The modern world was invented in the Caribbean.
Two hundred years ago the Haitians defeated the armies of Europe's major powers, Napoleon's France (twice), Britain and Spain, destroying slavery and precipitating the birth of capitalism, destroying European empire in the Western hemisphere and helping launch the United States as a world power. And they promulgated, for the first time on Earth, the reality of universal human rights.
The Haitians have been paying for their temerity ever since.
Fifty years ago, the Cubans threw off the neocolonial yoke, outlawed capitalism in Cuba and successfully asserted the right of any country, no matter how small to choose its own path to development. In the process the Cubans reordered George Canning's boast that he had brought a new world into being to redress the balance of the old: The Cubans completed the liberation of Africa, dealing a death blow to apartheid and the repulsive doctrine of ethnic difference and superiority.
For their sins the Cubans and Haitians continue to be punished, the Haitians by slow motion genocide, by compound interest and by state terrorism, by armed banditry in support of criminal monopolists and by the kidnapping of their elected leader. The Cubans have been punished by terrorism, by invasion, by biological warfare and by a brutal and illegal economic blockade.
The two peoples nearest us – to whom most of the hemisphere owe their freedom – are punished as Prometheus was for stealing divine fire and giving it to ordinary mortals. Zeus punished Prometheus when he finally caught up with him, by having him chained to a rock – perhaps in South Ossetia ! where a vulture would come to feast on Prometheus' liver, magically regenerated overnight.
Nature has dealt the Haitians and Cubans some serious blows. These blows are so many and so devastating that some people have begun to question whether what is happening is entirely natural.
Does someone ‘own’ the weather?
Cuba's fertile province of Pinar del Rio, which grows everything from plantain to the worlds' best tobacco, has been hit 14 times in 8 years by hurricane or storm. Comparing the strike rate over the last century suggests that global warming or some other force is tormenting Cuba.
‘I have never seen anything as painful …’
Dr Paul Farmer, an American physician, medical anthropologist and Harvard professor has spent about half his adult life dedicated to healing the world, especially Haiti the poorest country in the hemisphere. When the first storms broke over Haiti, Paul was in Rwanda, doing what he does all over the world, setting up systems to help ordinary people help heal themselves and their neighbours. He dashed back to Haiti from which he reported on Wednesday “…we need food, water, clothes, and, especially, cash (which can be converted into all of the above)—so that Zanmi Lasante (ZL), and thus all of us, can do our part to save lives and preserve human dignity.
"The need is enormous. After 25 years spent working in Haiti and having grown up in Florida, I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as painful as what I just witnessed in Gonaïves—except in that very same city, four years ago. Again, you know that 2004 was an especially brutal year, and those who work with PIH know why: the coup in Haiti and what would become Hurricane Jeanne. Everyone knows that Katrina killed 1,500 in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, but very few outside of our circles know that what was then Tropical Storm Jeanne, which did not even make landfall in Haiti, killed an estimated 2,000 in Gonaïves alone."
Paul Farmer thought he would have found organisations and institutions working on disaster relief. Instead, Farmer's health care organisation – Partners in Health (Zanmi Lasante in Haitian) have ben forced into the front line. PIH is a network of locally directed organizations working in 10 countries to attack poverty and inequality and bring the fruits of modernity—healthcare, education, etcetera—to people marginalized by adverse social forces.
In Haiti they have now been forced into a different role -- which is why Paul Farmer is apologising to his staff and friends for asking for money, food and other resources.
" … we saw not a single first-aid station or proper temporary shelter. We saw, rather, people stranded on the tops of their houses or wading through waist-deep water; we saw thousands in an on-foot exodus south toward Saint-Marc
Farmer is appealing desperately for help against a background of official ignorance and failure.
"A speedy, determined relief effort could save the lives of tens of thousands of Haitians in Gonaïves and all along the flooded coast. The people of that city and others have been stranded without food or water or shelter for three days and it's simply not true that they cannot be reached. When I called to say as much to friends working with the U.S. government and with disaster-relief organizations based in Port-au-Prince, it became clear that, as of yesterday, there's not a lot of accurate information leaving Gonaïves, although estimates of hundreds of deaths are not hyperbolic."
Part of the problem in Haiti is that the American managed coup against President Aristide was a coup against democratic community organisations as well. The Haiti Democracy Project, USAID and John McCain's International Republican Institute calculated that they would fatally undermine Aristide by destroying the grassroots organisations. What they did was to destroy the Haitians' capacity to help themselves.
Evacuating the population of Jamaica
Cuba is organised as a mutual aid society in which every citizen has his responsibilities, his duties and his place. When hurricanes threaten Cuba, people move out of the way guided by the neighourhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution –CDR. They move the old and the young, the sick and the healthy and their cats, dogs, parrots, their goats, donkeys and cows, to safe places.
Here is a truly incredible fact. Last week the Cubans moved 2,615,000 people – a number nearly equivalent to the entire population of Jamaica, to safety. Four people died in the storm, the first fatalities for years. It is a remarkable statistic. Three years ago when Texas tried to evacuate a million or so ahead of hurricane Rita more than a hundred people died in the evacuation.
The hurricanes hitting Cuba this year have been peculiarly destructive, Gustav leaving behind wreckage which reminded Fidel Castro of the wreckage of Hiroshima.
Cuba needs food, not because of poverty –as in Haiti, but because its crops have been devastated and food stores destroyed. When the Cubans asked the Americans to allow them to buy supplies from the US, Condoleezza Rice said no!
The Cubans were not asking for charity.
Some of us have long suspected that for some Americans, ideology was more important than humanity.
That celebrated rhetorical question in the Bible has now been answered by Secretary Rice:
If your brother asks for bread, will you give him a stone?
The essence of being human is that other humans recognise your humanity, I, and probably many others, are unable to recognise Ms Rice as human.
It is savagely ironic, or, perhaps, barbarically ironic that it is the Cubans who should be treated in this way. When people are in trouble anywhere in the world the Cubans send help no matter what the state of relations is with their governments, to Honduras, Guatemala and Pakistan among others. When Katrina hit the US the Cubans organised a 1,500 strong medical brigade which would have saved many lives, had their help been accepted.
But, as the Bible says, let the dead bury their dead.
We need to organise to help as many people as possible survive the effects of the hurricanes.
We need to organise funds for Haiti and food for Cuba.
I would hope that this newspaper [The Jamaica Observer] organises a relief fund for our worst hit neighbours and I will offer what I can, J$10,000 [US$138].
I would urge us to demonstrate our sympathy and solidarity by giving as much as we can, no matter how small.
Copyright ©2008 John Maxwell
[Partners in Health – the organisation John mentions above – has a website at http://www.pih.org]