by Michelle Faul
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP)—Yes, the earth-shattering quake was powerful enough to bring many countries to their knees.
But Haiti’s horrendous death toll and cataclysmic damage must also be blamed on a history of bad policies pursued by its own weak leadership and the foreign powers—governments and aid institutions—that have long held sway here.
This latest in a history of Haitian calamities may offer an unmatched opportunity to turn the tide in a country where decades of food aid still have left desperate mothers feeding their children chalk to stop hungry stomachs from rumbling.
Analysts offer revolutionary solutions.
Haitian political commentator Michel Soukar suggests creating farming communities styled on the Israeli kibbutz, taking advantage of the flight of hundreds of thousands from the capital.
Professor Simon Fass of the University of Texas says a mass migration abroad, like Ireland’s great famine exodus of the 19th century, would allow millions to escape a degraded environment incapable of supporting the ever-growing population.
All agree that key to lifting Haiti from the virtual Dark Ages is a strengthening of democratic institutions, enabling Haitians to help themselves.
U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to transform Haiti. That pledge, according to Mark Schneider, special adviser on Latin America for the International Crisis Group, would involve the United States in “its largest-ever financial commitment to a single post-disaster nation —ultimately measured in the billions—and extend over the next decade.”
Obama’s top adviser on the calamity, former President Bill Clinton, said, “Everybody that has seriously followed Haiti for a long time believes Haiti has the best chance in our lifetime to break the chains of its past, to build a true and modern state.”
Past U.S. involvement in Haiti’s government has largely failed, however. Washington installed a military government that ruled from 1915 to 1934, and supported the corrupt and murderous Duvalier family dictatorship that endured from 1956 to 1986, turning a blind eye because it was a bulwark against the communism that nearby Cuba embraced.
Clinton sent troops to oust Haiti’s military dictators in 1994 and restore democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The former priest and self-appointed savior of Haiti’s poor then accused Clinton’s administration of mounting its own coup against him, when he was forced in 2004 to leave the country, which had become a major drug-shipment point under his watch.
While Haitians seem to welcome the post-quake influx of U.S. military, some worry what it portends.
“It’s true we need a Marshall Plan for Haiti,” Soukar said. “But to do what?”
He accused Haiti’s elite— a mainly lighter-skinned minority—of having no interest in building a competent Haitian state.
“These are the people who even now are in the throes of organizing to enrich themselves from the disaster,” Soukar said, “to get their hands on that $100 million” Obama has promised.
Richard Morse, a Haitian-American hotelier, musician and commentator, said Washington and its allies in Haiti’s elite have clashing interests.
“Washington wants democracy. It wants a free market. It wants stability. But those are diametrically opposed to the interests of its allies, who control 90 percent of the money, who get rich off monopolies and who want to control the 80 percent of the population that it keeps illiterate to provide a pool of cheap labor.”
Soukar said the United States must ensure its aid goes to productive groups, such as farmers, and not to the importers of foreign foods that have helped decimate agricultural production. Haiti was self-sufficient in its staple, rice, until imports of cheap American rice forced farmers to migrate to the cities.
Led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, foreign governments have created their own operations or channeled international aid through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to avoid corrupt Haitian administrations. And more than 10,000 of those NGOs have been operating in Haiti since at least the 1970s, with little result, said the University of Virginia’s Robert Fatton Jr., author of a book on Haiti’s unending transition to democracy.
“Instead of pumping its resources into NGOs, the international community must shift its priorities and concentrate on helping Haitians build durable state institutions,” Fatton said.
Fass, of Texas, acknowledges his own solution, mass migration, is unrealistic, since the United States, Europe or the rest of the world are unlikely to open their doors to 3 million or 4 million Haitians.
Soukar said rebuilding the country’s agricultural base kibbutz-style would be familiar to Haitians, whose tradition of “coumbte” has villagers communally sharing tasks such as harvesting, planting, child care and cooking.
Haiti’s government should immediately act on the mass reverse exodus from Port-au-Prince to the countryside to provide resources that will encourage people to stay, he said.
“We have to radically change the way we do things in Haiti,” Soukar said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE—Michelle Faul covered Haiti for The Associated Press from 1995 to 2005 and returned to report on the earthquake.)