In the history of Haiti, Tuesday, January 12, 2010, to borrow from U.S. president Roosevelt, shall live in infamy. On that day a powerful earthquake along the Enrique-Plantain Garden fault may have set Haiti back by decades, just when it seemed that the country was, at long last, on the mend.
To concede the Sisyphean nature of the Haitian experience is hardly to lend credence to the bizarre interpretation of Haitian history by American televangelist Pat Robertson, who, along with a coterie of closed-minded religious figures, routinely pick such tragic events as are unfolding in Haiti to display their twisted theology. Fortunately, the bigotry of a Lilliputian crowd has been largely offset by the generosity of the multitude, which gives some cause for optimism. Indeed, in spite of the scale of the unfolding calamity, it is no time to despair. Haitians and friends of Haiti should see the earthquake of January 12, 2010, as an opportunity to rebuild the country, but this time avoiding all of the mistakes of the past. If Haitians and the international community do things right, years from now, January 12, 2010, may even be remembered as the date Haiti simultaneously descended into the sepulture and rose from the netherworld.
Admittedly, turning Haiti around will not be easy, not least because Haiti has multiple needs, from clean drinking water to a functioning state, and the resources to secure them are mostly non-existent inside the country. The corruption, incompetence and venality of Haiti’s fractious “elite” do not help. Neither does the (short) attention span of the international community, including the international media. Inasmuch as the rebuilding of Haiti is likely to require at least a generation (20 years or more) and much external involvement, it is a legitimate question to ask whether the powers-that-be in the world are prepared to commit resources to a country, whose strategic value in the chess game that is international politics is limited.
Still, these expressions of caution do not gainsay the need to imagine, share ideas, speak “truth” to power and, at the most basic, hope. Fatalism should be anathema to anyone who makes the study of politics, the ultimate art of the possible, his/her profession. Such a stance is all the more morally problematic for those who, either by dint of Providence or choice, have a personal stake in the Haitian saga and simply cannot walk away from the place. What is to be done to get Haiti right?
It is very clear, judging by the non-response of the Haitian government to the disaster, that Haiti is a failed state and political institutions, as they currently exist, are utterly useless. They should be discarded as quickly as possible in favor of new, more effective, ones. Simply put, Haiti should take time-out from politics (and politicking) and focus on rebuilding its shattered state and infrastructure. Specifically, it should cast aside the 1987 constitution, cancel the elections scheduled for this year, allow President René Préval to serve his term but not one day beyond and disband the Haitian National Police. For the next 4 years (i.e., until 2014) Haiti should be a joint trust of the United Nations and a Haiti Reconstruction Authority (HRA).
With the UN primarily responsible for maintaining order, the HRA, as its name suggests, would focus on the physical, economic and political reconstruction of Haiti under a Haitian version of the Marshall Plan. Leading HRA officials would obviously be Haitians but nationals of Haiti’s most prominent partners, e.g., the U.S., Canada, France, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba, etc., could also be included. This partnership would be international liberalism at its best, not a 21st-century iteration of Lord Lugard’s imperialistic Dual Mandate. An important task of the HRA would be to begin the formation of a “new” Haitian National Police (HNP), using probably most of the officers of the current force but this time strengthening their spine, a gendarmerie, to deal with natural disasters and protect the environment, and a small professional and technical army along the lines of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Following elections in 2014 Haiti would recover its full sovereignty, with a new set of security-related institutions, a new constitution and physical reconstruction well underway. Serious thought should be given to whether Port-au-Prince should remain Haiti’s capital city. One option would be to build a political capital further inland (e.g., in the Central Plateau around Hinche or Mirebalais) while Port-au-Prince remains the economic capital. If Port-au-Prince must maintain its status, the HRA would be empowered to insure that the libertinage that gave rise to the untold deaths and injuries on January 12, 2010, is not repeated. Inevitably, this means strict enforcement of building codes and investment in the countryside so the capital does not choke with residents forced to urban life by rural misery. The rejuvenation of the countryside will require abandoning the economic orthodoxy of the World Bank and the IMF, which emphasizes the exploitation of Haiti’s cheap labor through assembly manufacturing around Port-au-Prince.
Because 80 percent of skilled Haitians live outside of Haiti, it would behoove any effort to integrate the Haitian Diaspora in the reconstruction of Haiti. This would mean including Diaspora Haitians in the HRA and all other interim government structures, encouraging Diaspora Haitian entrepreneurs to invest in Haiti, helping firms owned by Diaspora Haitians to compete for reconstruction contracts and facilitating the return to Haiti of skilled Diaspora Haitians, such as doctors, engineers, accountants, teachers, etc. and granting Diaspora Haitians full citizenship rights, so they participate in the political affairs of the country.
Haiti may be a failed state but it is not a lost cause. The future of Haiti is preordained neither by a troubled past nor a catastrophic present. With the right approach, which entails robust and sustained commitment by an international community working in partnership with Haitians at home and abroad to build a functional state and a viable economy, Haiti may yet rise from its ashes.
*Jean-Germain Gros, a native of Haiti, is associate professor of political science and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of State, Underdevelopment and Foreign Intervention in Haiti (forthcoming).