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February 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Your Monthly Bill

Haiti:  Relief, Geography and History
(Sources: US Government CIA Fact Book, API News)

Bill Gillespie

Since the January 12, 2010 — 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the world’s attention has been on Haiti.   It is important that we understand the relief effort and Haiti’s geography and history.   The earthquake devastated the capital city, Port au Prince, and all of the major infrastructure including government, police and fire department buildings, as well as the port, airport, transportation network, water, sewer and electrical grid.  This loss of resources has severely hampered relief efforts.  Most of the damage occurred due to substandard building practices, which lacked reinforcing steel in the concrete.

More than 150,000 people were reported killed, although the exact number is unknown and reports are still fluctuating.  Over 200,000 have been injured.  A large number of up to 2 million are homeless and require help.  Tent camps have been slow to materialize.  Haiti’s government, weak before the calamity, is virtually non-functional.  UN peacekeepers have been in the country for six years providing security, since a bloody rebellion ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.   Do you remember Aristide?  We helped put him in power after a military coup in 1994.  Currently, the UN and a multi-national force led by the US are there helping to assist the victims, citizens and government of Haiti.

Many international, national and local relief efforts and donation collection centers are in place.  If you want to donate money the most trusted relief agencies include the American Red Cross, UNICEF’s Relief Work, The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund and Feed the Children.  Locally, Tybee’s City Hall has a drop off center in the lobby for emergency supplies such as blankets, medical first-aid items, canned food, sanitation items and clothes. Additionally, many local churches and medical facilities are taking collections, and coordinating volunteer efforts to go to Haiti.  Perhaps you can help in some way?

The Haitian link to America, Savannah and our revolutionary war history is strong. In 1779, over 500 free black volunteers from Haiti, the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Dominque joined combined French and American forces attempting to retake Savannah from the British.  After a devastating siege, the Haiti forces covered the combined forces’ withdrawal allowing for an orderly military operation and stopping a British counter-attack.  As a symbol of gratitude, Savannah has a new Haitian Monument in Franklin Square to commemorate that sacrifice and friendship.

Haiti is a country about the size of the state of Maryland. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with the average person surviving on about $2 per day. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agricultural sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming for income.  Haiti occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic takes up the eastern two-thirds.   A 2009 estimate of the population is 10,033,000; with about one-third of people living around the capital of Port-au-Prince.  Haitian Creole and French are the official languages.  90–95% of Haitians are of predominately African descent; the remaining 5–10% of the population are mostly of mixed-race background.  Haiti is predominantly a Christian country, with Roman Catholicism practiced by 80%, and Protestants practiced by 16% of the population.   Haitian Voodoo, a unique new world and African mixed religion is practiced by roughly half the population. Millions of Haitians live abroad, chiefly in North America: the Dominican Republic (800,000), United States (600,000), and Canada (100,000).

Haiti is also a very mountainous country with more than 3/4ths of the territory being 600 feet and above. Its climate is both tropical and semiarid.  Fertile valleys are interspersed between the mountain ranges forming vast areas of contrast between elevations in many areas throughout the territory. The country is separated from Cuba by way of the Windward Passage of the Caribbean Sea, which is only 50 miles wide.  Haiti’s lowest elevation is at sea level, while its highest point is the Mountain Pic La Selle at 8,793 ft.  There are two rainy seasons, April–June and October–November. Haiti is subject to periodic droughts and floods, made more severe by deforestation.  Hurricanes are also a severe reoccurring menace.  Let’s hope this spring hurricane season will spare the island nation.

Haiti’s history is fascinating and diverse. Christopher Columbus landed at Môle Saint-Nicolas on Dec. 5th, 1492, and claimed the island for Spain.  Haitian politics have been contentious ever since. Most Haitians are aware of their history as the only country in the Western Hemisphere to undergo a successful slave rebellion, revolution, and gain independence from France, in 1804.  Inspired by the French Revolution, Haitian Toussaint l’Ouverture, a former slave and leader in the slave revolt, rose as a military leader, and later commanded the Haitian war effort.   Through leadership and skill he achieved independence after years of war against both external invaders and internal dissension.  In a last ditch effort, Napoleon Bonaparte sent an expedition of 20,000 men under the command of his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, to retake the island. Leclerc’s mission was to oust l’Ouverture and restore slavery. The French achieved some victories, but within a few months, yellow fever had killed most of the French soldiers (estimates are around 50,000), including 18 generals.

Haiti has a long history of oppression by dictators including François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier; they both markedly affected the nation.  France and the United States have repeatedly intervened in Haitian politics since the country’s founding, sometimes at the request of one party or another. In January 1914, British, German and United States forces entered Haiti, ostensibly to protect their citizens from civil unrest. The U.S. passed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed for a US military presence and occupation.  The United States occupied the island in 1915 and units were stationed in the country until 1934.  Operation Uphold Democracy (September 19, 1994 – March 31, 1995) was another US military assistance response to the overthrow and expulsion of the duly elected Haitian government of Jean Bertrand Aristide from a military coup led by Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras.  Cedras was Haiti’s de facto ruler of 1991 to 1994.

This earthquake tragedy could have happened in many neighboring countries.   It is important that we know something about our southern neighbor.  We are going to be there a long time providing security and nation building assistance.  It is in our best interest.  A large outflow of Haitian refugees would be devastating and destabilizing to the region.  We have proved time and time again that we are a compassionate and giving nation.  Perhaps there is something you can do?

Contact Bill at

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