Monday, January 24, 2011

Haiti: The Caribbean International Highway

Over the course of my trip to Port-Au-Prince, four different people approached me to ask if I’d heard about the Caribbean International Highway, an underwater highway theoretically currently being constructed between the US and Haiti. That’s right, an underwater highway between the US and Haiti. By way of Cuba, in fact.

Let me be clear: THERE IS NO HIGHWAY. It is a hoax, fiction, not real. There never has been, and never will be, an long underwater highway like this, here or any other place. It would be impossible, because it would be extremely difficult to build, and be far more expensive than it would be worth.

The fact that this idea is so absurd as to be stupidly ridiculous is not the point of the story. Nor are the numerous responses I made explaining the (blindingly obvious!) fact that the Caribbean International Highway is a fiction: an internet hoax someone invented to drive traffic to his/her blog. What struck me was how ready Haitian people were to believe this story – even intelligent, fairly educated, reasonably worldly Haitian people. And what their credulity implies.

The first conclusion is obvious and not particularly interesting: most Haitian people are poorly equipped consumers of internet information. This is not a judgment; it’s an acknowledgement that finding, evaluating, and especially filtering information from electronic sources is a skill which, unsurprisingly, most Haitian people have not developed. Even those with regular internet access didn’t usually have the contextual understanding to appreciate the substantive difference between The New York Times website and the dozens of junk “news” sites that populate the web. I look at the picture below and laugh, because I see immediately that I’m looking at a regional map that someone pulled from a google image search and drew some colored lines on using some program not much more sophisticated than Microsoft Paint. In contrast, the Haitian people who approached me saw this picture as proof that the plan was underway.

For the people who approached me about the highway, the utter absence of any mention of the project in any reputable news source was meaningless. Usually this was for the reasons discussed above. For those better able to evaluate the credibility of different news sources, however, the silence in the mainstream media was simply evidence that “they” were keeping the project secret for some nefarious purpose. This brings me to a second and altogether sadder conclusion: Haitian people are very accustomed to secretive and often foreign powers making plans and decisions that change Haiti in ways that they themselves cannot control or influence. The combined effects of the many upheavals in Haiti’s history have made the idea of a secret underwater highway all too believable.

Moving forward, we can learn from the problems of their credulity: First, it is further proof of the need for increased opportunities for education in Haiti, and the need for computer skills and critical thinking skills to be part of that education. Second, the world needs to stop making actual nefarious plans that scapegoat the Haitian people, so that perhaps they can learn to trust us.

**P.S. After having posted this entry, I was surprised to find that traffic to our blog, via this entry, significantly increased. There are even more people than I would have expected looking for information on this!

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