A powerful report on Haiti’s 2010 tragedy: Frontline’s “The Quake”.
What can be done now — and who will do it? In search of answers after the disaster, Mark Danner speaks about Haiti’s history and politics. (Interview originally conducted February 2010.)
As someone who knows Haiti intimately, what was your first reaction when you heard about the earthquake?
My first reaction was, yet another spectacular catastrophe befalls Haiti, because the earthquake in January follows two years earlier a series of devastating floods, and before that layers of political violence that go back to 1986. So this was just the worst in the series of devastating events – some of them manmade, some of them natural catastrophes – that have hit the country. This is the worst of them.
And when you began to see what was happening, how did you feel?
Haiti is one of those places that people fall in love with. This is hard for outsiders to understand, because it seems to be a place of great violence and difficulty. But the people are extraordinary; they’re beautiful. They walk in history in a way that’s very hard to describe.
I went as a very young man, as a reporter, and have continued to go. Haiti becomes part of your heart. You come to love the people. You come to love not only their resoluteness but their determination. The people are not only resolute but immensely artistic, intellectual — great painters, great writers. There’s no place in the world like it, nothing like it.
From what you’ve read and seen, can you describe for me the consequences of the earthquake hitting Port-au-Prince?
The earthquake devastated central Port-au-Prince, and Haiti is a very centralized country. The capital has anywhere between 2 and 3 million people. It’s this huge conurbation from which all control is extended. The earthquake wiped out the Interior Ministry. It destroyed the National Palace, which has been the symbol of Haitian power for a century. It wiped out any government capacity that existed in Haiti. And of course, the lack of government capacity has been one of the stories of Haitian history. So not only did you have a weak government to begin with, the earthquake swept away, in an almost strategic way, any ability that the government had to deal with its aftereffects.
It wiped out hospitals; it killed great numbers of doctors; it wiped out government officials; it killed great numbers of international aid officials. The U.N. headquarters in Haiti was largely flattened. The earthquake struck just before 5:00, which meant that U.N. employees who work until 5:00 quite precisely and leave were in their headquarters. Many, many of them were killed.
But not only were many of them killed, but the Montana Hotel, for example, is only one of the international hotels that was flattened by the earthquake. And so a great many of those international workers who were there to help government capacity in Haiti, to help the ministries, to deliver foreign aid, were wiped out.
Can you talk about Haiti’s history?
The great event looming over the history of Haiti, in the mind of every Haitian alive, is the glorious Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the only successful slave revolt in the history, when in 1804, a nation of 500,000 slaves were able to defeat the superpower of the day, Napoleonic France, and declare independence — the only black republic on the face of the globe.
Every Haitian knows this story, whether they can read or can’t read. Every Haitian knows the characters who played the key role, who founded the country. Every Haitian walks in glory to some extent, because they are inheritors of this great slave revolution. That’s point one.
The wealth of French colonial Haiti, Saint-Domingue, was legendary. It produced half the world’s sugarcane. It produced two-thirds of its coffee. It contributed more than half the foreign exchange of colonial France. There was talk in the 18th century of possibly trading it for Canada. It was called the Pearl of the Antilles.
Colonial Saint-Domingue was a very odd society. Forty thousand whites, plantation owners, sat on top of half a million black Africans, the slaves who powered the colony’s very rich economy. When those slaves rebelled and killed many of the whites, they established in their turn a kind of pale replica of the colonial state.
The whites were gone — they had fled or were killed — and a new elite emerged, both of blacks and mulattoes. And that elite seized in its turn not only power but the extractive mechanisms of the state. That is, the whites and their plantation houses had directly accessed the wealth of Haiti, which is the wealth of the land — huge plantations, growing sugarcane, growing coffee and so on. After the revolution, that land was distributed to the slaves, so slaves became small farmers. How do you get the money from the land when the land has been distributed? Well, you seize control of the government.
So the elite used the government not to develop the country, but to extract the land’s wealth through taxes. Government in Haiti became a continual churning in which one group of elite fought with the other in order to get hold of this funnel through which the wealth of the country came. To get hold of the apparatus of the state was to get hold of the machinery of taxes. That’s how you accessed the produce of small farmers, the former slaves.
So time after time, one group of elite would seize power; another group who had been supplanted or who’d been edged out would not recognize the legitimacy of the elite in power and would fight in their turn to seize power. So you had a continual churning, a continual fighting, no recognition of legitimacy, and a continual struggle for power all about trying to get hold of that funnel of corruption.
So what happened with the freed slaves in terms of this corruption?
The Haitian Revolution was about taking huge plantations worked by slaves and then producing a country where each of those slaves had his own plot of land. Now, insofar as it freed the slaves and made them landowners, it made their lives better. But it also produced a country in which the countryside was immensely isolated. No schools, no hospitals, nothing — just small fields, small holders, ex-slaves who had no education, who generally spoke African languages, worshipped African religions. Most of these were first-generation Africans who’d been brought over. Because the rate of death in the fields among slaves was very high, they didn’t reproduce very much, [and] it was much cheaper to import more slaves than it was to raise them from birth.
So that first generation of the Haitian Revolution were Africans, born in Africa, and they formed in the countryside an African culture. Meanwhile, in the cities, an elite that was mainly Europeanized of mulattoes and elite blacks took shape. So the country was severely divided culturally between, on the one hand, this African countryside — Africa and the West Indies — and on the other hand, a European elite in the cities.
They differed in language: in the countryside, Creole; in the city, French. They differed in religion: in the countryside, voodoo; in the cities, Catholicism. They differed in social practice: in the countryside, plaÃ§age, informal marriage; in the city, formal marriage in the church. And the language of power continued to be French.
So the great bulk of the country’s population, sons and daughters of slaves, were shut out from power no less than the slaves before them had been by these cultural mechanisms that made them, in a sense, foreigners in their own country. This was the two worlds of Haiti.
And after the revolution, there was an isolation imposed on Haiti by the outside powers.
The Haitian Revolution, however glorious it was to Haitians, was a nightmare for the world of the early 19th century. This is a world which depends economically on slave power — not only France, but all the other colonial regimes. The American South was slave-powered. The entire Atlantic trade was about slave labor.
So when the Haitian slaves rose up, half a million of them, massacred their masters and seized control of the country, this was the great nightmare of the late-18th-/early-19th-century world of commerce. Slaveholders in the American South looked out at their own fields and saw themselves outnumbered just as the Saint-Domingue planters had been.
The consequence of this was that the United States didn’t recognize Haiti. For six decades, until Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the U.S. isolated Haiti, refused to recognize it as an independent country. And this was true of the other colonial powers as well.
The French refused to recognize the independent country of Haiti until the Haitians paid an enormous reparation, billions of dollars in today’s terms, a reparation that weighed on the country for 100 years, crippled its economy and corrupted its government.
And what about the government that formed after the elite took control? Bring us a little more into modern history, the 20th century.
In this newly independent country, after this apocalyptic war, where half the population was killed, where the fields were burned, a very odd, pale copy of the colonial government took shape.
The rules of Haitian politics that took shape are actually quite simple: no recognized method of succession; no recognition of legitimacy of current power; constant political struggle; constant struggle for power through any means possible; coup d’etat, revolution. And very often, these struggles for power between the elite turned on the critical issue of color: mulatto factions very often with black followers, black elite and combinations of the two.
And the constant political competition meant that in the second half of the 19th century, for example, [that] 16 presidents ruled; two took power peacefully. All the rest fought and killed and died for it, in one way or another. So you never had a regime in place that was recognized by its opponents as legitimate. Thus you never had a loyal opposition. Thus you had continual and never-ceasing struggle. And that’s the tradition that’s been inherited in the 20th century and 21st century as well anyway, for what it’s worth.
What about the U.S.’s long involvement in Haiti?
As the 18th century wore on, it became more and more involved, eventually taking over the French debt that had been imposed on Haiti as a condition of French recognition. Eventually that debt fell to what is now Citibank.
And as World War I began, the United States became greatly concerned that that debt would not be repaid. In 1915, after a particularly horrendous period of political instability in which five Haitian presidents served in fewer than five years, the United States finally invaded.
The United States worried both about the payment of the debt, which it had inherited from the French, and also possible German machinations within Haiti. Remember, we’re talking about World War I, when the United States could see quite soon it might get involved. The United States finally made the decision to land a party of Marines and begin an occupation that, to everyone’s surprise, lasted almost two decades.
And when they occupied Haiti, did they run the government?
The Americans seized control of everything. They ran the government; they ran the ministries. And they had a particular policy of centralizing power. Port-au-Prince, for the first time, became very much the center of all government power in the country.
The coming of the Marines to occupy Haiti in 1915 was the embodiment of the great nightmare of Haitian history. A century after the Haitians had thrown out the French colonists, the whites returned to power. And the Americans made this nightmare more vivid by, among other things, forcing the Haitians to labor on roads, which was a very vivid reminder of slavery.
So one of the consequences of the American occupation, which lasted 20 years, was a revitalization of Haitian nationalism. And even as Americans were building agronomy schools and sending Haitians abroad to be educated as doctors and lawyers — because the Marines were convinced, if we build a middle class here, it will be more stable — the Haitians, on the other hand, were seeing their great political problem as how to conquer the whites, how to get rid of them.
And Duvalier, who was educated by the Americans, in part at the University of Michigan — FranÃ§ois Duvalier, Papa Doc, the great dictator — was the most prominent product of this period. That is, he was the embodiment of Haitian nationalism and the vow never again to be under the thumb of white power.
And that era, what does that mean to Haiti today?
Over two centuries, Haitian history, for all the obvious churning and struggles and coups and revolutions, tends to move around two pulls: instability, struggle for power, and then the seizure of power by one powerful dictator who is able to destroy all opposition. And FranÃ§ois Duvalier, Papa Doc, who came to power in 1957, is the embodiment of the second.
He was elected and was immediately challenged, as is Haitian tradition. And he acted, over the next decade, to ruthlessly destroy all opposition. His political techniques became clear from the beginning: When threatened, attack; attack vigorously. Kill not only your opponents but kill their families; kill their friends. Leave the bodies on the streets as an example to everyone. Blackouts, sirens, massacres on the streets, random killing to terrorize the population — a kind of ruthlessness and brilliance of terror that in a sense was a kind of embodiment of Haitian political power over the two centuries that preceded him.
He was a great student of Haitian history, and one of his goals was simply just to destroy all the independent power centers that had always been responsible for overthrowing his predecessors. So he nationalized the church, which had been in opposition. He killed a great many of the mulatto merchants, the mulatto commercial class, who had always undermined black presidents.
He simply acted against any independent power center, and he did it with a kind of ruthlessness and viciousness, without bounds. It was unseen in Haitian history. And his example, the ruthless black man coming to power, using poor blacks as his pawns — because that’s what the Tonton Macoutes were — looms over Haiti to this day. It dominated, for example, the fears of Father [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide, who was also a poor black and also had great sympathy among the poor. So the Haitian mind and the vulnerabilities of the Haitian elite have been — and particularly the mentality of the Haitian elite is haunted by Duvalier to this day, by the nightmare of Duvalier.
And from that period until today, what’s the story?
In a very real sense, the Duvalier period, the 30 years of dictatorship of father and son, still dominates the mind-set of contemporary Haitians. He was the last stable power that there was in Haiti, and his image still looms over the political imagination of every Haitian.
And what’s happened since the end of the Duvalier period?
Since Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986, ending a 30-year dictatorship, Haiti has entered a period of what’s called the “parenthèse,” the traditional period that in Haitian history stretches from the fall of one strong leader to the rise of another. So in those almost 25 years you’ve had, depending on how you count, 12 different rulers.
You’ve had changes of power by coup d’etat; by, in effect, revolution; by election. If you look at that period of 25 years, you can see an immense undergrowth of political fauna and flora, all kinds of political innovation, all kinds of struggle, but never a successful installation of a president who could bring stability, development and, most of all, legitimacy to Haitian power. We’re still waiting for that to happen.
Describe the growth of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] there over the last 25 years.
Large-scale foreign aid first came to Haiti in the wake of the American occupation and the American departure in the 1930s. Its great growth, however, came under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier beginning in the early ’70s, when the United States came back in force after having been shunned during some periods under Papa Doc and whose aid workers had actually been expelled by Papa Doc. Jean-Claude Duvalier was the great collaborator with the international aid regime, not just with the United States.
Jean-Claude Duvalier was a thief on a scale probably unprecedented in Haitian history. He stole tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, this had always been a tradition in Haiti, but the scale under Jean-Claude was unknown. And this large-scale larceny was, in effect, enabled by the international aid community, which is to say that by the early ’80s, the amount of aid Haiti was receiving was greater than its budget. That is, more money was coming from outside than inside. And that great influx of aid allowed a large-scale stealing of government funds. It also facilitated stealing in its own right.
So the government’s completely corrupt.
Yes. But, you know, this stuff is very controversial, because of course the aid community says, “Run aid through other means, [then] nobody gets it.” I mean, they’re very sensitive about it.
The fact that over the last three or four decades, the world of foreign aid in Haiti has grown at an exponential rate — it’s gone up and down, but in general, its growth has in effect meant that the responsibility of the government to perform the basic functions of government has been taken over by the aid community — that makes it increasingly possible and easier for the money that goes to the government to be stolen, as it always is in Haiti, by a number of techniques.
And Jean-Claude Duvalier, of course, would simply write checks to himself for various things and extract money directly. But there are other, more creative techniques that the aid community, in one way or another, has sometimes taken part in.
One great example of the way that the foreign aid community has in a sense collaborated with large-scale government stealing in Haiti is the example of the imports of grain. The United States began sending into Haiti in large amounts, under Jean-Claude Duvalier, excess wheat. It had wheat stockpiled, the U.S. government, and it began sending millions of dollars’ worth of wheat.
That wheat came into Haiti, and it was milled in the government flour mill, and the regime in place seized from every bag of flour produced X number of dollars. So they extracted millions of dollars in selling it to the public. The U.S. got credit for giving Haiti millions of dollars. It was simply getting rid of its excess wheat. The elite took from every bag dollars and dollars and dollars.
And finally, the tertiary effect was, of course, that import of flour destroyed the native Haitian rice crop. Rice crop farmers were ruined by the competition from this cheap flour. So these three different effects [were] all harmful to the country, and all of it was under the heading of foreign aid.
Describe corruption, in terms of its intrinsic nature, some of how it has worked.
Finding ways to get money from government, government corruption, is the great creative activity of the Haitian elite. It’s done in the most basic sense through zombie checks; that is, through money that is paid to people for working in the government who don’t actually work in the government.
Probably at one time or another, these zombie checks were half the government administration. It’s probably still 30 percent or so — checks that are just issued to people who do not show up for work, often in the names of dead people, which is why they’re called zombie checks.
There are many more complicated ways, ranging from simple issuance of checks under Jean-Claude Duvalier, [who] would simply take money out of government ministries and government tax flows, to actually extracting concessions from government products like, for example, the government flour mill, government sugar mill and so on; that is, every bag of flour, the ruling elite gets $2 or some other amount.
Finally, there are the issuance of concessions, whereby friends of the elite — relatives, usually, of people within the administration — are given the concession to import, for example, toothpaste, or to import batteries or to import Mercedes. They’re given a monopoly which allows them to charge whatever they want for a given product. And this can be for luxury goods like cars, or it can be for staple goods that people need to use every day. And it’s essentially handing people an open check or an ATM to make money as they like.
And this has been a tradition going back 200 years. The Haitian elite continues to be immensely creative, particularly when trying to find ways around, for example, the rules of the foreign aid community, because in the last two or three decades, foreign aid has occupied a larger amount of the total Haitian budget than Haitian tax revenues themselves.
So you have a constant game whereby the elite is trying to figure out ways to extract money one way or another and the foreign aid community is trying to keep that money from them. It’s a losing battle in the end, because, of course, foreign aid, by taking on as a burden the basic things government should be doing — educating Haitians, making them healthier, etc., building roads — it allows the basic Haitian tax revenues to be stolen in one way or another.
Haiti has been called the republic of NGOs.
Haiti has more NGOs, non-governmental organizations, per capita than anywhere in the hemisphere and perhaps anywhere in the world. In part, these non-governmental organizations were chosen as a more efficient way to deliver aid, and also as a way to deliver aid that would be less available for Haitian corruption than government to government aid. On the one hand, there are some advantages on this side. There’s a degree of independence. There’s a degree of creativity: Haiti has become the great Petri dish of development. You do have a kind of experimentation that produces, in some cases, good results.
On the other hand, though, the effort tends to be quite, by definition, disorganized. There’s no central bureau or office that is trying to decide what is needed in Haiti, what’s necessary. And the aid community, one way or another, takes over a great many of the burdens that the Haitian government, by rights, should be performing.
It feeds children breakfasts and lunches at school. Very often, it educates children. It provides health care. All the things that a basic government should do in Haiti tend to be performed — actually, almost always are performed — by non-governmental organizations and by foreign aid, which means that the government itself can continue to be an engine of corruption, feeding money to the elite.
So in a sense, the reliance on NGOs and on foreign aid itself is a way of circumventing the basic problem of the Haitian state, which is that it’s set up inherently for corrupt purposes, not for development, not for infrastructure building, not for doing the things that we generally take as obvious that governments should perform.
People say that there were a lot of positive things going on in the past two to three years, that there had been a donors’ conference in Washington, D.C., in April of 2009.
In the wake of the devastating floods of 2008, a number of fairly decisive steps were taken by the international community in collaboration with the Preval government in Haiti that gave cause for optimism.
There was a quite successful donors’ conference, although only a small part of the money has at this point been delivered. There was also a commitment by the United States to negotiate a new trade bill with Haiti, with very serious and lasting concessions, designed to promote Haitian manufacturing and agriculture.
This 2008 bill, if it was made permanent and possibly expanded, could have a very positive effect on Haiti’s economy and on growth of jobs. Part of these positive developments happened as a result of high-level interest in Haiti, notably that of the Clintons, particularly Bill Clinton. And his influence has helped ensure, at least, that you had international attention directed to Haiti. But it’s only a start. And the relative stability of the Preval government has also been pretty helpful.
Did you think these were positive developments and things were moving in the right direction?
There’s no question that the efforts leading up to the 2010 earthquake in developing sustainable foreign aid for Haiti were very promising, particularly the trade bill passed in 2008. The vision was to open American markets for manufacturers and Haitian farmers and establish permanent jobs, not just development based on foreign aid day to day, but a continuing development of the Haitian economy. And those efforts were promising, but they had just begun.
What does Bill Clinton represent in the story of Haiti?
Bill Clinton is a fairly fascinating figure in the story of Haiti. He and Hillary went to Haiti in 1975 for their honeymoon. They had been attached to the country and fascinated by it ever since. And then as president, President Clinton occupied Haiti for the second time in American and Haitian history. The Americans returned in 1994 — 20,000 of them — and they brought back to power President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
That American occupation, not unlike the one preceding it, left very few permanent changes in its wake. Aristide, in his second term, of course was overthrown by a military coup. In part, I think this is because President Clinton, though he wanted to help Haiti, was very nervous about the political implications of what he was doing. He feared Americans didn’t support him, so he was unwilling to take strong action in Haiti. He was unwilling to disarm the bad guys. He was unwilling to risk American casualties. And at the end of the day, the occupation did little more for Haiti than return Aristide for a brief period of time and didn’t accomplish any of the institutional changes that the country really needs.
The third phase, of course, of Bill Clinton’s involvement is as special envoy to Haiti, where he has quite successfully brought high-level attention to Haiti’s problems.
And now Clinton’s latest role is coordinator of international aid efforts, an enormous job that involves governments, aid organizations, militaries, you name it, and the success of which remains completely in doubt.
Tell me what you feel Aristide’s role is, past and present.
There’s a sense in which the era from 1986 to the present could rightly be called the “Age of Aristide” in Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a parish priest, a poor man, enormously popular in the slums of Haiti, a member of the ti legliz [Creole for “little church,”] which believed in social change through sermons and through religious work, who finally came to power, was elected in 1990, who served seven or eight months, was overthrown in a military coup, then brought back to Haiti by the United States through an American occupation in ’94 and elected again, and then overthrown in yet another coup in 2004.
He remains enormously popular among the Haitian poor. And he’s a figure who, in a sense, looms over the current Haitian political scene because, on the one hand, he was elected with two-thirds of the votes of Haitians; on the other hand, he remains deeply feared among the elite. He is still probably the critical political figure in the country, though he remains in exile in South Africa.
So, in a sense, his career exemplifies the Haitian political problem. The great majority of people can be for one candidate, but power resides not in the great majority but in the tiniest minority. And that minority can block any legitimate and popular president.
When the aid started pouring in right after the earthquake, there were some major problems.
I think the greatest success of the aid effort in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake was the ability to focus the world’s attention on Haiti, to bring a lot of players to bear very, very quickly, not only money, but agencies of governments around the world — NGOs, government-to-government aid, the American military. A lot of players floated into Haiti very quickly.
Oddly, that’s the failure of the aid effort as well: that so much started to come in with relatively little coordination that it overwhelmed the infrastructure of Haiti to accommodate it. The infrastructure, of course — half destroyed by the earthquake itself — was already a disaster before the earthquake.
So the ability to deliver aid, to bring medicine, food to people over broken roads, to help them in Haiti’s dilapidated hospitals, all of this even before the earthquake was very questionable. This enormous inflow of aid overwhelmed that system completely. And in a sense, the success was its own greatest failure.
There’s a big question of what happens now in Haiti.
The question is whether the effort this time to remake Haiti will be lasting and will be sustained. And that question is very much an open one, because Haiti has a history of frustrating reformers and of absorbing every bit of help and remaining stubbornly itself.
The corruption continues. The infrastructure projects are left to rot in the plains. You can drive around rural Haiti today and find many, many dilapidated bridges, and these were bridges built by the U.S. Marines in the ’20s during the last occupation. They haven’t been kept up. They’re unusable now. Haiti is a land strewn with defunct aid projects. Question is, how this time in rebuilding Haiti, whether you can not only replace what was destroyed but you can create, in some way, a sustainable economy and a sustainable path of development. And how do you do that?
What do you think needs to be done?
In the next few years, hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe even billions of dollars, are going to flow into Haiti. Who is going to get that money, and what will it be used for? We know that buildings are going to be rebuilt; rubble is going to be cleared; roads are going to be reconstructed.
The question is, are Haitians going to do that labor and be paid well for it? Are they going to be trained in the skills that are necessary? Is the concrete that’s used going to be made in Haiti? Is that money going to go into the pockets of Haitian contractors and, above all, Haitian workers? And is that money going to create a pool of investment in the hands of ordinary Haitians that will result in the starting of small businesses? Haiti is an immensely entrepreneurial country. Haitians start businesses with nothing. The question is whether this aid effort can begin a revolution in Haitian commerce by putting money into as many Haitians’ pockets as possible.
Or will it go into the pockets of people — American companies, companies from the Dominican Republic, from Latin America — who simply are able to rope in Haitian partners among the elite, pay them a certain amount of money, and that money will end up being sent out of the country to Swiss or American bank accounts, which is what the elite has always done?
So can you spread that money around among as many Haitians as possible in a way that will be lasting, that will contribute to building skills, and possibly eventually [be] invested in small business?
A key goal of the rebuilding effort should be decentralization. That is, Port-au-Prince became this unplanned, enormous city, a megalopolis that could not sustain itself. Half of it was horrible slums, some of the worst slums in the world.
Many of those people now have fled the capital. They’ve gone back to live among their relatives in rural Haiti. The question is, can the agricultural sector of rural Haiti be reborn — investment in rural areas, investment in new crops, investment in crops that can not only feed Haitians but can be sent to American markets and [be] sold here to take advantage of the trade deal of 2008 and possibly an expanded trade deal, which would greatly help the country?
If you could revivify Haitian agriculture, you could go very far toward creating a sustainable economy in Haiti. And that is absolutely possible. It depends completely on management and the right decisions being made.
Haiti’s a small country of 9 million people, less now due to the horrible tragedy. If you can’t fix Haiti, what can you fix?
It’s fewer than 10 million people; it’s a couple hundred miles from the American coast. Why shouldn’t a vast effort of aid and international planning remake Haiti?
But the fact is, again and again, such efforts have failed. And in part, they failed because, it seems to me, it was a lack of appreciation of Haitian history and the peculiar attributes of Haiti’s government and social system. Too often, international aid organizations have tried to circumvent these problems. And circumventing them does not solve them.
The question is, can capacity be built within the Haitian government? Can those organs of the Haitian government be bolstered, used, trained? Can skills be brought to them so that Haitians can be responsible for building their country? And that remains a completely open question. But I’m not optimistic. I hate to say that.
We’ve talked a lot about their internal structural problems and behavior problems, but does the world have a responsibility to Haiti?
The great irony of those who talk about a sort of cursed Haiti is that Haiti’s history is not only made by Haitians, but in part was imposed from outside. Haiti was a colony in which the treatment of its African slaves was extremely brutal. They seized power; the international community isolated them.
And when you talk about Haiti’s problems and its corruption and so on, a lot of this has to do in that early period of isolation and foreign hostility. So there is, it seems to me, a responsibility to Haiti that the world has, because Haiti is in part a child of the world’s hostility. It has a history that’s glorious but also accusatory, because it accuses the world of one of its greatest crimes of the modern era, the crime of slavery. And that slavery underlay the entire economy in the 18th century and Haiti’s birth. …
There is very little of a middle class in Haiti, and among those who were there, many moved to the United States, and there’s been an enormous flight of brain power.
Under the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship especially, there was an enormous brain drain from Haiti. Doctors, lawyers, economists, professors and academics of all kinds fled the country. And in fact, there are more Haitian doctors abroad than there are in Haiti. This brain drain systematically damaged the country and deprived it of skills that are absolutely necessary to rebuild the country.
The question is whether most of those people can be brought back, because their success in exile, which is to say the thriving Haitian communities in Montreal, Boston, New York, Miami, Paris testify to the resilience and the talent of middle-class Haitians. What they have built is extremely impressive, but it’s sad that some of that couldn’t be built in Haiti itself. And it may well be in the wake of the earthquake that some of those people will return.
If you could sum up your thinking over the past few weeks in terms of just what would be the most hopeful path forward, what would you like to see?
What do I dream Haiti would look like in 10 years? I dream of a Port-au-Prince that would be rebuilt at a smaller scale, perhaps two-thirds or half the size of the present enormous, sprawling capital full of slums, with decent roads and a real sewer system. And Haitians who are now living in slums [would be] working at sustainable jobs, having learned those skills during those last few years when they rebuilt Haiti.
I dream of a Haiti with a sustainable agriculture sector in which those fields are not only feeding Haitians, but they’re producing fruits and vegetables that are sent to American markets as well. I dream of a Haiti in which you have a nascent manufacturing industry and a very widely decentralized small-business sector, where money from those billions or hundreds of millions or billions of dollars that are flowing into the country in the next few years to rebuild it, a large part of that money remains in the pockets of ordinary Haitians so they can start small businesses, so the entrepreneurial genius of Haitians — and it is genius — can be realized. The country could be a thriving center in the Caribbean of agriculture, commerce, high tech. It’s not inconceivable at all.
And whether or not this happens is really dependent on decisions made in the near term about training, about where the money goes, about decisions about long-term development, and above all, about involving Haitians in making decisions and developing and charting their own future. It’s unclear whether those decisions will be made. But to remake Haiti, to rebuild Haiti is now possible. The problem is, it’s not the first time it’s possible. The question is whether this opportunity, unlike all the others, will actually be seized.
When you’re an aid organization and you’re trying to do something, how do you deliver the aid to the small business instead of going through the elite?
There is a need right now for creativity in the delivery of foreign aid. Haiti is the great Petri dish of foreign aid. There are huge numbers of NGOs, government-to-government organizations, you name it. They’ve been working there for years, some of them doing great work, many of them doing things that have not, at the end of the day, much affected Haiti at all.
The question is whether now, as a plan is put in place to rebuild, whether a creative attitude will be taken to actually rebuild not only Haiti but the foreign aid structure itself, and to focus not on simply giving but on building sustainably, instilling in the country skills, jobs; investment that can be commanded, run by Haitians themselves. And this has not been traditionally the philosophy of the foreign aid community.
And there’s a sense in which the great familiarity of the international aid community with Haiti, the long involvement of that community with Haiti as the great problem child of international development, could be debilitating when it comes to mustering that kind of creativity. We need new ideas. The past can’t be allowed to dominate the decisions made now, because the decisions made now really could change the country, and the question is whether they will.
You won’t, in the near term, reform the Haitian elite. They have been doing what they’re doing, which is essentially stealing money in one way or another and benefiting from the corrupt state, for two centuries. What you can do is try to decentralize power and decentralize money. That is, in the next few years, as hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the country, you can make sure a substantial amount of that goes to Haitian workers; goes to as broad a number as possible of Haitian contractors; goes toward creating new businesses that will build houses, not just the old ones; goes toward, essentially, as many people as possible who are competent to do the work; and by establishing at the most basic level not only job training but a basic and reasonable minimum wage for daily work which will help spread the money around.
There is no way to inherently or immediately reform an entire class. What there is a way of doing is decentralizing money and decentralizing power. And that should be, it seems to me, a key item of any rebuilding effort. And that demands a creativity of approach that the international aid community has not thus far demonstrated. And we hope it will.