PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—This much seemed predictable: the U.S. President calls Haiti a “shithole.” Word spreads like wildfire here in the Haitian capital, unleashing uncontrollable anger and violent protests which are televised worldwide—damning images of chaos in a nation punished by decades of dictatorships, internal cronyism, external manipulation and even the forces of nature.
But… that didn’t happen.
The news barely made a ripple in Haiti on Friday morning, January 12. And for a very significant reason: It was the eighth anniversary of the January 2010 earthquake that killed over 250,000 people here and destroyed this city, and a sense of quiet respect for the dead hung over the streets of the capital.
Jean Eduver, a commercial truck driver, told The Daily Beast he thought Trump's comments were "no big deal.”
“We move on, work, try to get by, work, survive," said Eduver.
By the end of the day, a heavy rainfall had washed away Trump's injurious comment in the minds of many people.
"It's regrettable," said Wilson Laleau, Haitian President Jovenel Moise's chef du cabinet. He noted that Trump’s scatalogical insult was made at a bipartisan meeting on immigration last Thursday. Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries as shitholes, according to several people there. “It's said that he said that," says Laleau, "but then he says he didn't."
In the event, the shit hit the fan just enough for the government to issue a statement in French stating: "There is reason to believe, yet again, there exists profound contempt given that the extent of these reprehensible and shameful declarations does not correspond in any way to the wisdom, comportment, understanding of any authority invested with highest of offices."
What hurt as much as what Trump said was what he did not say. The White House had not even voiced sympathy on the eve of the tragic anniversary of the quake, nor, it seemed did anyone warn the "stable genius" to watch his language. Then, piling on the insults, Trump had mused about why Haitians came to the U.S. to begin with, tossing out the sinister phrase, "Send them all back."
In fact, reasons for Haitians fleeing to the U.S. can be traced back at least to to the U.S. occupation of the country from 1915 to 1940, and Washington’s subsequent support of the infamous Duvalier dictatorship. As “Papa Doc” killed people in droves—at least 30,000 Haitians were "disappeared" in those days, according to declassified U.S. embassy documents—people fled as best they could.
But the latest reason for an exodus was the 2010 earthquake, which forced many Haitians to come to the U.S. seeking survival and livelihood. The Obama administration had granted them Temporary Protected Status. Trump reversed that in November 2017, ordering 60,000 Haitians to find legal status, leave or be deported. According to Laleau, the Haitian government fought for and got an extension of 18 months to July 2019, but Trump’s “send them all back” remark evokes searing memories here.
It is a bitter reminder of the days of the "boat people," when thousands of Haitians fleeing political persecution in the early ‘90s—after the military led a bloody coup against democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide—were turned around by the U.S. Coast Guard. Images of Haitians clinging to sinking rafts were beamed around the world. But while Cubans fleeing the Castro regime were granted political asylum, Haitians were denied entry on grounds that they were economic refugees.
The international outcry forced the Clinton Administration to change course. Once again U.S. troops landed on the island, not least, to keep Haitians in their place. And eventually, space was made for legal immigration.
But there's no changing course this time around, says Laleau. "We don't have wiggle room, we have to prepare for the return [of the TPS Haitians]."That sense of resignation is all too familiar to Haitians who have been forced for generations to swallow the policies of the big giant to the North. And Trump's shithole remark did hit a raw nerve.
"It's a filthy word," said Haitian businesswoman Hilda Baker. “But it's a double-edged sword," she added. "Trump has no right to say what he said, but Haitians do nothing for their own people."
That often appears to be all too true. Driving through the capital's downtown, it's famed "pearl of the Antilles" waterfront is now a steaming, sprawling slum. Decades of accumulated garbage streaming down from the hilltops have turned into petrified "sidewalks" sometimes up to four feet high, from which women sell vegetables, fruits, and broiled chicken.
There is no garbage disposal to speak of. Instead, cascades of trash adorn the hillsides of Port-au-Prince. To the outsider, it screams the abominable description of "shithole." It is so visible, it is undeniable.
Back in the early 1980s, the government set up the SMCRS, Service Métropolitain de Collect de Résidus Solides, basically waste disposal. What it has accomplished is murkier than the cloudy, clogged sewage canals that engulf the capital. But it's one thing to point fingers at a government still learning how to govern, while plagued by old cronies and corruption. It's another to have imported shit.
After the earthquake, a cholera epidemic hit the island nation ferociously, claiming thousands of lives. Cholera had not been in Haiti for decades, if at all. After lengthy investigations, the United Nations finally conceded it was guilty. A Nepalese contingent was at the source. But now Haiti is left to fight a riverbed that is permanently contaminated.
It is costly. The U.N. has pledged some $400 million for clean-up. But the funds haven't come through. And in a country still reeling from the devastation of the 2010 quake, where 70 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, where the millions of dollars for recovery pledged by donors have yet to show the fruits of their multi-million dollar projects, it is hard to digest the contempt in Trump's remarks."
He says what he wants," said Laleau. "The U.S. is a big country that values humanity, that's why we're not taking this all that seriously."
Ironically, some did take it seriously, and surprisingly so. "Trump is right! This is a shithole!" said Joanes, a hardworking father of three children, living in the downtown slum area. "We live in it! We have officials saying their pride is offended. They're the culprits! They do nothing for the people." On second thought, Joanes added, "Trump is just hot air."