PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Whenever someone would ask me what will it take to turn Haiti around, I would always, warned them that what I’m about to say can be seen as sardonic. I would prepare them slowly. You know what it’s going to take is for a large natural disaster to hit Haiti, I would say. In the aftermath, more than 200,000 should die and misery should be parcel out to all regardless of skin complexion or economic status.
As expected, the sensibilities of my friends would be offended because this is not a solution for any problem. I would eventually try to soften the shock by cracking some kind of joke. After all, such thoughts are Unamerican. But Haiti is Unamerican.
In the last two decades, I must have had this conversation at least three dozen times with non-Haitians but it was a common theme of conversation among those of us who have followed Haiti closely and have emotional or financial interests in the place.
There was a joke once that all the statistics about Haiti were entered into a computer and after the numbers were crunched, the screen spit out that this country doesn’t exist.
But Haiti does exist and it has befuddled the best of us. The most brilliant minds in almost every discipline have tried to get their hands around the problem that is Haiti, only to give up. For whatever reasons, the place defies logic.
Our glib prediction sort of came true when a category 7 ripped through Haiti on Tuesday January 12, killing thousands and left millions literally living in the streets and in yards.
No matter how rich you were, you are homeless. The earthquake spread the misery equally. The National Palace, crumbled like putty. So did the Justice Palace, The Sacred Heart Church, The Tax Office, the Parliament Building. The entire political infrastructure is gone overnight. The SOGEBANK building along with other private enterprises have either crumbled or would have to be demolished for safety reasons.
In short the great equalizer had indeed come to bear. In our scenario, it was to be a hurricane because that is more common in these parts. As cynical we may have been we never imagined that it would happen. Sadness has engulfed me as I roam the streets and listen to some of the leaders speak on the radio. I wonder whether or not those in power have the capacity to rise above two centuries of pettiness and mismanagement. Can they put aside what has divided the country and find the common ground to rebuild this city and most of the southwest area.
If current commentaries are an indication, I’m afraid not. President Rene Preval has been largely absent from public view. His spokespeople say that he is busy working out logistics and hosting foreign dignitaries who are dropping by uninvited so that leaves him little time for public speeches.
They don’t know just how wrong they are. Preval should take his guests on a tour of the city as he speaks to his people. It would show the people that their president care and it will also open the eyes of these foreign officials to the destruction and the challenges that await Haiti. Preval could touched their soul and heart so that they don’t forget Haiti after they return home.
At times, Preval acts more like a small town mayor than a president of a republic. His lack of statesmanship is vexing. He has blamed the destruction on the Duvalier regime, failing to acknowledge that he has spent more than nine years in power in some capacity or another since 1991. Did he stop the rampant construction, did he tackle the centralization issue. What was his overall plan of development for Haiti. In the last two years, he had consolidated power and was fast becoming a meglomaniac.
So the problem did not start with the Duvaliers. It is time to stop the blame game and switch to the solution game.
The problem is rooted in our history, which is soaked in blood.
For whatever reasons, this country has always to capture the imagination of many. It has a fascinating history and its people are admired for their tenacity and their ability to survive despite self-destruction tendencies of their leaders.
On January 1, 1804, Haiti it won its independence after a rag tag army made up of former African slaves annihilated the French army under the leadership of General Napoleon.
In doing so, it became the second republic in the Americas, after the United States, a republic only in name since it was isolated from the international community with no trading partner for almost 80 years.
The nascent nation was expecting post-war assistance from Britain, France’s bitter rival. Instead, European solidarity took precedence after the United States convinced Britain that it would not be in its best interests to allow a free black nation to succeed. It would give ideas to slaves in the South that they too can be independent. That would destabilized not only the United States, but the rest of the world. So Haiti found itself alone and isolated.
A succession of incompetent and corrupt leaders followed one another. In the process the people became cynical and lost confidence on the state. The Haitian psyche became centered around self instead of the collective. A rigid caste system developed in Haiti and the lighter-skinned people – who were mixed with French – lorded over the darker majority.
But this earthquake has leveled the playing field somewhat. I know that people will always find a way to separate themselves. In Canada, the divide is through language, in Ireland, religion is the wedge. I simply hope that every Haitian will see the bright side of this calamity and that what brings them together is stronger than what divide us. It’s time to construct an new beginning, not only physically, but mentally.