Editor’s Note: The authors were in Haiti from January 24-29 as members of a team of five activists and academics, three of whom are Haitian-Americans, to assess conditions after the January 12 earthquake. Among the three Haitian-Americans was Patrick Bastien, vice president of the board of directors of Scattering Resources, a group formed by Haitian-Americans to provide aid to grassroots efforts in their native country. The trip was coordinated by Vladimir LaBorde, executive director of Fondation Avenir (FA), a nonprofit organization based in Port-au-Prince that works "to improve the lives of the marginalized." Fondation Avenir’s headquarters suffered major damage from the earthquake; donations to joint projects between Scattering Resources and FA can be made online.
Any expectation of corporate benevolence in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti quickly evaporated at the airport check-in. We were bringing in money and supplies, but we weren’t part of an aid group recognized by Delta or American, so we were hit with additional baggage fees. At the suggestion of sympathetic airline employees, we evenly divided the supplies so that each bag was under fifty pounds. Nonetheless, four of us still had to hand over about $1,000 total for our additional baggage.
The extra baggage fee was shocking since most major airlines had announced they were organizing relief flights or offering incentives to customers who donated to aid organizations. Within days of the quake, AMR Corporation, the parent company of American Airlines and American Eagle, sent three commuter aircraft into Haiti carrying relief supplies. Spirit Airlines said it was working with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide aircraft for humanitarian aid efforts. Both Spirit and American gave bonus miles to frequent fliers who donated miles or money to UNICEF, the Red Cross or Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti. United Airlines Foundation said it would match up to $50,000 in monetary donations to the organization’s International Response Fund. JetBlue flew relief workers "vetted by the Haitian Consulate" free of charge to Santo Domingo.
The airlines got good PR for their efforts. Donors got bonus miles and maybe the feeling that they had helped out. On one hand, the airlines offered a bit of help. On the other, they siphoned money away from travelers to Haiti–money that could have gone to people whose annual per capita income is less than $400 and where more than 78 percent live on less than $2 a day and more than half live on less than $1 a day. One person’s tragedy is often another person’s opportunity. In this case, airlines have benefited from packed planes and excess baggage; rental car companies have benefited from the delivery of relief supplies and workers; and big-box stores from the purchase of water, nonperishable food and camping supplies.
Contrary to government and media reports about the "difficulty of getting into Haiti," we had no trouble getting into the country, and we didn’t encounter roaming "bandits." We drove right through the gate at Malpasse as it opened at 8 in the morning. Although Malpasse means "bad pass," we were pleasantly surprised at how open the border was; there were no guards present. In Haiti’s Odious Debt, Eric Toussaint and Sophie Perchellet cite Eduardo Galeano talking about "the white curse." Galeano writes: "At the border where the Dominican Republic ends and Haiti begins, there is a large sign with the following warning: ‘El mal paso–Le mauvais passage. De l’autre côté, c’est l’enfer noir. Sang et faim, mis&eegrave;re, pestes. (The bad path. On the other side, it is black hell. Blood and hunger, poverty, plagues).’ We didn’t see that sign.