Haiti, I'm sorry, we misunderstood youOne day we'll turn our headsAnd look inside youHaiti, I'm sorry, Haiti, I'm sorryOne day we'll turn our headsRestore your glory — David Rudder and Charlies Roots
The level four travel advisory issued from the Embassy of the United States in Haiti, hot on the heels of the July 7, 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise, could not have been clearer or more succint.
“…Given the reopening of airports to commercial flights, we strongly encourage those US citizens who are in country to avail themselves of the opportunity to depart Haiti… [and to] have evacuation plans that do not rely on US Government assistance.”
The assassination of the Haitian leader was only the latest episode in a morbid 217-year Haitian tale of upheavals, turmoil, betrayals, disasters – natural and man-made – and abject failure of governance.
No one summed up the Haitian debacle as graphically, if uncomfortably, as then Senator Joseph Biden at the time of the last US intervention in Haiti in 1991: “If Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn't matter a whole lot in terms of our interest.”
Of course, it is a far kinder, more discreet Joe Biden, now president of the US, who is weighing to what extent he should respond to requests to intervene in Haiti to forestall the Caribbean nation plunging into further chaos after the killing of their controversial leader.
The pain of Haiti hits home when seen in the context of the country's contribution to western civilization.
By defeating Napoleon Bonaparte's army, the Haitians caused the French to offer to sell the Louisiana Territory — all the way to Montana – to the Americans for an incomprehensibly measly US$15 million.
The Americans seized the opportunity to almost double the size of their country, but never said thanks to Haiti. On the contrary, they assisted France in isolating Haiti and cutting her off from international markets.
They also helped France to collect the crippling sums it demanded from Haiti for their own emancipation from slavery. The extortion ran from about 1825 to about 1947 and amounted to tens of billions of dollars in total costs when translated in today's money and included the cost of the underdevelopment of human capital.
Haiti is also the father of the liberation of Venezuela and the end of slavery in countries liberated by Simon Bolivar, fulfilling his promise to Alexandre Pétion, first president of Haiti, who financed Bolivar, gave him four battleships with soldiers and supplies, and extracted only one promise — free slaves wherever you find them. Bolivar agreed and was true to his word.
So Haiti's imprimature on the Americas can never be denied. But, receipt of gratitude has never been part of the Haitian experience in the Americas. Perhaps now is the time to say, “Thanks, Haïti”.
Haiti has floundered in helplessness for far too long. If countries could be closed down and started over, it would be a prime candidate for a reimagining. But, with all its misery and desperation, the current situation holds out the possibility of a new Haiti.
David Rudder's 1988 calypso song, Haiti, I'm sorry, predicted: “…One day we'll turn our heads [and] restore your glory.” The question now is: Has this day finally come? And what would it take to make this seemingly impossible uphill climb?
Even the staunchest supporter no longer disputes that Haiti is the tragedy of the times and the great shame of the western hemisphere, existing in the worst squalor in the shadow of some of the richest nations on Earth, countries whose wealth Haiti itself helped to create.
With a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of US$1,149 and a Human Development Index ranking of 170 out of 189 countries in 2020, Haiti remains the poorest country in Latin America and Caribbean, and among the poorest countries on the globe, according to World Bank figures.
Current estimates point to a poverty rate of nearly 60 per cent in 2020. The richest 20 per cent of the population holds more than 64 per cent of the total income of the country, compared to less than two per cent held by the poorest 20 per cent, putting Haiti among the countries with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the region.
According to the Human Capital Index, a child born today in Haiti will grow up to be only 45 per cent as productive as they could be if he or she had enjoyed full education and health.
More than 96 per cent of the population is exposed to shocks from natural hazards, mainly hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency, intensity, and impacts of extreme weather events, and the country still lacks adequate preparedness and coping mechanisms, the World Bank says.
Human Rights Watch, in its 2021 World Report released last month, said at least 12,000 people were reportedly displaced in 2020, the majority due to gang violence and a cyclone in July. Many more displaced people likely went uncounted.
Over 140,000 families displaced by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 still need decent shelter, and since the 2010 earthquake, nearly 33,000 people still live in displacement camps, and at least 300,000 exist in an informal settlement without government oversight.
“The country's most vulnerable communities face environmental risks, including widespread deforestation, industrial pollution, and limited access to safe water and sanitation,” Human Rights Watch says.
“According to international agencies, some 4.1 million Haitians —almost a third of the population — live with food insecurity, and 2.1 per cent of children suffer severe malnutrition. Low rainfall, exacerbated by rising temperatures due to climate change, chronically affects much of the country.
To this day, Haiti's primary source of energy remains charbon or charcoal, obtained in much the same way the country did during slavery, by cutting down trees and shrubs and burning them underground until they become charcoal.
The net result of using this form of energy is the utter devastation of the countryside through deforestation. The lack of vegetation compounds the effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes or even normal rainfall, which easily gives rise to massive mudslides, sometimes resulting in rapid changes to the topography of the area.
United Nations peacekeepers, there to help after the 2010 earthquake, introduced cholera which infected more than 819,000 people and claimed nearly 10,000 lives. Cases, luckily, are said to be down to zero since January 2019.
But, over a third of the population lacks access to clean water and two-thirds get limited or no sanitation service, leaving Haiti vulnerable to a resurgence of cholera, and now to the COVID-19 disease.
Just under half of Haitians age 15 and older are illiterate, which is likely worse when judged by use of French, the official language of the country. Some estimates put that up to 90 per cent of the population. The quality of education is generally low, and 85 per cent of schools are private, charging fees often too high for low-income families.
Unrest and the pandemic kept 70 per cent of Haitian children from classes throughout the school year. From September through November 2019, instability kept an estimated three million children out of school. Prior to the pandemic, Haiti already had 500,000 school-aged children out of school.
The governance system is in complete shambles, ignored by the loud, if ill-considered calls from outside for September 2021 elections, while huge segments of the population have no idea where the next meal is coming from.
In short, Haiti cannot help itself politically, economically or socially. So far, nothing tried has worked over the many decades. It makes no sense warming over the past failures and trying to fit old wine into new skin. A new solution is required.
With the agreement of the Haitians, the international community should consider adopting the country under the supervision of the UN and possibly with a significant role for France and the US, including reparations and other restitution, giving them a chance to right the historical wrongs they militarily and financially inflicted on Haiti.
The UN could reprise its 1948 role in the establishment of Israel, unencumbered this time by the Palestinian problem, which it botched because of an extraneous agenda. The UN should also be anxious to redeem itself after the cholera episode in Haiti.
It would be difficult to foresee the UN not having a leading role. No one country can seem to have a jump on the others or appear to benefit from the arrangements. There is too much jealousy and mistrust.
The United States would also reprise and tweak the Marshall Plan it used to rebuild Europe and Japan after the Second World War but, this time, minus the need to stoke the division of the world into Communist East and Capitalist West. America would like to feel that all its efforts and resources in past interventions have finally paid off.
To digress, there is a well-known apocryphal story of “Papa Doc” Duvalier asking his Cabinet for ideas on how to get the country working. One suggestion came up that Haiti should declare war on the US so that after its [Haiti's] defeat the US would occupy and rebuild Haiti as they did with Japan and Germany. Papa Doc contemplated the idea then said “no” because Haiti was so unlucky that it might just win the war and then what would they do.
As part of this adoption plan, Haiti would be in the hands of the international coalition along with a Haitian head of state for a specified time, until the country is ready to rule itself again. During this time, also, a qualified Haitian would play a key and clearly defined non-veto role in all institutions of governance.
Caricom, the Caribbean Community bloc of which Haiti is a member, would have to play a significant role, and, according to Chairman Gaston Browne, “provide some leadership in helping the Haitian people to come together and put an interim Government in place”.
“… At the same time, [we'll have to help in] putting the structure in place to strengthen the institutional arrangements so that they will have a functional governance and electoral machinery in order to ensure that credible elections will be held in the shortest possible time,” says Browne.
Important lessons may have been learnt from the well-intentioned intervention by the UN in sending in peacekeepers after the 2004 coup that removed President Jean Bertrand Aristide.
The stabilisation mission, which did improve order, was meant to open space for Haitians, and aid groups to build out the country's institutions and try to break the cycle of poverty and misrule. But both only worsened, the New York Times reported.
“The UN mission, renewed after the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, also brought problems typical of a foreign military presence: excessive violence against civilians, reports of rape and, in one extreme episode, the cholera epidemic that led to 10,000 deaths,” the paper said.
As often happens with peacemaking interventions, the forces that Haitians had once greeted as saviours became resented as a foreign occupation. Peacekeepers, aid agencies, and development experts tried virtually everything over the 20-plus years in Haiti.
“They invested in bureaucratic institutions and small start-ups. They pursued democracy reform, trained election overseers, and promoted grass-roots groups. In an attempt to roll back criminals that had seized control of Haiti's vast slums, peacekeepers even cleared the worst gangs and restored long-receding government authority.
“For a while they managed to control the streets and there was a semblance of normality,” New York Times quoted Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born political scientist at the University of Virginia as saying.
Some police officers were no longer responsible for policing, thanks to the UN, but many of them faced deep poverty and hunger themselves, so opened their own criminal enterprises to fill the void. And the peacekeepers could not stay forever.
“Once they exited, it got very messy again and the gangs are even more powerful than they were,” Fatton said.
“Throughout much of the UN presence, experts warned that every year the foreigners stayed, Haiti grew more reliant on them for day-to-day governance. This allowed Haitian institutions to decay further…
“But each year also made it harder to leave, knowing that the UN would be blamed for once more abandoning Haitians. The UN force finally left in 2017, chased out by scandal and grass-roots opposition to their presence,” said the newspaper.
Now, only four years later, the world is once more facing demands to fill the void that Haiti cannot by itself.
Recreating Haiti as suggested here would demand only the greatest act of selflessness on the part of the international community, and patriotism by the Haitians themselves.
Besides countries scheming to recoup resources pumped into Haiti reconstruction, the biggest enemy could be the aid paralysis which characterised various aid projects during the seventies and eighties. In other words, too many cooks could spoil the broth.
Naturally, Haitians would be concerned about the perception of surrendering their sovereignty to a hitherto unknown and untested entity, which would be running – albeit as partners – all the normal functions of the State such as defence (military); law enforcement (police and the courts); education; health care; revenue collection; transportation; foreign affairs and the like.
However, the renewal process would be greatly served by a committee of outstanding and proven mentors to the governing entity – people like Muhammad bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, and former Prime Minister P J Patterson of Jamaica.
Tutors and mentors to leaders and actors at the highest levels of international success are not unheard of. These will be people who do not have a stake in the outcome but are there to listen and guide the principal based on proven leadership skills. Haiti can only benefit from its leader having ongoing conversations with these visionary and accomplished leaders.
The US and France would need to foot the cost of reconstruction, and China contribute its construction prowess. In respect of trade, indefinite special and tax-free access to US, Canadian, French, and Chinese markets is a must.
Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese companies should be willing to locate finishing plants in Haiti to complete products that would then be shipped tax-free to the US, Canada, France, and elsewhere as Haitian-made goods.
All this would thereby create, expand, and strengthen the Haitian middle and upper classes as permanent engines of economic growth. This also stabilises the Haitian working class, allowing them to have long-term jobs and a living wage, with the capacity to eventually buy or build homes; provide the economic undergirding of universal and free public education; and health care, perhaps modelled after Taiwan.
Haiti may benefit from a single country - perhaps the trustworthy Cubans - providing security forces and simultaneously training a new Haitian army and police force, under the auspices of the UN.
Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti had upwards of 10,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating within its borders. The number has only increased since then. There were some failures, especially in the fact that very few houses were built after the earthquake, even by the well-intentioned Clinton Foundation. However, some can make excellent partners, especially in respect of the human rights spheres.
All this certainly won't be as easy as it sounds, for the Haitian imbroglio has defied every effort meant to spur development and restore peace so far. People who know Haiti very well say that The Albert Schweitzer Hospital set up in 1956 by the Mellon family in Dechapelles is the only continuously successful aid project in Haiti.
Jamaica's Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith hit the nail on the head in her statement after Moise's death:
“The matter of institutional reconstruction is a little different from the fact that they need to renew the political infrastructure. It is not just simply the matter of holding a presidential election. They need to have local government elections. They need to have their Senate reconstituted.
“They have to do several things, and a constitutional reform process had been put on the way by President Jovenel Moise. It is this process of reform, during a process of great upheaval, which has garnered great focus on one hand to provide the support which will allow for the establishment of strong political institutions that can maintain stability for Haiti and lead the country into a new phase of operation.”
Even popular Haitian musical personalities like Wyclef Jean, who couldn't make it past being a presidential candidate, and Michel Martelly, who became president from 2011 to 2016, could hardly put a dent in the problem.
However, as impossible as things may seem, Haiti still has hope if the world opens its heart to the country. Haiti has nothing to lose by taking a new and different path. In the words of Fatton: “You have a State that has been eviscerated…
“The state has, literally, almost completely vanished. And to some extent, this is because of the pattern of assistance that was given to Haiti.”
— David Grant contributed to this story