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To Rebuild From Its Disastrous Earthquake, Haiti Has To Rebuild Its Disastrous Governance

Ramon Espinosa
MONSTROUS OFFICIAL NEGLECT A Haitian fireman carries a child survivor from a collapsed school in Petionville, Haiti, in 2008.


This Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the apocalyptic 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti and killed as many as 200,000 people. There’ll be a lot of soul-searching about why the country has made so little recovery progress a full decade later. But if we want to understand that sad, infuriating state of affairs, we’re observing the wrong anniversary.

I’d propose we focus instead on November 7, 2008.

On that day a school, the Collège La Promesse Évangélique, collapsed in Port-au-Prince’s Pétionville suburb, killing some 90 of the 700 children who attended. The three-story, concrete-block building caved in not because of a violent earthly tremor but due to monstrous official neglect. It was built with virtually no structural rebar or mortar, and was never inspected. The school’s owner was arrested for manslaughter – but Haitian prosecutors later dropped the charges because (sit down for this one) they had to admit he’d built the Collège legally.

Another shoddily erected Port-a-Prince school came crashing down less than a week later. Fortunately, no students died in that calamity because they were outside the building. Yet Haiti’s government did little after those jarring, early-warning events to strengthen the country’s criminally lax construction standards. And that’s why so many tens of thousands of Haitians were crushed to death on January 12, 2010, in the magnitude-7.0 earthquake.

READ MORE: Haiti 10 Years After the Earthquake: Why So Little Recovery Progress in a Decade?

Even if building codes have improved somewhat in Haiti since then, the country’s government mindset has not. As the ghastly 2010 death toll is mourned on Sunday, most Haitians will feel as if they and their impoverished nation are still crawling out of the earthquake rubble. Vital infrastructure projects are moribund – it took seven years to re-open Haiti’s major hospital – and agriculture remains so ruined Haitians are suffering one of the hemisphere’s worst food shortages. Political chaos, meanwhile, has raged relentlessly the past 10 years.

That’s not the fault of Haitians: the hard-working successes most of them make of their lives when they come to the U.S. make that abundantly clear. No, the true culprit is the Haitian governing class, which was largely a dysfunctional wreck before the earthquake and has spent the decade since then lowering the bar even further.

Haiti's governing class was largely a dysfunctional wreck before the earthquake – and has spent the decade since then lowering the bar even further.

It’s been 34 years since Haiti restored its democracy after the Duvalier dictatorship. But the country’s political and economic elites still wear much of its corrupt and authoritarian personality like retro-Caribbean fashion. The 2011-2016 presidency of Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly – best known for sophomoric misogyny and obstructing elections – is a prime exhibit of what’s passed for modern Haitian leadership.

Right now Haiti is rocked by a $2 billion embezzlement scandal involving funds earmarked for post-quake rebuilding projects. President Jovenel Moïse is implicated in one of the million-dollar road construction scams (he denies involvement) and human rights groups accuse his security forces of killing scores of protesters in the past 18 months who were demanding his resignation.

Which is why, whether or not Moïse is ousted, one thing probably should go: Haiti’s current constitutional system, which only seems to promote and encourage the country’s official malfeasance.


Understandably, the charter Haiti drafted post-Duvalier weakened the powers of its President – who can’t appoint or dismiss cabinet members and who has no legislative or veto authority – and amplified those of the Parliament. But the cost of that good democratic intention has all too often been government shambles and paralysis – readily exploited by crooks and thugs.

Credit Dieu Nalio Chery / AP via Miami Herald
AP via Miami Herald
RULE OF LAWLESS: Haitian Senator Ralph Fethiere fires a gun outside Parliament in Port-au-Prince last September, wounding two people.

So since the U.S. and the international community have proven largely inept at helping Haiti rebuild its infrastructure after the earthquake, maybe they’d be better at helping Haiti reconstruct its civics. Here’s one idea:

Haitians have long insisted France should repay Haiti the $21 billion it was forced to send to Paris in the early 1800s after it won independence from French slaveholders. (Those fiscally crippling “reparations” were essentially extortion to keep France's military from invading Haiti, the first republic founded by former black slaves.) And I and a lot of other people have long tended to agree with the Haitians (especially since France’s GDP is more than 100 times that amount).

That $21 billion, if enough of it is kept away from the crooks and thugs, could go a long way toward fixing Haiti’s broken governance – reform not just of its constitution but its education, elections,  judiciary, tax system, spending oversight, building codes. And that could go a long way toward making Haitian officialdom more effective at earthquake recovery. 

Or at least at keeping schools from collapsing on children.