The scenes of horror and chaos that followed Haiti’s devastating earthquake were a stark reminder of that tormented nation’s gravest problem: it has no functioning government. Nor has it had one for the past decade.
When the giant quake struck last week, police, firemen, and emergency service workers simply vanished. There was no one to repair damaged power stations, water works or the phone system. No one to take charge.
Haiti has become the Somalia of our hemisphere.
Few nations I know have suffered such misfortune as poor, wretched Haiti. Blessed with fecundity by nature, Haiti went in less than one century from being the richest nation in the western hemisphere to the poorest.
Haiti is ravaged each year by powerful storms , hurricanes, and floods. It is afflicted by the direst poverty. Many Haitians suffer a wide range of diseases from filthy water, insect-born diseases like malaria and dengue fever and debilitating parasitic infections. HIV, typhoid, and severe nutritional deficiencies are common.
Now comes Haiti’s biggest earthquake in 250 years.
Port-au-Prince lies in ruins, tens of thousands are dead and over a million homeless. The huge international rescue effort now underway has so far been severely hampered by the lack of government infrastructure or services and the absence of any form of disaster planning. The countryside is filled with ruined towns and hamlets that have yet to be discovered.
The National Palace, where a Haitian friend and I were once crazy enough to crash a dinner party given by the dreaded dictator, Francois Duvalier, aka “Papa Doc,” has collapsed.
“Papa Doc” caught us – but laughed at our escapade instead of having his dreaded secret police, the “Ton-Ton Macoutes,” shoot us on the spot. Duvalier, who died in 1971, ruled Haiti through a unique combination of terror and voodoo sorcery. He was high priest of Haiti’s voodoo (properly, Hongan) religion. Some Haitians believe “Papa Doc” will yet rise from his grave.
Our old hangout, the charming gingerbread Olofsson Hotel, the scene of Graham Green’s delightful book, `The Comedians,’ is heavily damaged. Its bar, presided over by the legendary “Cesar,” was Port-au-Princes leading watering hole and hotbed of intrigue and gossip.
Seedy Port–au-Prince always looked half ruined. Today, the damage is almost complete. Haiti is an island destroyed by human folly and crime as well as natural disasters.
France acquired Haiti in 1697. After wiping out the native Arawak people, France imported a million black slaves from West Africa to work the island’s sugar, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and indigo plantations. Haiti’s slaves suffered frightful brutality in the French plantations and in slaver’s ships.
The greatest bourgeois fortunes of Bordeaux were built on slavery, not fine wine.
Haiti’s amazingly rich soil produced four crops a year. In 1780, the total value of Haiti’s exports to Europe exceeded those of Spain’s silver and gold-producing Latin American colonies, or the entire British West Indies plantation system.
Today, Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Even before the quake, it was impossible to walk in downtown Port-au-Prince without being swarmed by desperate, diseased beggars.
In the late 1700’s, Haiti’s slaves revolted, led by a brilliant black general, Toussaint Louverture. After fierce fighting, he was tricked by a false peace offer by the French and died in prison. Toussaint’s lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, finally defeated Napoleon’s troops and liberated Haiti in 1804. Haiti became the Western Hemisphere’s second republic, after the new-born United States.
But the rival leaders of the liberation soon fell out. Christophe, driven mad by syphilis, finally shot himself in the head with a silver bullet in a massive but useless citadel he had built atop a mountain above Cap Haitien.
For the next century, Haiti was ruled by a feuding mulatto minority and petty dictators who did nothing for the people. Peasants cut down all the trees for charcoal, denuding the mountainous island. Rains then swept away all of Haiti’s rich topsoil, leaving denuded hillsides and dead earth.
Washington, actually fearing a German takeover of Haiti, sent the US Marine Corps to occupy it from 1915 to 1934. Though sometimes brutal, the US occupation is looked back on by many Haitians as their “golden age.” The Marine Corps proved a fair, efficient, honest administrator and builder. This era was the only time when things worked in Haiti.
Then, after endless coups, came Francois Duvalier, a mild-mannered country doctor who quickly turned into one of the century’s most frightening despots. “Papa Doc” imposed a reign of witchcraft and terror. After his death in 1971, his inept son, aka “Baby Doc,” took power, but soon lost it. More chaos ensued. In 2004, the US invaded Haiti and threw out an elected but inept leftist government.
It was rather ironic that President Obama called on former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to head a national fundraising drive for Haiti considering the first had ordered the invasion of Haiti, and the latter achieved such a triumph in rebuilding New Orleans. On top of this, the truly enlightened Rev. Pat Robertson, who speaks for millions of fundamentalist Christians, blamed the earthquake on a supposed, three-century old pact with devil made by Haiti’s anti-French revolutionaries.
Nor was Paris pleased. A French aircraft carrying a full operating theater was not allowed to land so that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton could fly in and make a speech.
The US, Canada, France and other nations continue to rush aid to Haiti. Food and medical help are essential, but Haiti also must have an effective government that cares for its desperate people. Otherwise, Haiti will again fall into the abyss the next time a major natural disaster occurs.
Haiti really needs is to be again temporarily administered by a great power like the US or France. The UN should declare Haiti a protectorate of one or more of the great powers.
This column despises all forms of imperialism. But genuine humanitarian intervention is different. US administration of Haiti may be necessary and the only recourse for this benighted nation that cannot seem to govern itself.
A small, mostly Brazilian UN contingent has achieved little. Most Haitians, I think, would welcome long-term US humanitarian administration. France also has a special responsibility to Haiti.
This writer, a former soldier, prefers to see the US military saving rather than taking lives. Watching the US 82nd Airborne Division arrive in Port-au-Prince filled me with pride. That is what America is about, not bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.
The US will waste over $1.02 trillion this year on military operations in those nations. It can certainly afford a few hundred million dollars to rescue Haiti. But much more will be needed.