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Haiti Bleeds on an Altar of Savior Politics

Greg Chamberlain has reported on Haiti and the Caribbean since 1970 and is the former Caribbean specialist for the British daily the Guardian.

The deepening crisis in Haiti -- Latin America’s own “failed state” -- is rich in the symbolism, drama and passions of its violent birth as the world’s first independent black republic.

A tiny, studious-looking Catholic priest, the color of the slave underclass, who speaks in riddles and rhymes about peace and justice, confronts a light-skinned aristocracy that presides over an economy exporting mostly drug money and other ill-gotten gains to foreign bank accounts and over a society whose members it has kept in dire poverty.

Not so very different from the heroic situation that sparked the rebellion against the French colonial masters 200 years ago. Except that this former beacon of liberation in the Caribbean and beyond, once the world’s richest colony, is today destitute and a painful embarrassment to its neighbors in a region that otherwise scores at the top in most developing-world human and economic indicators.

Exhausted by decades of political disaster (some of it caused by outsiders, but mostly not), Haitians elected Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990, only a few months after he had denounced elections as a trick of “the bourgeoisie” (the code name for the aristocracy). They hoped he would break the system of rich versus poor and Haiti’s shocking version of apartheid. Fourteen years later, he has clearly joined that system, grown suspiciously wealthy, bought himself a thuggish militia of desperate slum youths and given a free hand to the shameless pillage of the state, all tragically in the “best” Haitian tradition.

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Did he jump into this, as his enemies say, or was he pushed, unable to stand up to the Haitian juggernaut of kleptocracy and compulsive violence? He seems to have been unable to resist either personal temptation or the orders of powerful drug barons.

The trouble didn’t start, as is often claimed, with slightly fiddled elections in 2000 that Aristide would have won anyway. It started before that, with unpunished killings of opponents, the takeover of the police by his henchmen, the looting of public funds -- turning thousands of idealistic supporters against him and giving a green light to the lawless youths now manning the barricades in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as the U.S. government struggles for a solution tailored to its own election year rather than the needs of Haiti. Yet Aristide’s opponents promise little better. The mulatto elite, whose visceral hatred of him is rooted in their centuries-old terror of the unwashed masses storming the plantation great houses (read today’s luxury mansions), are glad to have the disillusioned underclass in the streets on their behalf, so as to soften their upper-class image.

But they stand for nothing but their own privilege. Haiti’s intolerant political culture means that neither they nor their darker-skinned allies have a program beyond seizing control of the state in time-honored fashion, a slight variation on Aristide’s brand of political thuggery. They are hopelessly divided, and their “political parties” with grandiloquent names exist mostly on paper.

The professed democrats among them stand little chance and are likely to be devoured by the system, as Aristide was. The armed rebels in the north, co-led by a former death-squad chieftain, are the face of what will have to be accommodated if Aristide leaves. The army he abolished is likely to be revived to once more block real change on the whispered instructions of the elite.

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Haitians, meanwhile, worship at the Church of the Perpetual Conspiracy. Anyone’s fault but Haiti’s ... the imagined nonstop plotting by the United States to seize the country’s negligible economic resources and crush a supposed revolutionary example to other countries. The admittedly overkill suspension of foreign aid as punishment for election fraud is held up by Aristide as a handy mask for his own incompetence.

The way forward, and the priority for any international assistance, must be to build institutions to wean Haiti away from “savior politics”: strictly supervised, properly coordinated economic aid, an effective parliament, independent courts whose judges are not forced to flee abroad, an education system wherein the 75% of people who cannot read can be turned into the 75% who can in nearby Jamaica.

Haitians are as intelligent, creative and energetic as any other group of human beings. They need major help to escape the bad political and cultural habits that have held Haiti back -- habits and phases that all countries pass through in their history. But their political class needs to take responsibility for their ruinous behavior and to close the yawning gap between what is known as “the Republic of Port-au-Prince” and the medieval conditions in the countryside where most people are condemned to live.


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