Everyone is aware of the huge international effort to help Haiti right now. Aid organizations and militaries from around the world are rushing to provide water, food, medical care, and security to the millions of Haitians utterly devastated by the earthquake that struck over a week ago, and from the aftershock a few days ago. Most Haitians are still without electricity, phone lines, and the bare necessities to survive.
Beyond donating and fundraising or actually joining aid groups which are trying to set up field hospitals, beginning to clear the labyrinth of streets and roads, unburying those still amazingly alive under collapsed buildings, and burying the thousands who lie dead everywhere with the just arrived shovels and vinyl body bags—beyond this, what can we as meditators do?
Obviously this is tremendous fuel for tonglen practice—especially as we contemplate the orphaned children, the thousands suffering from fractures or in need of amputation who are awaiting surgery in makeshift tent clinics, and the general desperation and chaos.
But can this disaster also become a turning point in Haiti’s tragic history? Can the near complete destruction of what didn’t work well for centuries provide an opportunity to re-envision a new, more prosperous Haiti, beyond this immediate period of search and rescue, disaster relief, and emergency aid?
What is possible?
The Four Practices give us a clue. Put in layman terms they are:
1. To stay calm and sane while doing meritorious actions;
2. To cultivate and continue virtuous activity;
3. To be committed to the beneficial vision;
4. And to protect the beneficial result.
The first practice is to be calm and sane while doing meritorious work. It does no good to be hasty and add hysteria to an already turbulent situation. Those involved, which is all of us if we are aware, need to be calm and open in order to see a clear vision of how to be of benefit in this immediate situation. The tools (“jaws of life”, etc.) to extricate Haitians from loads of concrete, and pure water have been arriving at Port-au-Prince airport, although distribution to the entire country remains problematic. Thus food, medical care, and the equipment required to clear the streets and roads from fallen power lines remain bottlenecked, but Canadian ships are opening up two other ports and the Dominican Republic is giving assistance through its roads into Haiti.
A Canadian friend of mine whose father died of old age in South Carolina last week decided to donate the $2000 to Haiti rather than use it to travel round trip and to stay for the funeral. Her father is gone, but she may help save the lives of other fathers, mothers, and children in Haiti. This is an example of not giving way to personal emotionalism and not losing sight of what might be of more benefit. It means not holding back but exchanging self for other. This generous action is effective in this first stage of Haiti’s emergency.
But the slums and the Haitian countryside remain vulnerable. People are resorting to mass graves or to burning bodies because the dead lay everywhere. Surgical masks are needed to cut the stench. At night bandits, rapists, machete-wielding criminals and escaped prisoners from Haiti’s huge collapsed penitentiary prey upon their fellow Haitians and loot stores and aid depots. Doctors are now reporting that they are treating gunshot wounds as well as broken and crushed limbs.
When the cameras stop rolling, when the earthquake and its aftermath are no longer “hot news”, will the country remain a dictatorship with half its population illiterate and will “reconstruction” only amount to the hasty rebuilding of cinder block buildings being slapped together with concrete and heavy roofs without building codes? Or is it possible to re-envision a new Haiti?
The next practice is to “cultivate virtuous actions”. Beyond immediate aid, how can fundamental and beneficial change continue in Haiti? How can its 300 years of slavery followed by unstable dictatorships, which have ignored sweatshops, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, and ecological devastation, be reversed?
The historical crimes against the Haitians by imperialistic nations need to be acknowledged. When Haiti freed itself from slavery and became the first nation after the United States to achieve independence, the Western world boycotted Haiti, shutting it out from international markets, just at the vulnerable time when its untrained leaders were struggling to run a new country. Later, in the 20th century, rich nations exploited Haiti as a giant sweatshop and its exported cash crop of sugar only impoverished the 90% Creole population further, benefiting only a few Haitians and the West. Since French is still the official language in a country where the 90% poor only speak Creole, the majority of the country has never had a voice.
Obviously if the G-8 countries invested in public education, and in establishing a university and research centers in this country where there are none ,this would go a long way to repaying a karmic debt and perhaps be the most important way to “cultivate virtuous action”. Then, instead of sweatshops and cash crops, indigenous plants and trees along with fruit trees—for example, papaya, avocado, and plantain– and vegetables could be planted to sustain the people and to better sustain the soil.
Like the building of schools, this would take time to reap a reward, but in the meantime the 80% of Haitians unemployed could be employed in these activities as public works.
To reduce the need for butchering trees for fuel, a common practice in Haiti where electricity is scarce, the G-8 countries could sponsor the development of wind and solar energy sources, which are abundant there. The chopping down of the rainforest has resulted in chronic mudslides followed by floods. With replanting and turning to solar and wind power, these chronic disasters could be eliminated and electricity could even be sold to neighboring Dominican Republic, which is in need of more power.
All the piers in Port-au-Prince slipped into the sea and need to be rebuilt—which, together with rebuilding the city according to building codes, could provide further employment through public works. But Port-au-Prince is right on the fault line that goes through the southern part of the entire island. Should a port to the north become the new focus and site of the new capital? Nevertheless, whatever re-building takes place, building codes are needed, ideally utilizing earthquake resistant technology perfected in Japan for more flexible building and lighter roofs, and including water and sewage treatment.
In this way of “cultivating virtue” this huge tragedy could be a wake up, not only for Haiti, but for the world. Let’s use the shock to wake us up. It’s as if the Haitian earth had enough pillage, plunder, and desecration and in a huge upheaval said, “Start afresh! And be more mindful and respectful next time!”
The third practice is commitment. We can envision the change and can begin to implement it, but the real change requires a long-term commitment. Haiti is still a dictatorship. Education and public works have not been a priority and Port-au-Prince’s outlying slums have sprawled out further without any sanitation and are always in danger of epidemics like malaria in the daytime heat of 32 degrees. Thus the international forces are needed to restore order, to distribute aid, to repair the cracked and broken highways and rubble-strewn airport and general infrastructure, but the long-term result of a new Haiti cannot be imposed by foreign military force.
The world wants to donate clothing, blankets, and teddy bears but there is not yet a way to transport and deliver these. People throughout the world are willing to adopt Haitian children, but this cannot be done overnight. Meanwhile the price of rice has doubled. Thus humanitarian aid and emergency relief will be the main theme for quite a while, but with recovery and some stabilization, can the next step, commitment to a new Haiti, be made? This nation where most earn $2.00 a day if they are employed, where only half the population is literate, where people have deforested the entire country for fuel because there is no electricity to cook their meals–can this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere be reborn?
Can this be an opportunity to implement education including adult education, public works, renewable sources of energy, reforestation, etc.? Commitment means long term planning for future benefit.
This is possible. Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic. Google Earth showed the DR half of the island green with thick rainforest preserves and prosperous towns and resorts, while Haiti before the quake looked like a barren wasteland. As a good neighbor, DR’s hospitals are swollen with Haitians and the international infantry is using DR’s access to open the roads into Haiti. But will Haiti ever be as prosperous as the Dominican Republic? There is no reason it cannot if the world’s commitment is steadfast and the planning continues to take place.
The fourth and final practice is to protect. If an educated Haiti is restored to be in harmony with nature, this balance needs to be protected. But this protection needs to come from Haiti itself. And this will most likely require a change in the Haitian government from dictatorship to some form of representative government with Creole as the official language so that all its citizens can participate and vote. Haitian dictatorships have felt threatened by liberal and progressive ideas, and have actually suppressed innovative thinking and education. This is why the country has no university, research center, and only a couple of fire stations. Unlike neighboring Cuba, which has an excellent emergency management infrastructure, and the DR, which has buildings, which can better withstand both earthquake and hurricanes, Haiti under dictatorship has nothing. It is upon this clean slate that the possibility of a new Haiti might flourish among the other beautiful Caribbean islands in the sun.