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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

A Haitian student prays during an opposition march Feb. 15 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
-- CNS/Reuters
Haiti needs more aid, less U.S. meddling

The concerned, if somewhat innocent, U.S. observer looks at Haiti and shakes his or her head. More of the same -- violence, instability, a leader possibly posed in a toppling mode, all as the possible prelude to United States or Organization of American States intervention.

What’s wrong with Haiti anyway that after two centuries of independence it can’t fix itself? That’s what the U.S. observer is left, in innocence, wondering. If Haiti were in Africa it would be classified with the “failed nations.”

What’s wrong with Haiti begins with what happened the century before independence -- the mindless exploitation of the most equable agricultural climate in the world for coffee, sugar, indigo and more. Haiti by 1791 and the slave uprising was the wealthiest colony in the world. It was doubling output every three years, regularly spawning fresh crops of millionaire investors and planters.

It was France’s single largest source of income, producer of most of Western Europe’s coffee and 40 percent of its sugar.

It was mindless exploitation dependent on the importation of two essential commodities: slaves and food. Haiti was the New World’s largest single consumer of slaves.

So heavy was the importation that when the slaves revolted and were led to victory by Toussaint L’Ouverture in the precursor to independence, the population was roughly 32,000 whites, 27,000 mulattoes (free people of color), and between 450,000 and 700,000 slaves. The slave count was underreported because the plantation owners paid a tax on the head count.

At no point during the French colonial period had Haiti been capable of feeding itself.

Two hundred years later, with a population 10 times that size, with land eroded and depleted, Haiti’s history is replete with self-declared emperors, dictators and maximum leaders whose skill in corruption was in direct proportion to the people’s poverty.

The 1980s produced a phenomenon: a simple, if articulate priest, borne to lead on the shoulders of popular acclaim. The priest was Fr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose social democracy offended right-wing Americans who feared a new Castro. Those Americans, who had a torturous hold on El Salvador and much of Central America, wanted to doom Aristide from the start.

They tried. Aristide was ousted. The Vatican, meanwhile, had blackballed him. It didn’t want priests to be presidents, or national, political troublemakers. To Rome, Aristide’s proclamations carried the aura and odor of liberation theology, a state of affairs no more satisfactory to the Vatican than Aristide’s political views were to Washington.

But his base of support was so widespread in Haiti that the United States had solved nothing by expelling Aristide and installing its own puppets.

The U.S. government changed hands and President Bill Clinton returned Aristide to office. The U.S. government changed hands again and President George W. Bush’s administration encouraged Aristide’s opponents.

And now there is chaos and a fear that throngs of refugees will soon depart for Florida’s shores (an unhappy prospect for the president, and his gubernatorial brother, in an election year).

The real story of Haiti is always more complicated on the ground then it is in the U.S. headlines. The central fact of life is poverty. Writing in The New York Times, James Dobbins, Clinton’s special envoy to Haiti, illustrated the point: “This year the United States will give Baghdad 200 times more economic assistance than it will to Haiti, which is in much worse shape than Iraq even after the invasion.”

Said Dobbins: “We must pay greater attention to a desperately poor, misgoverned nation in our backyard.”

Indeed, we must. And not only at times of maximum political and diplomatic peril.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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