Friday, April 9, 2010

Frontline: “The Quake” (Haiti) (PBS, 3/30/10)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the one remaining item from my news and public affairs DVD that I’d recorded over Friday and Sunday (the latest editions of Washington Week, NOW, Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS and 60 Minutes on CBS): a Frontline episode from March 30 called “The Quake” — about Haiti, since there’ve been so many ruinous quakes lately you have to specify (Haiti, Chile, Mexico — the Mexican quake was the least serious since it occurred, unlike the others, in a mostly unpopulated area, but it was the one that struck me the hardest because I experienced it personally). From the promos I’d assumed this was going to be a show about the heroic relief efforts that have helped save lives in Haiti and return the country to at least a semblance of governance and order.

No such luck: the story was a relentless downer on just about every level, from the sheer size of the death toll (including 10 percent of the population of the capital city, Port-au-Prince) to the incapacity of anybody to respond because, in one of the grimmest ironies I’ve encountered, just about all of Haiti’s official buildings, from the Presidential palace to the United Nations headquarters, happened to be situated right on the fault line that blew, with the result that coordinating an aid effort was impossible because the offices from which it would have been coordinated was destroyed — and, to make things even worse, so were the several hundred tons of food the U.N. had stockpiled for distribution in an emergency. (Obviously the “emergency” the U.N. was planning for was a hurricane, since they located this building on top of a hill, well away from the ocean — but instead they got an earthquake and the U.N., instead of becoming part of the solution, became part of the problem.)

There were a few cameo appearances from Bill and Hillary Clinton — who honeymooned in Haiti in 1975 and, when Bill was president, he ordered an occupation that more-or-less re-installed populist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide but didn’t give him much real power (that remained in the hands of the handful of elite families that have essentially controlled Haiti’s destiny since it won its independence from France in what’s generally considered the only successful slave revolt in history) — though none, interestingly, from George W. Bush, who was put in co-charge of the U.S. relief effort with Clinton — and perhaps the most chilling comment was made by Hillary Clinton, who was asked by commentator/journalist Martin Smith, “Some Americans take a look at this and say, ‘Look, you know, we’ve got our own problems. We’ve not rebuilt New Orleans’” — to which Ms. Clinton replied, “And shame on us.”

The show established a bit of the Haitian history and how a lush, verdant, productive and profitable colony was turned into an economic basket case after the revolution by the huge indemnity France demanded for the loss of its colony (which, like the reparations demand France made of Germany after World War I, not only butchered the economy but encouraged the rise to power of the country’s least savory political elements) and the embargo against Haiti by virtually the entire rest of the world — including the United States, which cut off the country largely out of the fear of the Southern slaveowners that their own slaves would get ideas from Haiti’s and start a rebellion of their own. (It happened a few times but the slave rebellions in the U.S. were easily put down by a fully professional military — Haiti probably won only because all the good French generals were in Europe fighting Napoleon’s wars, just as the U.S. only survived the War of 1812 because all the good British generals were in Europe fighting against Napoleon.)

But what hit me the most about this show was the sheer primitivism of the medical care — which I especially noticed because I’d just had an operation myself earlier in the day and couldn’t help but contrast the infrastructure we take for granted in the U.S. (and the rest of the developed world) that keeps surgery as biologically “clean” and pain-free as possible with what the Haitians were going though — which reminded me of the stories about how amputations were done during the U.S. Civil War without anaesthetic: the only ways to cut the pain was to have the person who was about to be operated on bathe the limb they were going to cut off in cold river water, and get him drunk on whiskey. Largely because of understandable fears about the structural integrity of the hospitals — or rather the bits thereof that hadn’t collapsed completely — the Haitian patients were insisting on being operated on out-of-doors, and the whole battery of anaesthetics, painkillers and antibiotics we count on in our own health care was virtually unavailable to them.

The show also mentioned how Haiti has in recent years become a weird sort of mendicant nation in which, in order to avoid giving aid money to the government and risk having it wasted in the country’s endemic corruption, the non-governmental organization (NGO’s) have been able to spend it pretty much however they wanted — resulting in a group of well-meaning but ill-coordinated relief efforts that have kept Haitians more or less fed and clothed but not prepared to make their country’s agriculture and economy self-sustaining — and in the final grim irony, there was an account of an economic development strategy that was being tried in 2008 and 2009 that was basically aimed at reviving Haiti by turning it into a nation of sweatshops — and even that, as dubious an achievement as it would have been, was smashed to ribbons by the quake.