The World Travel Guide says Haiti, with its mountainous scenery and tropical climate, has “the basic ingredients of a holiday destination”. Aside from the abject poverty, instability and violence, which make it the poorest and one of the most volatile nations in the Americas.

And that was before the earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, which shook the archipelago to its rickety core yesterday. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive fears as many as 100,000 people may be dead, as rescuers from around the world begin to pick through the rubble. A failed state flattened once more.

The Baptist Haiti Mission calls it the Ethiopia of the northern hemisphere and highlights the damning disparity: just 1100km from the shores of the US lies a nation “more densely populated than India, as poor as Bangladesh, almost as destitute as the famine-stricken lands of east Africa, where hunger, sickness and death go on almost unnoticed by many countries in the world.”

Only in unmitigated disaster does the world take notice. US forces have been dispatched twice in the past 15 years (Bill Clinton launched Operation Uphold Democracy in 1994 to restore the ousted government of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide; George Bush sent the Marines in 2004 this time to help Aristide escape after another coup) only for Haiti to return to the same parlous state soon after. As James Ridgeway, a journalist who has reported extensively from Haiti, writes today in Mother Jones: “In the aftermath of September 11 and the Bush administration’s numerous adventures around the world, Haiti returned to its usual state of invisibility in Western eyes.”

Ridgeway argues that US policy leading up to 2004 actually helped destabilise Haiti. And while Barack Obama has pulled back on some of the harshest deportation policies of the Bush years, which prevented Haitians fleeing their dangerous home, he’s failed to take “much meaningful action” since moving into the White House.

He writes:

For the most part, Europe and the United States have continued to sit by as Haiti has grown poorer and poorer. When I was there you could find the children just outside Cite Soleil, the giant slum, living in the garbage dump, waiting for the US army trucks to dump the scraps left from the meals of American soldiers. There they stood, knee deep in garbage, fighting for bits of food … It is hard to imagine what a magnitude 7 earthquake might do to a city that on any ordinary day already resembles a disaster area.

The world should have known, he says. He points to this horrifying portrait from The Times newspaper early last year, reporting on a nation “mired in historic debt and in danger of complete collapse”; a land “stricken by flood and famine” where “kidnap, rape and child abuse are rife”.

The United Nations had reason for hope. Its Security Council resolution from October recommitting to its ongoing stabilisation mission ($US611 million has been pledged for the year to June) praised progress towards enhanced governance. New senators were elected without incident and constitutional reform had gone some way to making government more accountable while strengthening state institutions.

Still, the security situation “remains fragile”.

The UN has some 9000 uniformed personnel on the ground in Haiti. Dozens of those staff are now dead; about 150 were believed to be working at the mission’s main headquarters in Port-au-Prince with most still missing.

The earth moved at 4:53pm in Haiti for just a minute, residents report. But reports are emerging of total devastation. Says The Guardian: “Soil, dust and smoke smothered the city for about 12 minutes, according to witnesses. When it partly cleared the scene was apocalyptic.”

British aid worker Karen Ashmore used Twitter to call for help: “Needs to be rescued. Please go help.”

She was later found alive. But unlike other global catastrophes, Twitter is mostly filled with prayers and sympathy rather than reports from the epicentre itself. Few residents would have access.

One Twitter user, @LisandroSuero, is posting horrific images of the disaster. It’s unclear if he is in the country (he hasn’t responded to Crikey) but his images are being used widely. The Boston Globe has also posted a macabre collection of photos from wire agencies.

Crikey has picked the eyes out of the coverage:

  • Hillary Clinton — who has cancelled her Pacific trip, including visits to Canberra and Melbourne — says Haiti has endured natural disasters on a “Biblical scale”. The UK Telegraph has the cruel timeline of catastrophes in the region.
  • Reuters is live blogging its coverage, including photos and video. Aftershocks continue to shake the capital, it says, as residents try to rescue people trapped under rubble “clawing at chunks of concrete with bare hands”.
  • Associated Press says “bodies are everywhere” in Port-au-Prince, a city of about 2 million people: “Those of tiny children adjacent to schools, women in the rubble-strewn streets with stunned expressions frozen on their faces, men hidden beneath plastic tarps and cotton sheets.”
  • The New York Times says at least 16 UN workers are dead with 140 missing. The archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, is also feared dead.
  • Former US President Bill Clinton told radio network NPR that Haiti now must urgently needs cash, to buy medical supplies, fresh water and other relief essentials.
  • AP Photographer Eric Martir has chosen his top three photos from the disaster zone for a Facebook gallery. “Haiti is the most unfortunate country in the region,” he says, “these pictures really tell that.”
  • Dow Jones says while the recovery and rebuilding effort will come at an enormous economic toll, the poverty-stricken nation has little insurance coverage to pay for it — as little as US$8 million.
  • All 10 Australians believed to be in the area have been reported safe, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. ABC News has one Brisbane couple’s survival story as they dug their way out of the rubble.

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12