Haitian official describes political instability of a country ravaged by tropical storms


At a time when many in the MIT community rally to help Haiti by raising funds for disaster relief following the devastation of Tropical Storm Jeanne, Myrtho Bonhomme, special advisor to the Prime Minister of Haiti, paid a visit to MIT's Wong Auditorium to reflect on the history of a country beset by upheaval.

Jeanne flooded the city of Gonaives, Haiti, on Sept. 19, killing more than 1,500 people, leaving 200,000 homeless, and others still missing. The country has a total population of 7 million.

As the remants of Jeanne whistled past the windows of Wong Auditorium on Sept. 29, Bonhomme asked for a moment of silence to honor those killed by the flooding, the second crisis to hit Haiti in the span of just one year. In February, violence rocked the country when protesters demanded the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected in 2000. Aristide also served as president from 1991 to 1996.

But Haiti's problems started long before February, Bonhomme said. "In a stable country, the government provides the proper environment for businesses to grow and prosper, creating wealth," he said. The cycle towards poverty and upheaval gains momentum when basics the government should provide--like infrastructure, electricity and water--are not provided, and citizens must pay privately for service or do without, Bonhomme said.

He pointed to several times when Haiti missed opportunities to prosper. The first came immediately following World War II as President Dumarsais Estim��� brought a new era of hope.

"He turned the country into an agricultural export country providing a lot of goods people needed after the war," said Bonhomme. But just as things looked better for Haiti, a revolt led by General Paul Magloire overthrew Estim���. Gen. Magloire became the first in a 40-year succession of dictators who ruled Haiti until Jean-Bertrand Aristide--a Roman Catholic priest with backing from the international community--took office in February 1991.

Initially Aristide was enormously popular but in the end, it was yet another opportunity lost. "It has proven to be exactly the contrary of what people expected," Bonhomme said.

For Marie Senat-Andre, a financial assistant at MIT who came to the United States from Haiti more than 30 years ago, the political instability in Haiti and the lack of preparation for natural disasters like Jeanne go hand in hand.

"Because of a lack of technology and communication, half the people did not even know it was coming," said Senat-Andre of the hurricane. "But people were suffering, people were dying before the hurricane."

Over the past week, the MIT Caribbean Club and the membership committee of the MIT Working Group on Support Staff Issues have been collecting funds for families in Haiti, Jamaica and Grenada who were devastated by the hurricanes. All told, the group raised about $3,000.

"Overall, I am pleased," said Suzette Clinton, an administrative assistant in bioengineering and co-chair of the membership committee of the Working Group on Support Staff Issues. She was one of several people who staffed a booth in Lobby 10 for three days the week of Sept. 27.

While Senat-Andre said she applauds any effort to get aid to Haiti, she also encourages people to send basics--canned food, clothing, even toothpaste can be traded for money or utilized, she said.

"Right now they need everything. They have nothing," she said.

Community members can still help by contacting the Haitian Consulate at (617) 266-3660 or sending checks to:

Jamaica Hurricane Ivan Relief Fund 2004
Honorary Consulate of Jamaica
351 Massachusetts Ave.
Boston, MA, 02115

Grenada Social and Cultural Organization Disaster Relief Fund
Sovereign Bank, c/o Carol Leggett
19 Tall Tree Road
Sharon, MA, 02067

Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres d'Haiti
Consulate of Haiti
545 Boylston St., Rm.201
Boston, MA 02116

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 6, 2004 (download PDF).


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