Many people ask what is wrong with Haiti.
Apart from the Jan., 2010 earthquake -- an act of God beyond human control -- we have been waiting for many years to see progress:
— 40 years ago dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier spread horror and fear. (Read Graham Green’s “The Comedians.”);
— 30 years ago Haitian boat people washed up dead on Florida’s gold coast.
— 25 years ago military thugs replaced Duvalier’s son Baby Doc.
— 20 years ago the first popularly elected leader in Haitian history, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was quickly ousted after clashes with the business elite, military and squabbling parliament.
— 10 years ago Aristide was overwhelmingly re-elected but renegade ex-soldiers ousted him a second time in 2004.
Today, despite more than $5 billion pledged in foreign aid, Haiti seems unable to rebuild after the quake, just as previously it proved unable to stop deforestation, halt crime, nurture export industries, educate its children and establish security. UN peacekeepers have run the island for a decade.
What is the reason for this legacy of failure?
Unfortunately, Haiti’s own society, culture and social divisions, augmented by the outside influence of the powerful United States, have barred the door to change.
When I first came to Haiti in 1980, during the terror of the Duvaliers and their Tonton Macoute killers, I asked an old fisherman near St. Marc about the reason for Haiti’s poverty. He said: “Ah. Ca c’est la politique. La politique, ca tue.” “Ah – that’s political. Politics kills.” He refused to say more.
In 1986, I witnessed well-equipped troops in dark green uniforms shoot at people manning roadblocks of burning trees and tires as the country rose up in anger, driving Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from power.
Military leaders seized power until Aristide was elected in 1990 and then overthrown seven months later by Gen. Raoul Cedras who was on the payroll of the U.S. CIA. The United States secretly supported the Duvaliers and Cedras as anti-communist bulwarks against Cuba, only 50 miles across the Windward Straits. Aristide had made the youthful error of championing the now-discredited liberation theology calling on true Christians to share food and land with the poor.
With Aristide out of the way, pigs ate the corpses left on garbage piles by death squads to intimidate those intoxicated by the brief period of freedom. Pressure by the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus led President Bill Clinton to send in the Marines in 1994, fly Cedras to luxurious exile in Panama and restore Aristide.
But that old fear of his leftist views led to a U.S. demand that he only serve out the remaining months of his 1990 term – despite spending most of it in exile in Georgetown, DC., where I had the opportunity to interview him. Although blamed for violence by his supporters, many Haitians said he was the only leader who tried to improve their lot in life.
After Aristide, a weak but decent president, Rene Preval from Aristide’s party, was unable to secure support from the parliament which ground to a halt. Foreign aid was halted over chaotic elections. Aristide won the presidency again but in 2006 rebel soldiers invaded and he was flown to exile in South Africa.
Now Preval is back in power and still hamstrung by the powers that be. What are those powers and how do they block progress?
1. Land ownership is firmly in the hands of a small elite – largely mulatto – who rent fields, houses and rooms to millions. How powerful are they? After the quake the Haitian government wanted to build temporary housing for a million homeless survivors, but owners refused to let their land be used. Even the cleanup of the rubble from the quake has been stalled by property owners fearing that cleared land would invite squatters.
2. Haitians are willing to repress their fellow Haitians. They have been living so poorly for so long that when offered a few dollars to repress, kidnap or kill someone, they will do it.
3. Haitians have created fine art, newspapers, radio stations, music and a landscape embroidered with farms and houses. But they have been unable to band together to fight the dark forces within society such as superstition, illiteracy, insecurity and injustice. Voodoo priests told me that when a child is sick, parents pay them to curse a neighbor’s healthy child instead of paying a doctor. When crops are poor, farmers get the priest to prepare black magic against their prosperous neighbors. In many streets one sees the tell-tale patches of blood, corn, feathers and color that mark a hex.
One burley U.S. contractor leaving Haiti told me that “these guys need to learn how to work together. When I tell a couple of Haitian workers to move some heavy iron equipment, each one drags his own piece on the floor rather than lift it together.
4. U.S. influence is overwhelming. The half a million Haitians who migrated to the United States play by the rules, obey the law, work hard, raise families and built businesses. They now send perhaps $1 billion each year to families back home. Official and charitable U.S. aid is feeding half a million children each day and provides medical care, school books and other assistance. But U.S. exporters of cheap rice have bankrupt local farmers. And U.S. backing for dictators has left a legacy of powerless poor and entrenched elites.
Are we blaming the victims for this ongoing tragedy?
Are Haitians not capable of doing what Americans did in 1776 and Eastern Europe did in 1989 – ousting the old demons and creating a new society of law, sacrifice and common effort? And how can we help Haiti break the cycles that bind them to frustration?
Aid needs to be channeled to Haitians in policing, administration, business and government who are willing to take risks and change the status quo. Too many times I have heard erudite French-educated Haitian elites prattle on pompously about dignity and balance and the need to carefully consider legalistic plans that will never be able to create a new society.
For a start, universal mandatory public education, effective ground level policing and scrupulously honest prosecutors and judges are the foundation of modern society and might plant the seeds for a better Haitian future. Next, end the power of parliament, customs officials and landowners to block policy change. This will speed imports and exports; and permit land to be taken by eminent domain for emergency housing, industrial parks, port and airport expansion and environmental protection.
At the same time create forest user groups in mountain communities to control tree nurseries, transplanting, watering, protection and harvesting of reforested areas – it worked in Nepal and will be a foundation stone for self-government.
Haiti has been mired in inaction that benefited a small group of people for too long.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.