in Haiti. 

Although Haiti was not a member of ALBA, it was still a recipient of a mutual aid system helping to shorten its recovery process: a manifestation of the goals of the regional bloc. While some form of reliance on the West and China is inevitable for the Global South, the pursuit of these mutual aid systems is vital for both regional growth and maintaining economic freedom. 

Therefore, taking it as a hard lesson learned, on account of geographical proximity, linguistic commonality, and political and economic freedom, Haiti should work towards forming and maintaining mutual aid systems within Latin America and the Caribbean like ALBA. This strong regional bloc, a rarity in the Global South, appeared in Haiti’s time of need and, through its impacts, proved that Haiti would be best equipped to respond to other disasters if better aligned with its Latin American neighbors. 

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By Kalkidan Alemayehu

Kalkidan is a Political Science major with an emphasis in International Relations at UCLA. She is pursuing a career in international development and poverty reduction.

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