Poor Haiti, again
By Pascal Fletcher
If any country deserves the description “blighted”, or a “blot on the conscience of the world”, it is surely Haiti, that pocket of poverty lying in the blue Caribbean just two hours flying time from the richest country on the planet.
Less than 10 months since a huge earthquake jolted the small but densely populated nation of 10 million people, toppling brick homes like cards in the hilly capital Port-au-Prince and killing more than half a million souls, a deadly cholera epidemic is now killing more Haitians by the dozen as an aghast world looks on in another paroxysm of sympathy.
What is it about Haiti that has made it one of the most unfortunate nations on the globe, a case study in misery and underdevelopment, regularly battered by lethal hurricanes, floods and mudslides and encumbered with a bloody history of uprisings, foreign interventions, dictatorships, and government corruption and mismanagement that can rival almost any other state in the world?
In seeking answers, some reach back to the roots of the violent slave revolt that led, after a decade of turmoil, to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, divining the seeds of future dislocation and chaos in the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade that saw chained Africans dragged half way across the world from their homeland by white traders and planters.
Others point to later foreign mistreatment and meddling in Haiti, from former colonial power France’s stubborn demands for restitution of old damages and debts, to occupation by U.S. marines from 1915 to 1934, and more recently to lopsided trade and aid policies that have flooded Haiti with cheap U.S. rice and sugar and turned it into a “Republic of NGOs” whose often uncoordinated efforts can resemble a modern Tower of Babel.
Despite these almost biblical afflictions, which would test the most tolerant anywhere, most Haitians maintain in the face of suffering a spontaneous “joie de vivre”, ineffable friendliness to foreigners and admirable stoicism that brightens the blue sky and sea and green and brown hills which cradle the crumbling capital Port-au-Prince. Most visitors can also remember too from Haiti, amid the dust and clammy heat, some incident of explosive tension and violence experienced as keenly as the honed blade of a machete.
More worrying are the signs of a creeping culture of dependence and helplessness, well summed up by one dweller of the sprawling quake survivors’ tent and tarpaulin camps that carpet almost every available space of the rubble-strewn capital. Reacting to government entreaties to wash hands with soap and purify water with chlorine to combat the current deadly cholera outbreak, she complained: “Unless somebody gives us something, We don’t have anything”.
“Ayiti Pap Peri” (Haiti will not die) and “An Leve Kanpe” (Let’s stand up) read the government slogans in Creole exhorting the nation to pick itself up again after the devastating Jan. 12 quake.
No one doubts hardy Haiti will not die. But even as the world reaches out again, and into its pockets, to save Haiti from the scourge of cholera, there are those inside and outside the country who believe that unless Haitians are truly allowed and encouraged to help themselves, and are given the means and the real independence to do so, they may still flounder for years in the pit of poverty and dependence.
A special report by Washington bureau chief Simon Denyer asks the question “Is aid doing Haiti more harm than good?”
A multimedia PDF version is available here.