Haiti: Crisis and opportunity

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(NNPA)—Much of what I feel about the monumental crisis in Haiti is similar to Katrina in that it was a man-made event waiting to happen. Haiti has existed in the backwater of the most powerful country in the world for 200 years as the poorest example of human hospitality.

But since the defeat of Haiti by the French in 1804, the character of U.S. policy and relations has resembled Western resentment and as such, Haiti has been left essentially to it own devises. Frederick Douglass, who served briefly as U.S. consul to Haiti in 1889, said in a speech that, “Haiti is so near us and so capable of being serviceable to us….[yet] she is the one country to which we turn the cold shoulder.” He felt that the deep reason for the “coolness” is that “Haiti is Black.” He resigned when it became clear that the U.S. aimed to annex the major port in that country against the wishes of the rulers of the country.

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Since the days of Shirley Chisholm, the Congressional Black Caucus has attempted to influence the development of a positive policy toward Haiti. It tried to replace the current racist policy of allowing Whites from Cuba and other countries to enter the U.S., but denying Haitian immigration, a policy followed by U.S. presidents since Jimmy Carter. Despite the fact that over 10,000 Haitians attempted to come to the U.S. in 1991 seeking political asylum for fear of retribution, since the popular elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup, most were sent to Third World countries or returned to the island.

Now, President Barack Obama has moved swiftly into the morass of this crisis, posing a striking difference to the manner in which George Bush handled Katrina. In this, he has enunciated a short-term goal of American leadership in providing relief, such as food, water, medical assistance and finding survivors. He has pledged $100 billion, more than the paltry sum of $130 million of U.S. assistance per year now given to a country that has an 80 percent poverty rate, the highest in this hemisphere. The long-term set of policies must focus on the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince and surrounding damaged areas of the country to set it on a path to enter into the 21st century. This could be a legacy that might far surpass much of whatever else Obama confronts among Third World countries.

Given this, I disagree with the major recommendation of Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University whose closeness to the World Bank has caused him to propose a special redevelopment committee attached to the Inter-American Development Bank. Part of the problem of the strategy of Haiti’s development may, in fact, be placed at the doorstep of the IDB, since it, like the United States has allowed the utter fractionation of the economic development and human assistance. There are more private development and human service agencies in Haiti than in any other country in the world, yet they have not turned the corner on the country’s growth or human service needs. Much of this, I suspect reflects the same bureaucratic paralysis characteristic of the World Bank agencies in dealing with Africa and other Third World countries.

I would propose that a separate independent agency be set up responsible to the United Nations that would have the ability to move with flexibility and speed to affect the reconstruction. It should have Haiti as the primary planning agency, but other members such as the United States, China, the Dominican Republic, Brazil—in effect, countries with the regional and development capacity to move large-scale projects quickly. Cuba should be considered for the excellence of its medical system that will be needed by Haiti for some time.

Then, a closer relationship between the United States and Haiti must be developed that deepens the inter-play between skilled Haitians and their interaction with their home country. There are thousands of skilled Haitians in this country, but we have not developed the mechanisms to address wage differentials, etc. and other problems that would allow them to easily transfer skills to their home country. Right now, remittances constitute one-quarter of the Haitian GDP, a magnet for leaving there and keeping skills in this country.

The opportunity that could come from this crisis through an era of intense, positive involvement of America with Haiti, so close to our shores, could not only create pride in what Douglass called “the Black man’s country,” but contribute to the reduction of racial animus here as well.

(Dr. Ron Walters is a political analyst, and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.)

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