Thursday, January 12, 2012

Haiti Redux: Trapped in its Tragic History

Haiti street looks like a war zone, by Asnsel Herz (yahoo images)

In a small village in Haiti's central plateau lives a woman with seven children. When a visitor asked the oldest what he would like to be when he grows up, his mother spoke up first. "That a very complicated question," she said in Creole, through an interpreter. "There is no hope for him.  He has no future." 

Eyes downcast, the boy glanced sideways at the questioner."Engineer," he said quietly.                
        --From Rev. W. Evan Golden,"Haiti Today: Hope & Despair,"  Church of Christ News.

Hope and despair. A mother’s fear, a child’s dream.  
I think of Haiti a lot.  It's in the news again, for what is not happening.  Economy in shambles, Port-au-Prince in shambles, people's lives in shambles, recovery stalled and "painfully" slow.  

Why does it remain such a poverty-stricken nation, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, unable to get on its feet?  Why can’t it build a civil society based on the rich resources of its people, their joyous traditions and unique culture? Why is Haiti so stuck in its tragic history of slavery, foreign occupation, violent revolution, and misery?
A new book by historian Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, retells the sad story (Henry Holt & Company, 2011).  I saw the book in the library a few days ago and browsed through it.  I wanted to learn more about the post-Duvalier era, but was disappointed; the book focuses on the brutal history of occupation, including the two-decades long US Marine occupation beginning in 1915. Who was paying attention when the world was at war?  The US did a good job of exploiting and confiscating Haiti’s resources, destroying villages, humiliating the people, and killing thousands.

Poor Haiti, caught in the web of history, with no exit, still trying to find a way out.  Efforts to free Haiti from its past continues to this day, exacerbated by man-made disasters like the ruthless dictatorship of the Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc), and by natural disasters, including the devastating earthquake in 2010, two years ago.  I remember watching TV stories in horror, from Ukraine, as the tiny nation on Hispanola Island turned into a wasteland, like what we saw in Japan after the earthquake and giant tsunami.  Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capitol city, was consumed, destroyed, as if hit by an atomic bomb.  It looked like a war zone, like the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, of Vietnam, of World War I and II.  From recent news reports, it still does.

International assistance flowed into Haiti after the earthquake, helped by an international relief committee headed by former president Bill Clinton and also by various nonprofit groups like Partners in Health.  But Clinton’s Recovery Commission closed down in October 2011, when it’s mandate expired (NYT, Haiti Update, 12/27/2011).   Money came and went, God knows where.

Is anything taking the place of the Recovery groups? Can anything help?  Some assistance programs and church volunteer groups remain, like the United Church of Christ, along with hundreds of hard-working but invisible NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). These offer some hope.

Yet Haiti still suffers from every social ill imaginable: no jobs, poor infrastructure, bad roads, descimated farmland, lack of effective rural development and, now, everything from a cholera epidemic to fading international interest and funds.  It’s not clear, actually, what happened to the millions pledged after the earthquake.  Where did the money go? Why is Haiti still a  hell.  Journalist and author Adam Hochschild asked the same question in his review of the Dubois book (NYT, 12/29/2011).  

I have often said Haiti’s best hope is the resilience and strength of its people. Does this diminish with time? 

What will happen to the young boy who dreams of being an engineer? 

What will reverse the web of history which traps Haiti in endless misery?  Hochschild says “the real freeing of Haiti from the burdens of the past…can be done only by Haitians themselves.”  The World Bank cites a leader with vision and the ability to inspire and motivate (  But I wonder. 
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