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Of Love and Haiti

Robert Illes: The very best and the very simplest way of giving I have seen is the Red Cross cell phone text system: text Haiti to 90999. It's a $10 donation, added to your phone bill. How painless is that? Verizon has already reported $3 million have been donated

We pay for our indifference.

The tragedy of Haiti is God's way of saying "pay attention"! Long exploited and neglected, the tiny French and Creole-speaking country, built of slaves in the heyday of the 18th century slave trade - and made independent by a famous revolt of those slaves in 1805 - is in our consciousness wall to wall now.

Whether we want it to be or not.

Watching MSNBC, I know the scenes are not from a horror movie, but it looks like one. It's worse. It's real life. And the script couldn't have been written with greater terror. Start with the pre-earthquake reality of 2 million people packed into a town meant to house 5,000 - that being the geographically protected port city, and capital, Port-au-Prince. Most of the people live in whatever is worse than abject poverty, in slapdash concrete houses built without nuisance of construction codes we are used to here. That indifference, as it turns out, apparently also refers to the beautiful presidential palace.

The neglect of the Haitian citizenry has been so insistent, there is not really what might be called an enduring "infrastructure". Over the last several decades, they have already been buffeted by political corruption and relentless hurricanes. The forests in the hills have been denuded for fuel. Even Mr. Obama has turned a blind eye to a daunting and relentless task of bringing this neighbor fully into the 21st century. Other priorities, many of them home grown, beckoned

Until Tuesday around 5 PM Haiti time.

Directly under this teeming population, and just 5 miles beneath the earth's surface (ridiculously "shallow" as we earthquake aficionados in Cali know), there was a long overdue tectonic shift that resulted in a whopper of a 7.0 quake - a "tremblement de terre" they would say in Haiti - right at rush hour. Could there have been a more hideous perfect storm?

As cell phone and security videos now show, the hundreds of thousands unsecured cement structures collapsed literally in clouds of cinderblock cinder instantly. Hundreds of thousands were trapped and died instantly. Hundreds of thousands were homeless instantly. And without potable water, or food, or emergency services. Or coroners.
And so came the wall to wall cable news coverage. The enormous scope of the catastrophe immediately dwarfed Katrina and the tsunami of '04. Hospitals fell, and workers fled, who didn't die. No firemen, no cops, no soldiers -- just these unfortunate but resolute people, dazed but urgently helping each other, clawing out of the wreckage with their bare hands. The United Nations, the usual security presence, was itself killed, and so was the local catholic archbishop. The President of the country, Preval, was himself made homeless as his Taj Mahal-like presidential palace pancaked, as did his private residence.

The international blind eye could no longer be turned to this luckless nation. Rapper and Haitian ex-patriate Wyclef Jean sent out a plea to aid his country. And as another indicator of significance of the event - Anderson Cooper was on his way, followed shortly by NBC's Brian Williams. In the "life goes on" department, leave it to the cable networks to break away from heart rending raw coverage to commercials merrily extolling the joys of a Jamaican vacation, or the benefits of Beneful dog food.

President Obama, a kindred spirit of this Caribbean nation, almost immediately made a determined announcement promising massive aid. And also immediately, his detractors derided it as political positioning. According to the soulless Mr. Limbaugh, the president responded faster to the plight of Haitians (read: fellow colored people) than he did to the failed underwear bomber. Even for Herr Rush that's a bizarre reach, but no doubt he's relieved his Viagra playground, the Dominican Republic, escaped unscathed. He also said that we've already given to Haiti "It's called income tax." Since 2000, about $3 million has been given in aid to Haiti after hurricane strikes - so hardly a bailout of TARP proportions.

Fox, for its part, decided to go subtle and merely limited its coverage. Sadly, our atmosphere of constant partisanship cannot pause even for the plight of desperate humanity, whatever their majority color.

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People sprang into action. Websites and facebook pages sprang up - much as desperate signposts sprouted after the Trade Center went down - with photos of possible victims and pleas of the diaspora (Haitian ex-patriats living in the USA) desperately seeking news on loved ones. "Have you seen my mom? She lives in Petion Ville" "Seeking my brother in Delmas". Twitter and iTouch were rendered powerless.

Meanwhile, along with the USA, the international community has rallied with hundreds of millions of dollars in resources. 30 countries. Now that's my kind of Coalition of the Willing, performing an absolute good and not raining death.

And so, thanks to the ferocity of Mother Nature, The Cavalry was finally heading to this wanting nation, stripped of everything but the clothes on its back.

This time perhaps the world will pay attention to Haiti, and a world full of haitians (small "h" intended). Somalia comes to mind. And yes even the now demonized Yemen, and other places where governments have failed and human beings are desperate... places exploited for hundreds of years by white guy powers seeking their resources, and further gouged by heartless despots enriching themselves.

I have dear friends who are Haitian. Haiti is not a slum in paradise. In fact, it does have a middle class, and stuff like resort hotels, cell phones, beauty pageants, "cyber cafes", television, even a burgeoning film industry. There are hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in the USA (the aforementioned "diaspora") thriving in Brooklyn and Miami, and New England and even Los Angeles. They are a beautiful and talented people, worthy of our efforts, despite Foxian indifference.

Of course, in a larger sense, they are now, "thanks" to this added spank by Mother Nature, poster children of the world's dichotomy - the juxtaposition of the very wealthy and the very impoverished. As with the faces of Katrina, many people don't want to see this tragedy... because they are a reflection of our distorted values. Perhaps Mother Nature had to take matters into her own hands, to make us see what we will not see. Again.

But, thankfully, absolution is at hand. We can tweet our concerns, and facebook our information. And, ta da, I just learned the great George Clooney, is organizing another 9/11-type show business clambake on Haiti's behalf.
And, just a cell phone click away, we can at least donate our money and go on about our business. But this time, this event, happening to our geographic neighbors in such an unimaginably immense way, may make us pause a bit longer.
The outpouring of generosity has been almost as awesome as the size of the cataclysm itself - despite our own economic troubles, both macro and micro.

The very best and the very simplest way of giving I have seen is the Red Cross cell phone text system: text Haiti to 90999. It's a $10 donation, added to your phone bill. How painless is that? Verizon has already reported $3 million have been donated at this writing. Wyclef Jean's Yele charitable organization accepts $5 donations: text Yele to 501501. And former President Bill Clinton is the special emissary to Haiti, and his website has information on donations.

Let's hope this time our help to Haiti will stick. Let's hope a new, sturdy infrastructure will be built. Let's hope indifference will be replaced by engagement. Let's hope Haitians can finally attain their potential. Let's hope Mother Nature's latest crisis will not go to waste.

bob illes

Robert Illes

Internet radio show "Funny is Money" starring Bob Illes is now on nightly at 7 PM Pacific time CHECK IT OUT!

Reprinted with permission from the Valley Democrats United newsletter, Margie Murray, Editor, where the article first appeared.