On November 7, at Petionville, a suburb of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, the country once again witnessed a tragedy that added to its list of misery: a three-story school building collapsed entombing hundred students and teachers. After days of frantic search, rescuers were able to recover more than a hundred of bodies and pull dozens of injured out of the rubbles. Disaster rescue teams from the U.S and the French department of Guadeloupe, equipped with especially trained dogs, did everything they could but it was too little too late. This man-made disaster could not have come at a worst moment, as Haiti has yet to recover from this year’s hurricane season, which caused 800 deaths and 1 billion in damages according to official figures released by the government and the World Bank. 5 days later, another school, Divine Grace partially collapsed injuring 7 students and a teacher.
These preventable tragedies, which validate the international community’s capricious labeling of Haiti as a “failed state”, should serve as a catalyst for a thorough restructuring of the country’s deficient political system that allows apathy and incompetence to reign supreme. As things stand now, neither the municipality of Petionville where the doomed school is located nor the central government, which is responsible for education under the constitution, wants to take the blame for one of the worst tragedies in Haiti’s history.
It could be argued that Haiti’s political system’s deep-seated deficiencies, which were so apparent before the hypothetical mission of mercy, remain to be tackled. The education Minister should have been fired immediately for not anticipating that these tragedies were likely to occur. Given the fact that the education minister was installed a few months ago, the country’s politicians, unaccustomed to blame, would be appalled. This approach however would be consistent with good governance. Had the minister order a comprehensive study of the challenges he inherited, he would have come across the problem.
I am not implying that the tragedy at La Promesse School would not have occurred, but the victims’ families sorrow would have been assuaged by the thought that preventive or corrective measures were in the offing. But apparently that was never the case. While the political parties were holding the formation of a new government hostage over ministerial appointments, none of them had a plan for the ministries they were after. That is unfortunately the nature of Haitian politics where holding a ministerial post has more to do with the prestige and a once in a lifetime opportunity to plunder the treasury rather than a desire to tackle relevant issues. Therefore, it is incumbent to Prime Minister Michelle Duvivier Pierre-Louis to demand or force the resignation of the education minister and anyone responsible for enforcing building codes.
Clearly, the building’s substandard construction shows greed and absolute contempt for human lives. The school’s owner, Fortin Augustin, a former construction foreman, who proudly claimed to have built it without the help of an engineer, must be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, there is plenty of blame to go around. Was René Préval looking for public empathy when he insisted that the laws regulating building construction and safety were not obeyed? In any structured state, a president would order an investigation as to what went wrong, what needs to be done and who should be punished. Articulating the obvious, which are a lack of government oversight and substandard construction, would not solve the problem. More importantly, René Préval’s initial statement underscores his inability to extricate Haiti of its problems. The country needs strong leadership and, René Préval, through past statements, proves he is incapable of providing it.
Quite possibly, the official in charge of enforcing the regulations pertaining to school construction and safety did not have the budget or manpower for such vital assignment, which deals with the wellbeing of the nation’s school children. But, it is not the responsibility of agency heads to lobby the government for resources proportional to their assignment? If the official in charge had not done so, then he was derelict in his duty and should be fired for negligence.
Moreover, the government should not hide behind the fact that the owner of the collapsed school did not have a construction permit, which is rather the norm in a country mired in systemic corruption. The pertinent issue is that construction was ongoing while the school was in session and no government official thought of ordering a stop to it, seeing that many hazards other than the resulting collapse of the building endangered the lives of students and teachers. For the heartbroken woman, who lost 4 children, these are questions that need to be answered.
The tragedy shows that essential constitutional mandates are taken over by unscrupulous entrepreneurs because the international community’s blueprint for restructuring the Haitian state centers exclusively on chasing real or imaginary criminals and implementing the IMF goals. As a result, some of these schools operate without accreditation, which, unfortunately, is consistent with the lack of accountability and civic responsibility permeating Haiti’s power structure that has condemned the country to unjustified misery. A government that totally disregards its constitutional mandates does not deserve the support of the people. René Préval on many occasions sounded more like a complainer-in-chief rather than a man elected to deal with the country’s problems. When exactly this will end?