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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Yet things are even worse--much worse--for most Haitians than this bleak street picture might suggest. For there is an important qualitative difference between grinding poverty and utter misery, and Haiti today lies on the wrong side of that divide. These impoverished Haitians lack more than money, food, medicine, schooling, decent housing, shoes, clean water, and regular electricity: They also lack personal safety and physical security. Haiti is a territory trapped between a state of siege and a state of nature--a Hobbesian nightmare in which violent and well-armed crime gangs operate essentially at will, effectively controlling much of the area in which ordinary people have to live.

The personnel of most foreign embassies simply will not visit many inhabited regions of the country without armed escort--and are specifically enjoined from visiting other places (such as the Cité Soleil slum, home to perhaps half a million people) under any circumstances at all. The third day of my Haiti visit, word went around that a man had been not just murdered but deliberately be headed on the same street as the U.S. ambassador's residence--an effective message to the island that absolutely no spot in Haiti is beyond the reach of the crimelords.

The more well-to-do Haitians I met spoke of the daily terror of crime and violence that they face--robbery, kidnappings, murder just for the fun of it--and these are the Haitians who can afford safer neighborhoods, protective walls adorned with barbed wire and broken glass, or perhaps armed guards. The greatest burden of crime, violence, and lawlessness falls on the poor. "We can't even hand things out to people in the slums--it would endanger them," explained a foreign social worker with nearly two decades' experience in Haiti's worst neighborhoods. "You know what would happen if we gave little radios? The bad guys would know about it right away--and they'd come into those homes to take the radios, and more."

Lest there be a thought that Haiti's poor have nothing to lose from gangs and crime but their radios, Dr. Jean William Pape, the latter-day Haitian-born Albert Schweitzer who directs GHESKIO, the country's leading HIV-research institute/clinic, told me that the connection in Haiti between violent chaos and forcible rape was so immediate and direct that his staff compiles a "rape index" that serviceably mirrors changes in Haiti's security environment just by tabulating the number of victims streaming into his clinics after sexual assaults. In a country where the government does not even bother to compile crime statistics, this may be the closest thing to a proxy for local crime rates that exists.

Why is there no physical security in Haiti today? The problem speaks to an abject failure of both the government of Haiti and the U.N.'s latest Haitian intervention force (MINUSTAH--the Franco phone acronym for "United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti") in their most fundamental of charges.

The Haitian government maintains no standing army--merely a police force of perhaps 7,000. Only some of those police show up for work, and a troubling proportion of those who do show up are compromised, on the take from the very predators against whom they are supposed to protect the public. To put the problem in perspective, consider this: New York City--with a population roughly comparable to Haiti's, and an environment incomparably more stable and secure--employs about 35,000 sworn police officers, a force perhaps ten times larger than the number of reliable Haitian police (the latter scattered over a country about two orders of magnitude larger in area than the five boroughs).

Apart from the occasions when they are identified as abetting kidnappings or gang rampages, Haiti's police force is largely invisible. In my first two days of ranging through Port-au-Prince, I spotted police officers exactly twice--one of these instances being a spin near the presidential palace, the Haitian "White House." In the slums of La Saline I passed a police station--but no one seemed to be there. Where were the officers--hiding inside? Possibly so: The téléjiol--Haiti's national word-of-mouth grapevine and main communications medium in this densely-packed, illiterate nation--was saying that a band of police had just found themselves outgunned in Port-au-Prince in a shoot-out with local gangsters, and had retreated to their headquarters. The police situation, however, is said to be improving. U.S. embassy personnel informed me that Haiti was training new police recruits in classes of 250--at which pace, by rough calculation, Haiti could muster a New York City-sized police force somewhere around the middle of this century, assuming zero attrition or mortality.