Haiti is a disaster that is always ignored

By Andrew Hammond

William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “You cannot refine it. War is hell.” If General Sherman were alive today, he would say the same thing about Haiti.

The poorest country in the Americas is a disaster. The statistics are as numerous as they are appalling. So let’s look at the greatest hits. The average Haitian has an income of $480 a year. Compare that to the average American, who an income of $33,500 a year. A baby born in Haiti today is expected to live for 49 years. Haiti has the highest incidence of AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean. Half the country is illiterate. The same percentage is malnourished.

These problems are exacerbated by other developments. In the past few years, many Haitians have been trying to immigrate to the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. Coast Guard picked up more Haitians than people from any other Caribbean nation, including Cuba. In spite of the exodus of Haitians who can afford to leave, there has been a population boom in this impoverished nation. The population has risen from 5 million to 8.4 million in the last two decades. This explosion — 40 percent of the population is younger than 14 –— puts a terrible strain on an already pitiful economy (GDP growth is declining by 1.7 percent annually).

But in the final analysis, the root of all evils for Haiti is massive social inequality. There is a great chasm between the tiny elite of French-speaking mulattoes and the Creole-speaking majority. The mulatto elite, despite making up only one percent of the population, controls half the nation’s wealth.

The elite also controls the government in Haiti, and it is notorious for its unabashed corruption. The Bush administration charged that 70 percent of the U.S. aid sent to Haiti wound up in politicians’ personal coffers. This corruption has been encouraged by a surge in drug trafficking, which has made Haiti a way station for illegal narcotics from Colombia on their way to the U.S.

Until 1990, Haiti was in the shadow of the Duvalier legacy, first in the form of the father, Francois, called “Papa Doc,” and then in the form of his son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc.” “Papa Doc,” immortalized in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, was a brutal dictator, and his son, who succeeded him, proved the axiom, “like father like son.”

Jean-Bertrand Aristide replaced the Duvaliers when he was elected president, but he was ousted in a military coup only a year later. Returning after three years in exile, only to be forced into exile again 10 years later, Aristide still casts his shadow on the country. The surge of violence that began in 2004 is a result of actions by his former militia.

The U.N. has more than 7,500 military personnel in Haiti today. Yet this has not stopped the incredible violence that is present in the capital of Port-au-Prince as well as in the countryside.

The scariest thing about Haiti is not all of its problems, but the sheer implausibility of recovery from these problems. The removal of corrupted officials would cause massive unrest in a nation that has grown accustomed to state-supported violence. Moreover, that corruption could only be eradicated with the elimination of drug trafficking, Haiti’s most profitable industry. This important development would only occur if the profitable Colombian-U.S. drug trade were destroyed.

A massive redistribution of wealth and services would be required to lift the vast majority of Haitians out of poverty. Yet the elite have no intention of ceding control of the country’s land, and the exploding population is already swamping the paltry health services.

Elections have been promised to the U.N. in the near future. But would this election be less an invitation to vote than it would be an invitation to commit violence? To be sure, if the U.N. is not a strong presence at the time of Haiti’s election, there will not only be electoral fraud but voter intimidation and widespread social unrest.

Haiti is a lesson in the damage that egregious social and economic inequality can have on a nation. It hampers economic progress, destroys democratic possibilities, and breeds corruption. In many ways, severe inequality is the essential fact of Latin America in the 21st century. The only exit out of this hell for Haiti is to figure out ways to educate, employ, and protect the lower classes that make up a vast majority of the country.