As a country of commanding landscape, beaches, fertile fields and hard-working people, Haiti has promise of self-sufficiency. Getting there challenges paradigms and frustrates Haitians and well-wishers. But Haiti, albeit enigmatic, is still there.
A Haitian intellectual remarked, "Unfortunately, Haiti is a peuplade, not a nation." Implicit in its history are lost opportunities and betrayal, dubious colonial legacy, corrosive class and colour cleavages, regionalism, and periodic foreign intervention. The variety of Haitian flags displayed in a museum across from the earthquake-wrecked palace in downtown Port-au-Prince are historic indicators of a persistent quest for national identity.
In his formal remarks at the US ambassador's July 4 reception, the Haitian prime binister exhorted "les blancs, les mulatres, les noirs" to meld and embrace national cohesion. Clearly, the ambassador and guests understood the prime minister's depiction of the Haitian reality and urgent appeal.
Devastation is most evident in the cities due in part to the 2010 earthquake. But the causes of widespread urban decay go beyond that. Rapid urbanisation has degraded Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, and to a lesser extent Cap Haitien. A vivid example is Carrefour, a critical junction in the capital where vendors sprawl amidst spewing debris in sight of the fragile teetering shanties on the hillsides. Overloaded "tap taps" and thunderous trucks navigate cavernous potholes. Among them are UN vehicles transporting officials who are generally viewed as "ineffectual predators making big bucks" in the cause of maintaining security and alleviating poverty.
The general public attribute slow aid delivery to corruption, competing agendas, and leadership deficit. Aspersions are cast against donors, the US among them. Notwithstanding, some educated and politically savvy Haitians have been working with NGOs in peace building, as well as urban planning for a new city near the Dominican Republic border. Further, the presence of UNICEF reassures ongoing foreign concern for the welfare of Haitian youth.
Another initiative is a recently constructed industrial park in the north at Caracol to which Argentina, Canada, Korea and others have contributed, and a nearby town, Limonade, which has a new university donated by the Dominican Republic to start in October. The industrial park is expected to provide job opportunities.
An NGO staffer summed up Haiti's problems: "President Martelly is under the control of the US and international donors such as France and Canada." An aesthetician expressed: "There is dire need for strong leadership along the lines of a benevolent dictator." She accused certain foreign individuals and powers of promoting "their own narrow agendas" at the expense of Haiti's real needs.
Similarly, a Haitian hotelier urged "strong executive leadership and rule of law to win the confidence of the private sector. She cited as a positive sign Finance Minister Marie Carmelle Jean Marie's submission of the budget on time, "the first time in Haiti's history". The hotelier appealed for government focus on poverty, illiteracy and potable water.
The current situation in Haiti is perplexing, given the unusual circumstances of its independence from France in 1804 and the tremendous debt Paris imposed on the infant Haitian nation. Ironically, in the aftermath of Independence Roi Henri Christophe's imprimatur to build manually the Citadel, a fort accessible only by foot and horseback, was completed at heavy human cost.
The human spirit is alive among students playing the violin in a shattered school building a few metres from the once majestic palace devastated by the earthquake. The young maestro's glee and the students' enthusiasm were palpable. Dedication of teachers at a pristine school in the town St Mark was matched by students' appreciation; and many young Haitians are energetically producing artifacts. This spirit belies the social fabric damaged by the vicissitudes of history, sketchy politics, neglect, and personal economic aggrandisement.
No single bromide exists for Haiti's myriad ailments. But the apparent optimism should be encouraged. Removal of most tents is a modest indicator of progress. Badly needed are transparent government initiatives of President Martelly and Cabinet of several women ministers. The private sector must do its part, and enterprising young activists require domestic and external support in rehabilitating this beleaguered country.
Targeted aid and commercial vibrancy would avoid Haitian airline stewardesses having to complete customs forms for illiterate Haitian passengers. Spoken Creole is not adequate. Superfluous is the fanfare about international contribution which has made only a dent in Haiti's reality - like rare black pearls dropped in a mighty sea.
Earle and Barbara Scarlett are former US diplomats with global experience. They reside in Atlanta, Georgia, and visited Haiti recently.