The re-creation of Haiti

First Published: 2005-02-02

At age 30 Louisdor Cadet had seen three of his nine children die because there was not enough food to make them strong enough to survive the harsh life of the Northwest Department of Haiti.

His tiny farm suffered from drought…as well as soil erosion and flooding when it did rain. He worked the farm with his older children and his wife Marie, although she spent most of her time trading their small stock of produce at the local market.

There was no one he could turn to for help except the parish priest, and he could offer only spiritual advice. He realised that he had to do something, or he and his family would end their days stooping over the fields, paying the same forced taxes to petty officials while his children waited unenthusiastically to step into his shoes.

When they did, he would divide the farm between his eldest sons and they would have to make a living on even less than he had.

As he entered his mud-walled hut to rest on the straw pallet which served as a bed, he thought of Maxwell Claude down the valley. Claude ran a shop in a room of his tin-roofed house to sell food, cloth and a few bottles of liquor…none of which Louisdor could afford to buy.

Claude's good fortune was the result of "Nassau money" – savings he had managed to accumulate while working in the Bahamas for five years.

Like his children, Louisdor had not attended school, but he knew from the grapevine – the telediol – that the Bahamas was not far away by ship, although the fare was expensive.

So eventually he mortgaged his land and set sail on a 30-foot sloop to Nassau. It took four days to reach South Beach, where Louisdor waded ashore and was whisked away by a Haitian 'taxi' to a place called Carmichael.

Louisdor may not be a real person, but his story is true. It is a story that has been played out tens of thousands of times over recent decades. Here is an update on the Haitian dilemma.

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The eight million impoverished Haitians on our doorstep (projected to reach 13 million by 2025) are the most serious threat we face.

There is no doubt that the 50-100,000 Haitians now living in our communities will change Bahamian political culture forever…It is just a matter of time. But we don't get the impression that our policymakers lose any sleep over this.

The root cause of our impending transformation is Haiti's dismal failure as a state – despite its outstanding defeat of European arms 200 years ago in the modern world's first and only successful slave revolt.

For decades Haiti was an isolated enclave in a slave-owning world until it agreed to pay an "indemnity" to the French…blood payments that continued until the 1940's, and which crippled the country's economic growth.

The continuing injustice of Haiti's treatment by the world community can be measured in the outright French refusal to repay the indemnity (estimated at $21 billion), and the fact that almost no-one attended the Haitian government's bicentennial celebration earlier this year.

But there is plenty of blame to go around for Haiti's woes. After the Second World War, both medical doctor Francois Duvalier (who became president in 1957) and defrocked priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide (first elected in 1990) betrayed the Haitian masses who relied on them to bring about radical social reform.

The brutal Duvalier dynasty squandered decades of development opportunities, while Aristide's 14 years at centre stage were inept, divisive and led to international embargos and aid cut-offs that wrecked the economy yet again.

Following a flawed re-election in 2000, organised opposition to President Aristide grew to include remnants of the dissolved army and former Duvalier thugs, as well as elements of the educated business class.

An armed revolt began early this year under the leadership of former Cap-Haitian police chief Guy Phillipe…and international pressure led to Aristide's exile in late February.

Haitian businessman Daniel G?rard Rouzier, in a recent letter to the Nassau Institute, said that despite "massive popular and international support (Aristide) turned out to be one of the most violent rulers Haiti ever had. In retrospect, his only intent seems to have been to replace the dictators who preceded him rather than to promote real change."

But according to the left-of-centre Guardian newspaper in England, "What happened in Haiti is not that a leader who was once reasonable went mad with power; the truth is that a broadly consistent Aristide was never quite prepared to abandon all his principles."

The Boston Globe reported that Aristide's supporters "angrily contend that the international community, particularly the United States, abandoned the fledgling democracy when it needed aid the most. Many believe that Aristide himself was the target of the de facto economic sanctions."

The Caribbean Community (including the Bahamas) took this view, refusing to accept the interim government and calling for a UN investigation into Aristide's removal. After trading insults, Haiti subsequently withdrew from Caricom, which it had joined in 1997.

There is little doubt that Aristide remains a popular figure among the Haitian masses. But disappointment had long set in as he failed to address political divisions and seemed unable to adopt a coherent economic programme.

And American law enforcement officials are investigating allegations that Aristide received money from drug traffickers to grease the movement of cocaine shipments through Haiti.

According to Ernest Pregg, a former US ambassador, there has always been "a deep-seated pessimism about the motives of Haiti's political leaders and about Haitian government in general – a system rooted in venality and megalomania, frequently racked by violence."

Haiti's annual budget is only $300 million and a rural peasant culture still supports 70 per cent of the population. Per capita income was $361 last year, unemployment is as high as 60 per cent and the average Haitian's life expectancy is only 53 years, according to the World Bank.

Now, yet another international effort is underway to stabilize and reconstruct Haiti. The elusive goal is to bring about a national reconciliation that can achieve effective rural development, slow population growth, rebuild infrastructure, reform the political system and provide security.

In other words, the world must join with Haitians of goodwill to create a state from the bottom up. The foundation on which everything else depends is good governance and the administration of justice.

Without a properly functioning government, the $1 billion in aid recently pledged by international donors will be wasted. But officials have vowed to learn from past mistakes and better coordinate their efforts under the interim government led by Prime Minister G?rard Latortue.

The 72-year-old Latortue came out of retirement in Florida when he was appointed by a council of elders to lead the country until a new government is elected next year. He is a Paris-educated economist who fled the Duvalier regime in 1963 and worked for the United Nations.

He was briefly foreign minister in 1988 after the departure of 'Baby Doc' Duvalier, and until the overthrow of that government in one of 32 coups d'etat fomented by the Haitian army.

Latortue has been criticised for describing the anti-Aristide rebels (many of whom are former death squad members) as "freedom fighters". But that is the least of his worries. He must now come to grips with crises that include massive desertification, widespread corruption, a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic, lack of education and healthcare and failing utilities.

At a recent conference in Washington, more than 250 international and Haitian experts drafted what they called the Interim Co-operation Framework to guide funding over the next two years. Priorities include the restoration of electricity supply, improvements to roads, ports and airports, and aid to agriculture, clothing manufacturing and tourism. The Washington Post says the interim government, after a shaky start, is gaining international support. But it added the perennial caveat that Haiti's prospects for recovery were precarious at best:

"Large parts of the countryside remain in the hands of armed gangs, some of them led by former members of the since-disbanded army that once ruled the country by force."

After Aristide's departure, the US sent a small force of marines which were replaced by a larger force including Canadian and French troops. This has now evolved into the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti led by Brazilian peacekeepers.

Earlier this month a group of former rebels threatened to take up arms against the Latortue government. And in the effort to disarm the gangs, the Brazilians have resorted to staging an appearance by their famed soccer team – requiring disarmament as the price of admission.

As always, pundits say the odds are against a successful reconstruction. Waves of illegal migration are likely to continue towards the Bahamas and the United States, where more than a million people of Haitian descent already live.

Haitian expatriates contribute an estimated $800 million each year in remittances to the Haitian economy. An unknown portion of this amount is derived from the Bahamas.

It is an equally fair bet that Bahamian political battles of the near future will be fought over the rights and obligations of illegal immigrants and their locally-born descendants. So the sooner we come to terms with these issues, the better.

This article was first published in The Tribune July 29, 2004.

The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

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