The Magazine

Haiti in Extremis

The poorest country in the Western hemisphere has bigger problems than poverty.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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Port-au-Prince
A brief summer visit to Haiti--the beautiful, perpetually tormented tropical purgatory that occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola--cannot help but focus the comfortable and well-fed foreign visitor's attention on two profound issues of the modern era: the reasons for the persistence of so much misery in an ever more affluent world, and the practical measures that might permit our world's poorest countries to escape from the heart-rending deprivation that they continue to suffer.

With an area comparable to the state of Maryland and a population (at about eight and a half million) roughly the size of New York City's, Haiti is closer to Florida--just an hour and a half from Miami by jet--than is Washington, D.C. But in a very real sense, the distance between the United States and Haiti is almost unimaginable.

By the yardstick of income, Haiti is by far the poorest spot in the Western Hemisphere, and in fact one of the very poorest places on the planet. State Depart ment and CIA guesses put the country's per capita income at about $550 a year, or about a dollar and a half per day--but these formal, exchange-rate based estimates are highly misleading, if not meaningless. (Could anyone in the United States today survive for a year consuming no more than $1.50 worth of goods and services a day?) A better sense of Haiti's plight comes from comparisons of purchasing power. Perhaps the most authoritative global estimates of this sort have been done by Angus Maddison, the eminent economic historian. At the start of this decade, according to Maddison, Haiti's per capita output was thirty-five times lower than that of the United States. To get a sense of what this means: Think how things would go for your family if you had to get by for the entire year on just ten days of your current earnings.

Haiti looks impoverished even next to other impoverished countries. By Maddison's reckoning, per capita purchasing power in Haiti is one third that of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. There is no country in the Middle East or Asia with an income level as low as Haiti's, not even Bangladesh. And although sub-Saharan Africa is the epicenter of desperate poverty in the modern world, a majority of sub-Saharan countries enjoy per capita income levels that are higher than Haiti's.

Income numbers alone, however, cannot convey an accurate impression of the terrible deprivation that is the inescapable lot of the ordinary Haitian. For this, one must take a stroll through La Saline, or Bel Air, or any of the other wretched slums that account for most of the living quarters in Haiti's capital, the sprawling city of Port-au-Prince.

From high up in the hills that ring this city by the bay, the place looks sublime: On the horizon a perfect blue sky meets a shimmering sea to frame the vast metropolis below. The illusion is maintained only so long as one is sufficiently removed to view actual human beings. As one makes the descent into town, the picture quickly changes: The eye of Bierstadt is replaced by the eye of Bruegel, and then by the eye of Bosch. Once in the city proper, one realizes that the urban sky is so clear because Haiti is too poor to have air pollution. Gasoline and diesel vehicles are out of almost everyone's reach, and garbage is too precious to be burned on the street. But Port-au-Prince is not too poor to have sewage: That humid choking stench is everywhere. Unending makeshift shacks stretch from clogged "canals," through which water the color of petroleum slowly trickles: This is at once the communal latrine and the water supply for washing the evening's cookware.

Tiny storefronts, stocked with a few handfuls of merchandise, advertise their wares with homemade signs in French or Creole (the Africanized French fusion most Haitians actually speak), but many--perhaps most--of the thronging passersby cannot understand these because they have never learned to read. Children are everywhere, many of them painfully thin--some are clothed, some partially clothed, others not clothed at all; not a few bear the marks of illness, infections, or growths that have never been diagnosed or treated. The graying decayed remnants of a few kites entangled on telephone lines provide the only hint that any of these children has ever possessed or enjoyed a toy. As for the grown-ups on the street, some seem agitated, some enervated, but almost all are shrunken and weathered, aged far beyond their years: Young women here look middle-aged, middle-aged men positively ancient. And these are the adults strong enough and healthy enough to be out on the streets: The victims of Haiti's chronic life-threatening epidemic afflictions--malaria, tuberculosis, and (now) HIV/AIDS--are more likely to be out of sight, in the hovels of the back alleyways, resting and trying to cling to life.