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March 2004

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Changing the Story

The title, above, of a 1991 book about Haiti by Herbert Gold seems to this writer to be singularly apt. Anyone who has at least visited, if not lived in that benighted country with little doubt enjoyed the scenery, the picturesque architecture, the climate (most of the year), the historical sites, the beaches, and not least, the usual friendliness of most of the people.

Haiti nonetheless is a nightmare in terms of national politics and economic development. At this writing, an uprising has forced an elected president out of the country, his hasty departure thereby avoiding large-scale violence. U. S. marines, with UN sanction, are once again on the ground. Multinational forces are expected. The Haitian government effectively does not exist.

This rapidly moving calamitous scenario is taking place in the second nation to gain its independence in the Western Hemisphere, back 200 years ago. The violence is nothing new. Haiti continues to struggle decade after decade in a morass of economic distress and political chaos. It has long been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The nation’s estimated annual per capita GDP of $1,400 compares favorably world-wide with only a few of the poorest of the poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Political stability has rarely prevailed, and on the few occasions that state of affairs has been present, that state has been achieved at the expense of political freedom. One needs only cite the Duvalier era, père et fils (1957 to 1986), to make the point that political quiescence did not equate with freedom or economic advance.

This level of poverty is to a degree surprising, given that at the time the slave population of Sainte Domingue, as it was called then, gained independence from France, the country was the largest producer of sugar in the world. (In more recent times it has long been a net importer of that commodity.) And Môle-St.-Nicolas in the northwestern part of the country was back then the site of a sea port busier than New York. (This writer can attest to the fact that in recent times virtually no shipping activities whatever have taken place in that area.) Further, Haiti is famed in the Caribbean as having the area’s hardest working labor force. (Laborers manhandling by brute force huge loads of charcoal up the steep roads above Port-au-Prince is a sight not soon forgotten by foreigners.)

At independence, the foundation for a reasonable degree of prosperity might have seemed to be in place. Clearly this was not so.

In the political arena, after defeating the French and adopting its original Indian name, Haiti suffered from a series of coups and countercoups, culminating a century or more of misrule with the assassination of President Sam by a mob in 1915. The occupation by U. S. marines followed, not to be ended until 1933. Thereafter, the Haitian military again held sway for a quarter century. After the Duvalier era of state terrorism-induced quiet ended, crisis followed crisis in both political and economic terms. One estimate has it that Haiti has suffered a total of almost three dozen coups or successful revolutions in its history.

Late in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president with the backing of the United States; less than a year later, the military deposed him. The United States thereupon imposed economic sanctions. In 1994, Washington installed Aristide in power once again. In an action reminiscent of the earlier marine occupation, 23,000 U. S. army troops -- with UN backing -- were landed to insure his return. Four years later, the last of them were withdrawn.

In 2000, after an interregnum of four years while a political ally held office, the electorate again returned the former priest Aristide to the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. Today, something over three years later, faced with widespread violence and a revolutionary force in control of much of the country, he is out again. Aristide fled to the Central African Republic.

Why this continuing disorder?

There is no easy answer, but among relevant factors must be the Haitians’ shaky command of the workings of a democratic system, including a lack of familiarity with the free electoral process. Unwilling or unable to work within such a system, the Haitian equivalent of Chinese warlords lurked in the wings and have once again flexed their muscles. Alternatively, the Haitian military has shown itself all too ready to take control. Corruption in the system is widespread, not to exclude those in the highest offices; Aristide turned out to be an example of the ruinous effects of power.

Another factor is simply the dismal performance of the economy under Aristide -- as under all previous rulers. Crushing poverty continues with no relief in sight. Any stab at an explanation for this most recent collapse of civil order in Haiti must focus importantly on this last point: Aristide has had periods of great popularity with his people and at various times was well financed by the international community. For example, following Aristide’s return to power in 1994, Haiti had access to $1.2 billion in grants and credits.

Nevertheless, he ended up doing little or nothing to improve the lot of the great majority of Haitians then or in his later term.. If he had -- and had been perceived as making that effort -- possibly he would have accomplished the miracle of laying the groundwork for a more stable future for his people.

Instead, there has been yet another collapse of civil order. The marines have landed once again. What will the United States and the UN and the OAS do? Stay tuned to your news source; it may possibly involve a more lasting commitment by international organizations this time. We hope so.

-- Editor Henry E. Mattox
March 3, 2004

Editor Henry Mattox.

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