WHAT CAN THE US DO TO HELP HAITI?
The eminent Afro-American scholar from Harvard, Annette Gordon-Reed, in the July 21, 2021, edition of the NY Times made the case of the debt that America owes Haiti for its past misdeeds and the need to help Haiti out of its permanent morass. In her own words, “Think of how different its prospects would have been had Haiti been fully embraced from the beginning, instead of reviled, and if Haitians hadn’t been forced in 1825, in one of the most disgraceful details in the history of the oppression of Haiti, to pay reparations to their enslavers and their heirs in exchange for official recognition. The reparations created a crushing debt that blighted the country’s future.”
This paean to the fighting spirit of a half million Negroes who dared defeat the greatest army in the world, albeit aided by the mosquito spreading yellow fever, begs the question, what exactly can the US do to help Haiti move forward? This question obviously presupposes that Haiti is willing to help itself, for no help ever works when it doesn’t dovetail on ongoing self-empowerment, i.e., one can only help someone actively taking care of himself. The metaphor of actively fishing as opposed to receiving the fish applies.
The asymmetrical relationship between the two nations is evidence writ large of one of the ironic twists of history. Instead of Haiti upholding the initial mantra of a beacon of light, a paragon of freedom for the oppressed and the goalpost of independence fiercely protected, the nation has devolved into one of meek leaders, unable to stand up for the interests of its people and essentially having surrendered its sovereignty. Never mind that this independence was gained through lots of blood and sweats literally. The initial feisty David slaying a bullying Goliath narrative has turned into the observation of Lilliputians fawning over the 800-pound gorilla that has been having its way from time immemorial. How a proud group of bellicose transplants from Africa could have sired such slackers is indeed very droll.
Nothing less than a bucket list of wishes would fill in the blank. It ranges from the transfer of our gold reserve into Citibank to the occupation of Navasa based on an abstruse American law and in between the open interference in our national affairs and the intermittent selection of our leaders irrespective of the popular choice and the strangulation of local industries to protect American exports. No matter how legitimate these claims are, we also have our share of faults and we need to reckon with it.
This simple matter of Haiti handling its business first has bedeviled Haitianophiles over the years while its failure at the task has regaled its detractors all along. In the former corner, one can include towering figures such as Frederick Douglass, José Marti as foreigners, Anténor Firmin, Demesvar Delorme, Massillon Coicou, Tertulien Guilbaud as nationals, among others. The list of its detractors, past and present is too long; suffice it to allude to a very recent powerful man who thought that “we all carry AIDS.” The Haitian reality makes one recoil, induces a searing pang the same way a bitter pill indulges nausea. Haiti has not been actively engaged in taking care of its own business, allowing a vicious cycle to take hold and along the way creating an environment where corruption and dilapidation of resources have become common currency and lately in an accelerated pattern. Many will rightly argue that foreign interference does play a role. However, that argument will not suffice to explain the scale and extent of this failure. It’s as if the idea of accountability is an alien concept and sound policy making has given way to brinkmanship in one fell swoop. Cynics unfortunately have plenty of fodder to associate the failure as sui generis in the worst way and not infrequently as another evidence of the theory that Gobineau had advanced in the nineteenth century of our lack of intellectual capacity. The additional irony is that capable leaders throughout our history have always had their efforts stymied by their own compatriots more interested in the narrow and selfish preservation of the interests of their own clan and not the national welfare.
Is the case lost? Can this listing ship be prevented from capsizing? The answer is a timid maybe at best because the very people who should or could do it are incentivized not to. This is a nefarious paradigm. Those empowered to safeguard the national treasure use it as personal piggy bank, aided and abetted by powerful businessmen who bankroll their candidacy so they can allow them to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, to obtain monopolies and have free hands to dwell in all other illicit activities.
Ergo, if the question of the US helping Haiti is not rhetorical but very real, what would one advocate as immediate out of the bucket list? The answer in my humble opinion is simple: bidirectional tough love. In practical terms, it means taking measures that will be unpleasant for stakeholders on both sides of the aisle in the relationship, because it will for once side with morally sound policymaking over the traditional politically expedient, rewarding a tiny group. On the Haitian side, insisting on a new type of governance and holding the ones at the collective helm to clean the Augean stables. On one hand, pressure ought to be brought to bear to implement measures that all successful societies are practicing: collection of taxes to increase the national coffers and transparency in the spending of meagre resources. In fact, insisting on healthy management of the national budget and eliminating wasteful spending throughout the public sector would the single greatest achievement one could hope for. Stories abound about legislators doling out jobs at various consulates to incompetent allies or relatives, per diems for made-up projects, outright pilfering of money through shady contracts without a bid at various ministries and various other means seen and unseen to fleece the country. The spoils that come with public office position far outpace resources; yet in a choice to take between butter and hardware, the latter always wins, and the human suffering gets worse.
It also means reversal of heavy-handed US-sponsored policies. The imposition of “free trade” while the US protects its own market is a gross injustice. A case in point is the destruction of our country’s rice-growing industry. This policy that was started under Clinton who came from a rice-growing state became a failure for the Haitian economy, a fact he admitted to subsequently in a congressional hearing, but one that no Haitian leader ever cared to reverse.
Gun running in Haiti, an essentially American export industry can be stopped if the will of American government exists to do so. Gangs are proliferating and are well supplied with powerful weapons and ammo coming from the US. This type of illicit trade is hurting us and enriching gun dealers in the US.
Next, changing course in supporting corrupt, incompetent yeomen and allowing competent cadre to develop and hold influential positions. The calculus of favoring pliable individuals ready to vote at the UN or OAS as instructed, flies in the face of the heavy price being paid by Haitian society being run by such deceitful leaders. Allowing independent-minded but honest citizens to vote as per the interests of the country represents no threat to the US geopolitical interests. Such a policy turn would go a long way to erase a lot of policies forced on the country by leaning on spineless, corrupt, incompetent weaklings. Such puppets are far too obsessed with obeying the proconsul at the US embassy so long as he turns a blind eye to their ever-growing bank account and other invidious activities such as killing innocent folks, and helping in drug trafficking. The country is paying too heavy a price for selling its vote.
Distancing elected officials from access to public funds would be a revolutionary policy. Imagine that the decision to build roads and schools, fund public clinics, creation of shelters to protect from hurricanes were taken away from politicians and given to a professional civil service cadre the way it’s done in Japan. Overnight jobs would be created, reducing the overwhelming number of unemployed citizens easily available to cause mayhem by joining gangs to become thugs for hire. When people have a vested interest in society, they are less likely to join a barricade and burn tires and or participate in looting. Unfortunately, some local decision makers, both nationals and their foreign handlers enjoy this anomaly to create chaos. Removing the monetary incentive to seek elective office would eliminate politics as money-making endeavor, a calamity that has afflicted the country for far too long.
Last but not least, a good fillip would be sent by helping in the fight against the alarming ecological degradation that is taking place. Since we all suffer from global warming, sending a helping hand in stemming this catastrophe is a win-win proposition. USAID’s resources could be used for that purpose. A long overdue change would be to stop using American consultants collecting fat fees, the lion’s share of funded programs, leaving no permanent and successful legacy.
Voices of progressives such as Gordon-Reed’s need to be part of the conversation to redress a historical aberration. At the same time, independent voices on our side need to be heard to help frame the approach that should be nonpartisan and focused on Haiti’s interests.
Reynald Altéma, MD