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Haitians in US Could be Key in Rebuilding Their Homeland

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 15 Jan 2010, after a magnitude 7 earthquake hit the country on 12 Jan 2010

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 15 Jan 2010, after a magnitude 7 earthquake hit the country on 12 Jan 2010

Many Haitians living in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere are deeply involved in the recovery effort from the January 12 earthquake. But some analysts say this disaster may have provided an opportunity for them to take an even bigger role in the long-term rebuilding of their homeland, once conditions are stabilized by international relief teams.

Forty minutes before the earthquake struck, Houston financial planner Surpris Cherazard arrived in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince with a team of people from Texas, planning to work at local orphanages and hospitals.

By the time they arrived at one of the hospitals, Cherazard says they were faced with an overwhelming tragedy. "I was in the hospital and we were all helpless to see people who were asking for aspirin - people with their legs cut off, they are asking for a pain pill; people who have part of their intestine out and they are asking you for help," Cherazard said.

The Haitian government was plunged into disarray, most of the capital's buildings were destroyed and victims were left to fend for themselves.

Cherazard, who left Haiti for the United States 30 years ago, is sad to see his country once again in the news because of its misery. He says most people know little about positive aspects of Haiti's history. "Yes, we have a history of being a poor country. But at the same time, people have to remember that in the 1700s, during the French colonization, Haiti was the richest colony in the world," he said.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, an expert on Latin America and the Caribbean, says Haiti will never become a prosperous nation unless it can break free of the poor governance, corruption and poverty that have taken hold there during the past century.

He says the earthquake could provide an opportunity for the international community to go beyond relief efforts and to lay the foundation for an effective government. "I think the real trick and the real difficulty is going to come one year from now, nine months from now, when you have essentially recovered from the disaster, at least the short-term recovery. And you really have to get down to how we are going to rebuild Haiti or at least restructure, provide a new foundation for Haitian governance, such that we do not have these kinds of disasters repeating themselves over and over again," he said.

Jones says the United States needs to play a key role in Haiti, despite criticism from Europe and elsewhere about alleged American domination of relief efforts. But, he says, it would be better for another country to lead the long-term rebuilding of Haiti's governmental infrastructure. Jones says Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva might be an ideal person to lead such a project after he leaves office at the end of this year.

Jones says that an indispensable part of any long-term effort to rebuild Haiti is the participation of thousands of Haitians living abroad. He says they might be willing to return in large numbers if there is an internationally-supported security structure in place.

"Many have learned how democracy works in the United States, in Quebec, in France. And so they have all the talents and they have the ability to return. But you need to set up the conditions such that they feel it is safe for them to return and that, by returning, they are going to actually be able to make a productive contribution and, essentially, their voice is going to be heard. They are not going to go back and then suffer violence, suffer threats from the current Haitian elite," he said.

Houston resident Surpris Cherazard says he is ready to do whatever is necessary to help his stricken homeland in the short- and long-term. He agrees with Jones that the education and experience of people in what he calls the Haitian diaspora could play a major role in creating a brighter future for the country. "The cream of the country is out of the country. So I hope that the Haitians who are out of the country will get together with the international community and see how we can rebuild the country," he said.

There are about two million Haitians living outside of Haiti. Nearly 500,000 call the United States home. Most others live in Canada and France as well as in other Caribbean nations and Latin America.