Haiti’s Tragic Past and Present Augur Grim Future

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By: Andrea Stone
January 13, 2010

WASHINGTON – Even before the earthquake that is being called “the disaster of the century” for Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere had endured far more than its share of natural and man-made misery.

“If you want to get a pre-vision of the dimensions of hell, you’ll go to Haiti,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank. “An atmosphere of overwhelming despair is the natural condition of the island.”

As the U.S. Agency for International Development and other Western governments and aid groups rev up rescue and humanitarian assistance efforts, the focus is on immediate relief. But the country’s long-range prospects are no less daunting.

The worst earthquake to hit Haiti in more than 200 years came as the country was still cleaning up from four consecutive hurricanes and tropical storms in August and September 2008; 800 people died and 300 others are still listed as missing. The storms caused $897 million in damage, or nearly 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic production, and has been called “Haiti’s Katrina.”

Tuesday’s quake threatens to be an order of magnitude worse.

Michael Zamba of the Pan-American Development Foundation, the relief arm of the Organization of American States, said the lack of building codes, widespread deforestation, crippling poverty, storm damage and now the earthquake have produced a devastating “pancaking” effect, with each aspect exacerbating the tragedy.

He noted that since early reports came only from Port-au-Prince, little is yet known of the damage wrought on rural areas. Mountainsides in the Haitian countryside have been denuded of trees to produce charcoal for heating and cooking. Mix such man-made environmental degradation with natural forces, he said, and “you have what amounts to a perfect storm for landslides.”

Until Tuesday, things seemed to be looking up for Haiti’s 9 million people. The Western world had rallied to the country’s side after the 2008 storms, sending former President Bill Clinton as a U.N. special envoy to Haiti.

“The corner had been turned. It was really getting better. There was a lot of optimism. The Haitians were showing signs of taking responsibility for themselves and their country, crime had been reduced, the economy was looking like it was going to recover,” said Robert Perito, director of the Haiti Project at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). “So this is a particular tragedy – a whole year’s worth of effort to try to come back from the devastation.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking during a stop in Hawaii during a trip to Asia that she now plans to shorten, said it was “biblical, the tragedy that continues to daunt Haiti and the Haitian people.”

She said the international community had “a good plan” to help Haiti after the storms and had lined up $353 million in donor pledges to help with recovery and invest in businesses. “There was so much hope about Haiti’s future, hope that had not been present for years. And along comes Mother Nature and just flattens it,” she said.

Clinton noted that the challenge will be even greater amid reports that the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti is believed to be dead in the rubble.

Perito agreed that the quake’s location will hamper recovery. “It hit the nerve center of the country,” he said. “It’s not as if it happened way out in the countryside. This is the epicenter of the country’s command-and-control mechanism.”

Even intact, though, Haiti’s government has problems dealing even with lesser catastrophes.

“The state’s lack of capacity to render public services has resulted in the virtual absence of the government as a positive presence in citizens’ lives, thus stoking citizen frustration and weakening the democratic process,” said a recent report by Haiti expert Robert Maguire of Trinity Washington University.

Maguire wrote of the “strong enmity between the society’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ ” and noted that “of all the world’s countries, Haiti has the second largest overall income gap between the very rich and the very poor.”

Nearly 70 percent of income goes to the wealthiest 20 percent of Haitians, most of them light-skinned or of mixed-race ancestry. More than half the population lives on less than $1 a day. National unemployment is 70 percent, and there is little access to education or health care.

“These are enormously gifted people,” said Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “Yet, at the same time, the country has been categorized by supreme selfishness and a steep divide between the mulatto economic elite and the black poor.”

At one time, USIP’s Perito noted, Haiti “was the jewel of the Americas,” a colonial treasure trove of sugar, coffee, sisal and other cash crops for France and Spain. But like the rest of the Caribbean, its economy was built on the backs of slaves and, taking a cue from the French Revolution, they revolted.

In 1804, Haiti declared its independence, the only country founded in a slave revolt.

“The fact that slaves had revolted and gained independence and killed off their white masters did not sit well in the United States and Europe. Haiti was ostracized,” Perito said. The result was that the country returned to a plantation-based agricultural economy run by a new ruling class that suppressed the majority of darker-skinned Haitians.

In more than two centuries, only two Haitian presidents have left office voluntarily, Perito said. The rest were forced out or removed by violent means. Sometimes, the United States got involved.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines to quell civil disturbances. They occupied the country until 1935, virtually running things behind a puppet government.

After the Americans left, the Haitian military ran things until 1957, when François “Papa Doc” Duvalier took over as Haiti’s dictator. He and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, ruled the country until the latter was ousted in 1986. The period was bleak as death squads known as Tonton Macoutes terrorized the country, prompting mass immigration to the U.S. and Canada.

In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, was elected president but was toppled and exiled in a coup in September 1991. Three years later, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell negotiated the ouster of Haiti’s military junta and enabled Aristide’s return with the help of a U.S-led multinational military force. But once U.N. peacekeepers left, charges of corruption and more political violence led to another presidential ouster.

“We’ve been there repeatedly and always kind of give up before it’s over,” said Daniel Serwer, an expert on conflict management and peace-building at the USIP. “As soon as it starts improving, we say it’s time to get out.”

Since René Préval was elected president in 2006, though, he has focused on alleviating poverty and encouraging economic growth. Within two years of taking office, Maguire wrote, he had “reduced gang-related conflict, rampant kidnapping, and politically linked strife and their collective catastrophic effects – all highly important achievements in confronting the country’s social, economic, and environmental deterioration.”

Still, the central government before Tuesday’s quake remained weak and inefficient. Most of the services in the country were provided by nongovernmental organizations. International observers often refer to Haiti as the “Republic of NGOs.”

Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University, said that while there is “a better government than Haiti has had for several decades, that doesn’t mean it has the wherewithal or the funding to deal with this on its own.” He predicted a difficult rebuilding process.

“Reconstruction will be piecemeal rather than systematic,” he said. “There is not a concerted political will. There are too many cross-cutting political interests, and I’m not sure donors will be united in a way they could be.”

Birns predicts the usual “donor fatigue” once the last bodies are recovered and the world turns its attention elsewhere.

“Tragedy has many rooms in that mansion,” he said. “History has shown that aid usually is pledged, arrives in smaller amounts than initially understood and sooner than later is phased out with Haiti never being able to reach a plateau in which it is capable of its own takeoff. It simply will go from one epic of economic failure to another.”

Serwer is more optimistic. He notes that both Secretary Clinton and President Clinton, who sent troops to Haiti during his administration, “have a real interest” in the country’s recovery. He said the Obama White House will do what it takes to help it.

“Americans were showing more capacity to stick with it this time around then they have in the past,” he said, citing recent trade and economic efforts in Haiti. “The earthquake will mean we have to stick with it even more. And this is expensive. It will take lot to rebuild even to the primitive levels that existed before.”