On January 12th, most of the world awoke to the fact that Haiti existed.
Bleary-eyed, we were quickly fed by the media a month-long crash course about Haiti: its troubled history, its politico-economic situation, the frustrations of disaster relief, and so forth. We were shocked by graphic pictures and moved by stories of heroism. Now, the Haitian narrative in the media is dying out; the adrenaline of compassion has hit its peak. What next?
Before the page is turned on Haiti, the fact remains that we’ve just woken up. How can we begin to make sense of what is going on, beyond the short clips of rubble and blood, with Haiti and its past and present relationships to the international community? Can we better understand Haiti through multiple, contrasting lenses—a historical, a literary, and a political perspective—in order to assess the international response to the crisis and determine future steps?
To begin, what has Haiti meant to us?
Professor Kaiama Glover, assistant professor in the French department at Barnard College and instructor of a class on Haitian literature, theorizes that the Western world has imagined Haiti along three axes.
First, in the 1700s, it was perceived to be the pearl of all the colonies for its sugar production. Nearly a century later, after it became the second nation after the United States to gain independence in the Western Hemisphere, it became an idealized birthplace of “a Pan-African fantasy of black pride,” says Glover. The last axis, the one we’re in, is that of Haiti as a failed state. Indeed, the inevitable tagline that follows Haiti in the news is the fact that it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
That tagline, according to professor Natasha Lightfoot, assistant professor of history at Columbia, hides the “broader context of how many different nations are involved … there are many issues with governance in Haiti, but you can’t lay all the blame on current Haitian power structures.”
Upon gaining independence from the French in 1804, Haiti was leveled with reparations from France who came around to collect on their loss. The debt amounted to 150 million French francs, which is around 25 billion dollars today.
The 1900s brought about a distinct, humanitarian change from the 1800s; the number of humanitarian interventions more than doubled. These humanitarian interventions, however, were not always so altruistic.
In 1915, the United States occupied Haiti to stabilize the security situation, as Haiti was suffering from political infighting. Meanwhile, it reintroduced the corvée, recruiting Haitians to build airports, schools, roads, and so on, partly in fear of the growing German influence on international commerce.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Haiti’s two dictators misappropriated millions in foreign loans for their own uses (while touting “democracy” and “capitalism” to reassure the United States), saddling the Haitian state, with a huge debt to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Haiti was demanded to pay 20 percent of export earnings in debt servicing, according to an article by professor Saskia Sassen. In contrast, after World War II, the allies claimed 3 percent of Germany’s export earnings.
As part of the loans’ conditionalities, Haiti was forced to dramatically lower its trade barriers. Haiti is one of the most open economies in the Western hemisphere, but still remains the poorest. U.S.-imported rice now dominates the Haitian market, pushing out local production.
From then on, Haiti has experienced a rising, toppling, and rising again of its leaders, with the influence of American troops. In 1994, Bill Clinton reinstated the democratically-elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown by a coup; he was dethroned years later, once again, by a military coup, and to this day accuses the United States and the Bush administration.
Given such mixed records of “humanitarian interventions” in Haiti and elsewhere (the Iraq war was labeled one at one point), the label of a “humanitarian intervention” itself has become very controversial.
“It’s become so controversial,” Séverine Autesserre, professor of political science in Barnard College, says, “because it is linked to debates about neocolonialism and neoimperialism—basically what is the legitimacy of the state derived to go into another state and try to impose its way of working?”
The tension between intervention on behalf of human rights and state sovereignty has led to the creation of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) in 2000, which means that when a state is unable or unwilling to protect its population, the responsibility to protection falls to the international community.
The label of a “failed state,” then, affords the legitimacy for other states to step in and temporarily provide basic services, like peace in a time of civil war. Although R2P is usually deployed in conflict situations, Haiti, in many ways, resembles a post-conflict state.
“For the first time in a post-disaster situation,” said John Mutter, professor of earth sciences at the Earth Institute, “we have to think more like we’re in a post-conflict situation in which you have to build government institutions.”
The Asian tsunamis in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina battered coastlines of their respective victims, but left their capitals intact. The governments were able to respond to the coastal areas, which just had to hitch back onto the main economy. But with Haiti, the very capital itself was destroyed.
For all the complaints about the handling of Hurricane Katrina, at least the federal government had a direct obligation to aid the government of New Orleans, whereas there is no one formally responsible to aid the Haitian state in times of crisis. This power vacuum contributes to the lack of coordination of donor efforts and donations. The Red Cross received $200 million in donations, even though it only had 15 people in Haiti before the earthquake. Partners in Health received $40 million; it had 5,000 people on the ground.
The task to rebuild Haiti is a staggering one, one that extends into a long-term building of physical and political infrastructure. So, how do we follow through on our R2P and rebuild Haiti?
“But when we talk of building Haiti—who is the ‘we?’” asked Elisabeth King, a post-doctoral fellow in political science at the Earth Institute. “There is a fine line between welcomed assistance and foreign imposition.”
Her sentiment was echoed in the SIPA panel on Haiti on Jan. 25.
“I don’t think anybody can rebuild Haiti. Only the Haitians can. And we should give them the opportunity to do that with dignity, to give them all the assistance we can, but we have to let them tell us what they want,” Elizabeth Lindenmayer, head of the UN Studies Program at SIPA, says from personal experience—she was in Haiti when the earthquake struck.
So how can the international community engage local actors in reconstruction?
Autesserre paused. “Books have been written about the topic [of local empowerment]; we have conferences and workshops on it. Basically, we don’t know.”
However, Dirk Salomons, head of the humanitarian affairs program at SIPA, thinks otherwise.
“[Rebuilding Haiti] is not rocket science. Some of it is so bloody obvious and some of it has been done so well in the past,” he said.
“Haitians have to lead, fine, but to me that’s rhetoric. Haitians at this moment are so weakened—they cannot lead. ... I’ll be in favor of a temporary UN authority to run the country the way it did with Cambodia at the end of the war there because even though this is not technically a war, this is as much as completely derailed as those countries.”
Salomons was referring to the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia after the 1992 civil war. The UN had temporarily taken over the entire governing responsibilities of the country, while enfolding the local people in as many positions as possible. As capacity was built, the UN gradually and firmly withdrew.
“The idea of a transitional administration has been tested before. It would be the perfect model to build capacity in Haiti to take over and then become an effective, Haitian-driven recovery machine,” Salomons said.
However, there is a difference between Haitians “working with” and “working for” international actors; the former is part of the planning process, the latter executes assigned tasks.
“Haitians deeply want to participate in all aspects of relief and development,” said Tatiana Wah, Earth Institute’s Haiti policy advisor, at the panel on the 25th. “If at the onset they are not integrated into the processes of relief and development, they’ll revolt. They’re a fiercely proud and heroic people, and yet they need assistance, in a way that’s almost like caressing … For foreign entities [to] carve out development in Haiti’s image by Haitian people—that has never happened.”
Already, some people are wary of the influx of U.S. military troops, noting a “semblance of an occupation,” as Lightfoot puts it. Given the history of U.S. military occupation in Haiti and the fact that 33 cents of every U.S. dollar for Haiti is spent on troops, it’s not too surprising that R2P has been contested by scholars. Mahmood Mamdani, professor of anthropology, points out that there is a lack of accountability in when, how, and where to deploy R2P, even hinting at a guised attempt at recolonization.
For practically-minded people like Salomons, the tragedy of Haiti is the lack of sufficient funding. Past attempts to aid Haiti, such as the UN peacekeeping operations, were “half-assed,” even after our having “occupied a place, tortured it, used it for cheap labor and tolerated horrendously evil regimes there.”
It’s the tragedy of the international system at large. Contemporary Civilization authors belabor the state of anarchy of early mankind, in which self-interest ruled the day, and how, out of the realization of our interdependencies, we formed governing institutions that bind us to laws. The international system, for the most part, remains in that state of anarchy. Nationalist self-interest is not particular to the United States.
In the modern day, failed states get long-term attention if they directly affect another nation’s security. The rise in the publicity of terrorism prompted a surge of interest in failed states as potential terrorist havens. Using perverse logic, Haiti might get the aid it needs if it becomes a security threat to the United States.
The bullet-point list for Haiti’s reconstruction is long and extensive. The rainy season will arrive by April, which poses a huge risk to the temporary shelters. Buildings need to be built according to proper codes. Mental counseling is needed due to the social trauma inflicted by the mass, anonymous burials. An integral part of Haitian culture is maintaining communion with the dead in order to establish a link to the pre-slave past, a process which requires a physical burial location.
Nevertheless, the Haitian people are no strangers to disaster. In 2008, Haiti was hit, along with other Caribbean nations, with hurricanes that were deemed some of the worst in 50 years.
Glover comments, “The Haitian people are an incredibly resilient people. The failures that we in the first world perceive are experienced and lived by Haitians as proof of the capacity to survive. There’s a sense of hopefulness that’s … based in the idea of Haitian strength and resilience.”