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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As for MINUSTAH and their 8,800 soldiers and police, some Haitians have taken to calling them TOURISTAH. As one explained to me, "We see them in our best restaurants, dating our women, and on our nicest beaches. The only place we don't see them is where the crime and violence are taking place, where they are needed." Constrained by extraordinarily restrictive "rules of engagement," these U.N. forces remain far from their goal of "stabilizing" Haiti. Indeed, when U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan briefly visited Haiti in August to praise progress and call for more international aid, his advance team--even with the MINUSTAH force at hand--judged the security situation too perilous to risk scheduling a visit to Dr. Pape's model GHESKIO clinic, located in downtown Port-au-Prince.

In a purely arithmetic sense, Haiti's poverty today is a consequence of prolonged and severe economic retrogression--we might even say economic implosion. According to Angus Maddison's estimates, per capita GDP in Haiti is roughly 25 percent lower now, at the beginning of the new century, than it was in 1945. Per capita GDP was nearly twice as high in Haiti as in Bangladesh back in 1950--but by 2001, per capita output was higher in Bangladesh than in Haiti (by about 15 percent). And Haiti has been overtaken by Bangladesh not only in raw economic performance, but also in basic social performance: By World Bank estimates, life expectancy today is fully a decade higher in Bangladesh than in Haiti; according to the U.N., in fact, Haiti's life expectancy is no higher today than it was 20 years ago.

Indications of protracted decline abound. According to the World Bank, Haiti's level of total cereal production is 20 percent lower today than it was in 1961: this, for a still predominantly rural society whose population more than doubled in the interim. Likewise, aggregate electricity generation is lower than it was a decade and a half ago--a modern record for futility surpassed perhaps only by Kim Jong Il's North Korea. Haiti once had a national railway line--but it is missing now, engulfed and absorbed in the brush. (Haiti has practically no forests--all the free firewood has already been taken.) Old State Department "Area Handbooks" speak of Haitian coffee as the country's main export; modern-day U.S. agricultural officials talk of "Haitian blue" in tones akin to the North American bison--i.e., a magnificent species, sadly no longer much seen.

For any small island economy, international trade is vital--yet Haiti barely engages in it. According to the World Trade Organization, total merchandise exports for Haiti in 2005 amounted to $473 million, or about $55 per person. And as with so much else in Haiti, trends are heading in the wrong direction. In the capital's tiny Port Authority, where cargo from vessels docked in the harbor is still unloaded mainly by hand, officials tell me that freight volume is down 50 percent over the past two years. Rough calculations suggest that Haiti--a country self-sufficient in nothing--is bringing in through its port system rather less than a pound per person per day of merchandise: food, gasoline, cement, trucks, clothing, paper, machinery--everything.

Haiti's other aperture to the world economy is an inland road through the highlands linking it to the Dominican Republic, its larger and markedly more successful neighbor on Hispaniola--but for the month before my arrival, that access point had been closed to all international commerce. It seems that Haiti had a newly appointed head of customs who entertained the peculiar idea of actually attempting to collect the statutory import duties listed on the books for incoming goods. Affronted and incensed, Haiti's major smugglers organized a trucking roadblock of the border, and then enforced it through menace. The government to date has proved incapable of lifting this self-embargo. There is quite a bit of talk about the lonely honest Haitian official at the center of this trade crisis. It is said, for example, that Transparency International is thinking of honoring him with an award--if he lives long enough.

It is no more than stating the obvious to say that Haiti's historical and political saga is intimately entwined with the dismal results we see today. We need not revisit every sorry stage and tragic step in the country's anguished 200-plus years of independence to understand the awful humanitarian spectacle. Yet the milestones of this historical legacy must be at least mentioned in passing. The African roots: over 100 tribes or peoples involuntarily transplanted to the New World to form the workforce of the French slave plantation system. The colonial interlude: the briefest, as a matter fact, for any country in the New World (French rule in Haiti lasted only just over a century). The slave revolt: following the American Revolution chronologically, but informed by the merciless logic of the French Revolution, killing or driving out virtually all of the country's "white" former masters. And then, with independence on New Year's Day in 1804, the troubled triumph of this Black Spartacus nation.

In 202 years of sovereignty, Haiti has celebrated over 20 constitutions; nine presidents-for-life; a handful of self-proclaimed kings and emperors--and, if one is counting generously, three peaceful and legal transfers of presidential authority from one legitimately elected government to the next, one of which involves the current occupant of the National Palace, President René Préval, who assumed office under MINUSTAH's aegis earlier this year.

Recurring military interventions from abroad are also part of the Haitian legacy, usually though not always by American forces. Most memorable were the 19-year Marine Corps occupation of the country that commenced during World War I; and, more recently, the U.N.-sanctioned American mission in the 1990s that temporarily restored to power Jean-Bertrand Aristide--the exiled, vengeful, radicalized, and corrupt, but popularly elected, president. (In 2004, when Aristide--reelected but by then disgraced--reluctantly relinquished the presidency of a Haiti in turmoil and disarray, U.S. Marines returned once again, before handing off international responsibility for the policing of Haiti to others under the United Nations flag.)

Haiti's heritage is so very African (only a tiny fraction of its people claim to be mixed-blood or "mulatto") that the West African traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries--the culture of modern Haiti's original enslaved ancestors--have not only survived, but taken on a life of their own in the New World. Voodoo is a touchstone here (a word, by no coincidence, that came from a language spoken in the West African country now called Benin). A local aphorism has it that "Haiti is 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent voodoo." Voodoo is, indeed, one of the country's two state-recognized religions. In its forbidding supernatural world, ordinary helpless mortals are at the mercy of a pantheon of loa and lesser undead beings--zombies, loups-garous (werewolves), and the like--who must be feared, and may occasionally be traduced, but cannot always be propitiated.

The correspondence between voodoo and modern Haitian politics is more than incidental. Indeed, Haiti's most powerful and arguably most successful political figure from the past century--François "Papa Doc" Duvalier--was, literally, a voodoo doctor. "Papa Doc" had an M.D. in modern medicine, and trained at the University of Michigan--but he also carefully garbed himself in the dark black suit and the dour, unforgiving demeanor of Baron Samedi, the voodoo god of the graveyard. His control over Haiti was so total that his proposal to confer the next presidency-for-life upon his 19-year-old son "Baby Doc" carried a plebiscite by a vote of 2.5 million to one--so total that his decree to recast the Lord's Prayer as an appeal to the Almighty Papa Doc did not evoke laughter from the Haitians obliged to recite it. Papa Doc ruled through fear, and his agents of terror were his personal gangs of armed, unsmiling, sunglass-wearing thugs. These were the tontons macoutes: creole for "bogeymen," another homage to voodoo. They were not Haiti's first criminal marauders in de facto authority, inflicting misfortune or tragedy by whim on the uncharmed and unlucky--nor, as we sadly see today, were they the last.

Modern Haiti has experienced a "withering away of the state," to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, but not at all in the way Marx anticipated for his Communist utopia. The government has ceased to provide security and physical safety in any regular or credible fashion. It no longer provides regular and reliable postal service. Its provision of electricity and water is limited and irregular. Health services rely mainly on the charity of strangers (also known as foreign aid).

Hardly less important, the government has excused itself from the task of educating the nation's young. It is only a slight exaggeration to say there is no public system, or even structure, for primary and secondary education in Haiti. The Haitian government, as best I can tell, does not collect and disseminate educational statistics any more--and has basically no idea how many of the country's children are in school, or out of it. There is no question, however, that the educational profile is dismal: According to the country's 2003 census, for example, less than a quarter of all Haitians live in families where the main provider has gone further than sixth grade, and half of Haiti's families rely on breadwinners who have no formal schooling at all.

Knowledgeable Haitians and foreigners with whom I talked guessed that maybe half or three-fifths of Haiti's children enter primary school these days, with maybe one third of that fraction completing their primary education. They also guessed that the Haitian government provides no more than a tenth of the spaces for primary school these days--the rest coming from private-sector "écoles" and "colleges," most of which are tiny, store-front for-pay operations whose modest tuitions nevertheless pose a grim food-or-schooling question to families who wish to see their sons and daughters get an education.

In today's Haiti, even a rudimentary education looks to be beyond the reach of the majority of children; mass illiteracy is the likely prospect for the rising generation. If the failure to provide security deprives Haitians of the environment in which material advance is possible, the failure to educate deprives the population of the tools by which to achieve such advance.

Where does foreign aid and foreign assistance fit into this gruesome tableau? In the United States and elsewhere, there are voices quick to attribute Haiti's dire circumstances to inadequate foreign generosity. According to the USAID "Green Book," however, Haiti received a cumulative total of about $3.5 billion (in 2004 dollars) in American aid (economic and security assistance) between 1946 and 2004--that is to say, over the roughly six decades in which its per capita output achieved a decline of 25 percent. U.S. aid, moreover, was just one of many sources of concessional official transfers to Haiti. According to the World Bank, since 1969, Haiti has enjoyed a cumulative total of $8.3 billion in official development assistance (measured in 2004 dollars).

To put these sums in perspective: The U.S. government places Haiti's official, exchange rate-based GDP for the year 2005 at $4.3 billion. While there are reasons to remain skeptical about that precise figure, as already noted, we can be more confident about another measure of the country's economic performance: merchandise export earnings. In 2004, according to the World Trade Organization, Haiti generated a little less than $400 million through international sales of its own goods. Against that benchmark, foreign aid transfers would amount to over two decades' worth of Haitian exports. Whatever Haiti's many problems may be, an inadequate volume of foreign aid is not one of them.

Although Haiti's prospects are severely clouded, the picture is not totally without hope. Haiti now relies upon a million-plus community of émigrés in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere for remittances that may be the country's most effective economic lifeline at the moment; those same émigrés could be pivotal in reconstructing and developing Haiti if the business climate warranted the effort, investment, and risk. Haitians are resourceful and hard-working, as their very survival under current conditions should attest. The nation of Haiti has capable, dedicated, and loyal allies, both foreign and domestic.

Some of the good works now underway are truly inspiring (among them, the Mother Teresa Missionaries of Charity home for abandoned children and the aforementioned GHESKIO HIV clinic/institute, both of which I had the privilege to visit). Other projects underway are incontestably beneficial and worthwhile, such as the microfinance initiative at SOGEBANK, providing loans of a few hundred dollars at a time to striving market-women who can put these to good use. And against all odds, some initiatives are bearing fruit: The nation's HIV prevalence, for example, has been dropping in recent years, and may have been cut by as much as half over the past decade. But all of these individual pockets of promise are as exposed and vulnerable as sand castles at low tide--every speck of progress could be swept away, given the wild, unpredictable, and still-uncontrolled savagery into which this unhappy country has descended.

Haiti will be in a much better place than it is today when we can complain about corruption there. Haiti will be in a much better place than it is today when we can focus our policy criticisms on bureaucratic inefficiency, or wrongheaded economic and financial policies. What Haiti needs, more than any other single thing, is physical safety and security--for the sake of the poor as well as the rich. By itself, physical safety would constitute an immense improvement in the local standard of living (measured in any real human sense). An environment of safety and security would make it possible--at least theoretically--to achieve social and economic development and material advance.

For now, those desiderata are not even remotely realistic objectives. A cautious political survivor, President Préval now talks of "social appeasement" (a term that sounds no better in French or Creole than in English) and of opening a "dialogue" with the gangs that are murdering and terrorizing his countrymen. Safer streets are hardly the most likely outcome from such entreaties.

Under current conditions, foreign economic assistance--from the United States or elsewhere--can serve little more than a palliative function, akin to changing bandages on an open wound. While some will argue there is merit and even nobility in such service, we should have no illusions about what such service can--and cannot--do.

What do we--the fortunate souls holding U.S. passports, with warm beds and hot meals awaiting us--come home learning from a brief fact-finding sojourn to Haiti? In a sentence: Security comes first. First in the hierarchy of human needs. First in the prerequisites for economic progress. Nothing so elevated as "law and order"--apart from its unfondly remembered interlude under U.S. Marine Corps occupation in the early 20th century, it is not clear that Haiti has ever had that, and maybe not even then. Just physical safety and security.

Without security, efforts to better the national plight will be doomed to frustration, or worse. Foreign economic assistance will be mainly wasted, or worse. Humanitarian assistance efforts will find themselves on an endless treadmill. Economic and humanitarian assistance are no substitute for security and safety--cannot substitute for it, cannot themselves create it. And what holds for Haiti holds just as true for other tortured regions of the world where governments receive foreign aid, but local populations do not receive safety.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute.