January 21, 2010
Poor Haiti. It almost makes you think the country has been cursed by God, or by some voodoo spirit, or by the ghost of Papa Doc. The first modern Black nation, independent of colonial rule in 1804, Haiti was born in hope but for most of its history has been battered about both by the elements of nature and by human avarice.
Roiled by revolutions, exploited by foreign powers, ransacked by its own leaders, in the dead-on path of hurricanes and sitting on top of a San Andreas-like fault, it's a Murphy's- Law place, a bull's-eye for the arrows of evil. Even some of its saints became its greatest sinners: Once in office, both the benevolent physician François Duvalier and the liberationist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide turned into vicious oppressors. Power corrupts, absolutely. And just when a fragile social and political stability had been achieved in the last few years, the tectonic plates collided, flattening the capital city, cathedral and presidential palace included. Completely lacking building codes and with a government too weak and preoccupied to develop a preparedness plan, destruction and death were inevitable.
And yet, to this point there has been surprisingly little violence or social upheaval. Some of the most touching scenes in the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday's quake were the gaggles of people lifting their hands in prayer and their voices in song.
St. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, is said to have complained to God, "If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it's no wonder you have so few of them."
Somehow — inexplicably — for those with faith it doesn't seem to matter if everything goes right or everything goes wrong.
The Problem of Evil aside — who can ever figure that out? — the anguish of Haiti today may be — shall I say it? — a blessing in the cruelest disguise, an opportunity to rebuild this land, both literally and figuratively from the ground up.
Think of it: There are over 3,000 humanitarian organizations in Haiti, more than in any other country in the world. The United Nations has had a strong peacekeeping and advisory presence there for several years, and now the U.S. military is demonstrating its non-military side by mustering hospital ships and aircraft carriers and logistical expertise to bind the nation's wounds. Were all of these institutions to work cohesively, Haiti could rise from its ashes.
Unlike the "nation-building" efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, here is a chance for the United States to help reconstruct a society in its own back yard, unburdened by ulterior military motives. Despite their historical experiences with American interventionism (the country was an occupied "protectorate" from 1915 through 1934), Haitians in general display little anti-American sentiment. The Haitian population in the U.S. is significant; it is educated and energetic, producing respectable numbers of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business- people. Haitian-Americans treasure the freedom and opportunity that democracy has provided them, and most continue to maintain strong family ties in Haiti. Why not enlist them as major players in reshaping the country?
A truly international effort, at a fraction of the cost of those futile "wars" so far away, could raise Haiti from the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere to a prosperous one by bulldozing the ruined shacks, installing a modern infrastructure, and devoting both financial and human capital to education, medical care, environmental sustainability, and entrepreneurship.
This should not and cannot be done as an "American project." Using the model of Partners in Health, an agency that has worked in Haiti for two decades, the focus should be on training local people to assume responsibility, thus building up self-esteem and self-sufficiency, and in developing an effective national government.
The phoenix of Haiti could cancel the curse.