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Haiti - failed state forever?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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February 17, 2010

Graham Greene's great novel "The Comedians", set in the Haiti of the dictatorship of Papa Doc, gives some support to the artist's pious hope that "a writer is not so powerless as he usually feels and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood." How else to explain how this half of a quite small Caribbean island gets more press than it deserves?

It is, indeed, in part the legacy of Graham Greene who, as I am too, was often drawn to the island because of its idiosyncratic but rich culture and, not least, its lurid shades of darkness and light that permeate the political spectrum. Greene, whilst capturing the ugliness and horror of the gangster Tonton Macoutes, also draws a careful portrait of the civilized and caring Dr. Magiot. However, the outside world's fascination with the forces of darkness represented in most European and Asian cultures by men with black skins means that the first image is more remembered than the second.

It is also in part because, like Central America, Haiti is in America's back yard and when the politics of this impoverished "wrinkled wasteland" go wrong the people might take to their boats, their rafts and their planks of wood and make for Florida.

Haiti, despite its devastating earthquake, despite its coups, riots, uprisings, assassinations and a farrago of tyrants, will probably continue to totter along. The international relief operation should be able to get it up and going again, but everyday life and politics will not change. There will be the same whirlwind of activity on every sidewalk - vendors, carpenters, ironsmiths - a cacophony of bursting noise amid the conflicting smells of clean-burning charcoal and dank open sewers. Women, with an African swing, will walk the streets, portering great basins on their heads, stuffed with contraband merchandise. Scribes will sit under shade trees poised with their ancient clackety typewriters to await their illiterate customers. Children will pour out of the school gates in their French-sailor uniforms and make for the homes of the rich in the cool hills above. Wagons, homemade buses, stuffed with passengers, painted like fancy wrapping paper each with its own message, "Dieu est Bon" and "L'Armee Celeste", will tout for trade.

But forward momentum to a better standard of life there will not be. Haiti resists change.

Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its forests are laid bare, its soil depleted, its water table ever lower. After the 14 years of Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and the 15 years of his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), leaders came and went and did so with astonishing frequency until in 1991 came the victory in a rare election of the "hollowed-cheeked, goggle-eyed, wide-mouthed" revolutionary, ex-priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since then politics has begun to stabilize and become more democratic, although from time to time upheavals continue to interrupt the progress. Politicians still seem unable to deliver the goods.

Aristide, who, whilst a priest, had nearly sacrificed his life a number of times as a non-violent warrior against oppression, seemed to promise much when he won the presidency after an amazing show of electoral strength by the poor and downtrodden. Tragically for Haiti, as with all his predecessors, power turned to dust in his hands. He achieved little and in a desperate effort to maintain his political power he too had his bands of armed thugs and too readily indulged in corruption and electoral shenanigans.

The United States has intervened twice. The first was in 1915 and the second in 1994. The circumstances - and the outcomes - were amazingly similar. In 1915 there had been continuous rebellion and six presidents in four years. The last one had been captured by a street mob, hacked to death and his parts distributed around town. The American record of occupation was decidedly mixed. It provoked resentment by reintroducing the French system of forced labor. At the same time there were roads, hospitals and the first automatic phone system in Latin America. It wasn't enough. It took 18 years for the Americans to conclude they were on a voyage to nowhere.

Eighty years later the U.S. repeated the experience after an invasion eased yet another military man from power and the then deposed Aristide was reinstated. Yet America effectively gave up the ghost again, defeated by the corruption, the ever present violence and the often bizarre, always self-interested, maneuverings of the political class. It also left behind a bad taste - the revelation that anti-democracy thugs had been at times during the early 1990s on the CIA payroll, contrary to White House policy.

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One wonders if the present U.S,/UN effort will do more than restore the status quo as it was before the earthquake? I doubt it.

Haiti - dangerous yesterday, dangerous today - thanks to Graham Greene will always hold the world's attention. But whether it will ever advance out of its penury, poverty and sadistic violence seems impossible to foresee. Two hundred years on, darkness appears to have won over light.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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