COHA: “The Rock in the Sun”: Haiti’s Préval Pleads For the U.S. and Rest of the World to End Global Negligence Towards Latin America’s Poorest Country

  • President Préval’s dilemma may continue as he makes his case before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and international lending agencies
  • The failed state continues to suffer in spite of it being led by a worthy president
  • Visit lacking high visibility

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It has more foot-washers than shoeshiners: little boys who, for a penny, will wash the feet of customers lacking shoes to shine. Haitians, on the average, live a bit more than thirty years. Nine out of every ten can’t read or write. – Eduardo Galeano

A Plead for Help
On February 5, Haitian president René Préval arrived in Washington carrying a desperate message in his pocket. In it, he requested emergency aid from the United States for as much as $100 million. Préval met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, officials at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and congressional leaders. Secretary Clinton vowed to consider his request but said that she could not make any promises. Already, the U.S. gives $250 million annually in mostly humanitarian aid to NGOs working in Haiti; Préval insists that the humanitarian support would be more beneficial for the country if it went directly to the Haitian government where it could fill a budget gap. Clinton said, ‘We want to be working with them [Haitians] as they continue to build a vibrant democracy and a growing economy.’ But with a mounting economic crisis plaguing much of the world, including the United States, Préval’s plea comes at a most inopportune time. The question now is will the new Obama administration further assist Haiti, or will it proceed with a 200-year-old pattern of inadequate response to the island’s crushing needs?

A Grim State of Affairs
While over 9,000 peacekeeping personnel from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) are currently on the ground in the country, the situation continues to prove untenable. Since the demise of the Baby Doc dictatorship, international aid has been continuous, in some form, on the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. This status quo was perpetuated during the U.S.-arranged democratic government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which was looked upon with suspicion by the Clinton administration, and finally was pushed out of power by President Bush. Yet as scores of attempts by U.N. missions sponsored by NGOs and foreign diplomats have come and gone, the human condition in Haiti has barely improved. Crime is rampant; healthcare is almost nonexistent; the literacy rate reaches just over 50 percent; and many Haitians are forced to mix dirt with salt and vegetable shortening in a desperate attempt to get some sort of nutrition.

The historic pattern of counterfeit elections was first broken by Aristide and then again by his friend and protégé Préval, with the latter winning fairly and decisively in 2006 at the head of L’Espwa (the Hope) party. This came after Haiti’s long history of corrupt and fruitless attempts at free and fair elections. And while the 2006 vote carried the normal drama of supposed manipulated ballots, the ballot was largely seen as a step toward political stability. In spite of this glimpse at democratic practice after years of military domination, social and economic uncertainty persists as the country seems permanently trapped in a perpetual state of turmoil.

The health of Haitians consistently ranks as the worst in the Western Hemisphere. ‘There is no country in the Americas region which has comparable indicators,’ maintains Dr. Teresa de la Torre, a UNICEF spokesperson. ‘There is extreme vulnerability because of poor nutrition.’ According to UNICEF, the child mortality rate is 87 per 1,000 for children under the age of five, and 53 per 1,000 for children under the age of one. The AIDS rate in Haiti is thought to be the highest in the Americas as the U.N. estimates that about 6 percent of the population are infected by HIV/AIDS and 30,000 people die of the disease every year. The Haitian government spends only $2 per person on healthcare each year, according to the 2005 World Health Report.

Even though many humanitarian health organizations such as Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders undertake arduous initiatives to provide free care to the impoverished population, the problem is extremely difficult to solve and requires a much greater commitment of resources. Access is often the most pressing factor that prevents those in critical need of medical attention from attaining proper care. Haitians living in rural areas are almost physically unable and economically incapable of venturing into the capital of Port-au-Prince to obtain a remedy. For the most part, only those with sufficient funds are able to seek treatment, which is an infrequent scenario since Haiti’s average annual income is $240–about 66 cents a day drastically narrowing the availability of existing medical services.

Gavin Yamey of the Public Library of Science in San Francisco contends that there are cheap and effective solutions to improve global health. By implementing simple resolutions such as making use of latrines, bed nets, clean water, and vaccines, the condition of even those without access to proper health practices can be vastly improved. But basic theoretical strategies rapidly evolve to be distressingly complex once they are put into practice. Yet, health is not the only concern for Haitians. The lack of basic food staples on the island, and the near inability to achieve a nutritious and balanced diet has created a moribund environment for starving Haitians.

Food Shortage
The food shortage that plagues Haiti is rooted in the fact that the island is forced to import nearly all of its food. Land that was once fertile has fallen victim to desertification and can no longer be counted on to produce an abundant crop. Lack of self-sufficient national food production is an underlying basis for why chronic malnourishment is ubiquitous on the island. Because Haiti relies so heavily on external supplies, the world food crisis that began in 2008 particularly has affected it.
Without doubt, the crisis, which intensified at the onset of 2008 as food prices soared, was felt throughout the entire world. But the underdeveloped nations have been particularly vulnerable. In April 2008, the World Food Program admitted that it could not afford to purchase adequate volumes of food as the price of rice, for example, had more than doubled since March. International food donors are distributing more and more ‘therapeutic food’ as a way to fight malnourishment. The ready-to-eat rations are made of milk, peanuts, and added nutrients and temporarily alleviate starvation. The problem with them, however, is that hungry people depend on these allotments that, in reality, do not resolve the core dilemma at hand.

Tensions in Haiti escalated in April 2008 when thousands of people took to the streets for three days of riots. Angry protesters demanding more food stormed the presidential palace. As a result, Brazil and Venezuela provided food for the battered nation and an emergency meeting was held among the U.N., the United States, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to seek solutions to the problem. Nevertheless, starvation continues to permanently affect Haiti.

It is argued by many that perhaps the remedy to the aforementioned issues is education. For countless Haitians, the lack of access to schooling in Haiti makes the thought of formal learning but a stretch of phantasmagoric daydreams. School fees, supplies, and expensive mandatory uniforms prevent scores of children from attending school. According to the World Bank, only 27 percent of students in Haiti complete primary school, and only a small portion of those continue on to secondary school. Additionally, the adult literacy rate is a mere 50 percent. The United States donated $24 million between 2004-2007 to train teachers and buy school supplies, although, it is unlikely that the funds were necessarily directed at the appropriate sectors.

From Revolution to Despair
Shortly after Columbus landed on the island which he would call Hispaniola, the native Arawak Indians were exterminated–the first of many bloody encounters between Europeans and the indigenous people of Latin America. While the Spanish largely ignored the western side of the island, French settlers took interest in working the land and the territory gradually became a horrific slave colony in which one third of them died within three years of their arrival from Africa. Their principal function was to grow crops on the immensely lucrative sugar plantations. In 1697, Spain surrendered its western third of the island to France and the exports of the expanding sugar plantation agriculture flourished in the European market. However, the widespread exploitation of the natives and slaves, and social stratification that followed provoked a slave revolt that broke out in the fall of 1791.

By the end of the century, sugar production was nearly nonexistent on the island, yet the first national in history to be led by native Africans now existed. This independence, however, was purchased at a fearfully high cost for the former slaves. Eduardo Galeano caught this essence when he contends that, ‘the country was born in ruins and never recovered.’ Haiti, a country created on the foundation of self-reliance and in pursuit of prosperity, had fallen into a state of unrelieved despair.

World Intervention: A Failed Attempt at Stabilization
Founder of Partners in Health Paul Farmer describes Haiti’s history as, ‘a great and terrible struggle between the rich and the poor, between good and evil.’ In many ways, the countries of Latin American have suffered from the humanitarian, economic, political, and militaristic objectives of the developed world—and Haiti is no different. Almost immediately following the slave revolt and the creation of the world’s first black republic, Haitians were subject to gigantic levels of misrule, insofar as misguided policies of the major foreign powers of the day, like France and the United States, controlling their destiny.From 1915-1934, United States Marines occupied and controlled all aspects of life in Haiti. Their supposed purpose was to maintain peace, stabilize the Haitian government, and recover delinquent payments to European bondholders, a goal that historically had been somewhat evaded. Indifferent to the Haitian opposition to the U.S., and the fact that Americans were even there, many Americans thought the Haitians were incapable of establishing their own democracy. Americans bore very little respect for the natives, as demonstrated by U.S. Marines official John H. Craige. ‘These people had never heard of democracy and couldn’t have comprehended it had they heard.’

A conflicting relationship between the dominant United States (and much of the developed Western world) and a dependent Haiti has existed throughout its normally-losing struggle to thwart dependency and thrive on its own.

The Haitian government’s refusal to make the Banque Nationale a division of the American-owned National City Bank at the onset of the U.S. occupation in 1915led to the discontinuation of American funds. This political ploy did not seem to promote stability and sovereignty, but rather the opposite. Such malicious relations can be in part explained through the ‘West Atlantic system’.

Orlando Patterson argues that the ‘peripheral units’ of the region are directly connected to the center United States. ‘The West Atlantic periphery has become more and more uniform, under the direct and immediate influence of the all-powerful center (the U.S.), in cultural, political, and economic terms.’ Much of the nations in the region lack a voice to challenge what some call the American empire and harmonize their power to the wishes of the United States. And so, since the epoch of the slave revolt, the partnership between the rest of the world and Haiti has been one between the dominant and the submissive; the controlling parent and the neglected child.

Pseudo-relief: Ignoring a Failing State
Why does the world give so much attention to one humanitarian crisis and ignore another? How do we weigh the need in terms of human suffering? Is one disaster more important than another? These poignant questions are at core of the world’s habitual neglect of Haiti.

In spite of the sometimes superficial conceptualization of international aid, the human condition in Haiti has not improved significantly. Haitians are in consistently in a state of suffering. They are painfully hungry and suffering from malnutrition. They are basically analphabetic. They have almost no access to healthcare. And yet in the developed world, there is barely any concern if they have the means or the will to fight to survive.

There are dozens of humanitarian disasters occurring right now throughout the world. International development researcher Ben Wisner questions the inherent discriminatory nature of disaster relief strategy: ‘Why did the international community pour vast resources into Asian tsunami and Kashmir earthquake relief and recovery, but much less to deal with drought and threatened famine in Africa at the same time?’

Prioritization of relief can be attributed, at least partially, to the whims of individual donors as well as the faddish mood of the media. That a crisis attracted media attention does not necessarily result in action that fixes the problem. In many cases it becomes a matter of how the issue is framed. Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders Nicolas de Torrenté explains that, ‘If there is no media attention, if [the problem] is not even on the radar screen, if it doesn’t even register, then it doesn’t even exist for policymakers and no discussion takes place.’ While media attention may indeed lead to immediate, albeit temporary relief in the form of charity and relief supplies, these solutions do not necessarily address the heart of the matter. Giving a bag of rice to a starving family in Port-au-Prince will only nourish it for a definite period of time. Instead, teaching them farming methods for crops that are then grown on the barren land of Haiti is far more effective as it is practical. By developing relief networks that attack problems head on, a country is able to take one step closer to self-sufficiency.

The Haitian proverb ‘the rock in the water doesn’t know the suffering of the rock in the sun’ is especially pertinent. Does an outsider know the pain that Haitians experience on a day to day basis? Will the outside world of the donors sit as rocks in the water and idly watch them suffer or will a lasting solution to the hardship be sought?

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate David Rosenblum Felson

February 9th, 2009
Word Count: 2400

Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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