Some countries are just not lucky. Haiti is one of those places where bad things keep happening. The massive earthquake that destroyed a large part of the 250-year-old capital city, Port-au-Prince, is just the latest blow for a country that can ill afford any more disasters. In the last two decades, Haiti has suffered a series of coups, flawed elections, high crime and inept governments. Last year, back-to-back hurricanes devastated cities in Haiti’s central plain, its richest and most fertile region.
Haiti is a country with a glorious past, a brutal present, and a bleak future. It is also a country sharply divided along class and cultural lines. You will hear over and over in the coming days that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. What you will not hear is that it is also a country rich in culture, world-class art, and music that is celebrated all over the French-speaking world.
For those of us who were born there, each setback is a blow in the gut, a reminder of the precarious state of our native land. It also gives us a gnawing sense of guilt about how fortunate we are to be in places where systems work, building codes are enforced and a system of emergency rescue exists.
Haiti has never had much luck with leadership, either. It was created in a profound act of defiance, breaking away from France when that country was one of the most powerful in the world. The former slaves defied Napoleon when he reversed the 1794 emancipation decree of the French Revolution and defeated an army led by his brother-in-law to restore order. Haiti was a pariah for a half century, a country run by black men at a time when all its neighbors practiced slavery built on the specious rationale that black people were not human. The U.S., whom Haiti had helped during its own Revolution, refused to recognize the black government – and trade with it – until the Civil War, when Southern Senators could no longer block recognition by Abraham Lincoln.
But leaders in conflict are rarely good leaders in peace and Haiti underwent a long history of military dictatorship, coups, revolutions and occupations. The United States occupied Haiti for 17 years, leaving in 1934, but like much of the Caribbean and Central America that has been under American military rule, the primary legacy was a Haitian military apparatus that became a powerful player in the country’s politics. The 30-year rule of the Duvalier family drained the country of its meager funds and created a vast Diaspora of talented professionals.
My parents were part of that vast exodus, leaving in the 1950s to work as international civil servants in Europe and West Africa. I didn’t go back until after Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier died in 1971. Even after having lived in Africa, I was shocked by the level of poverty that existed in Haiti and the vast chasms between rich and poor, middle class and working classes.
I rediscovered my ties to Haiti in my trips back, learning about the stirring history, and the role that my ancestors played in fighting for independence, helping lead the country in the early decades and later serving as educators, doctors, musicians and lawyers. And I learned to respect the strength and perseverance of the poorest Haitians.
While early media reports are already saying that Haiti is least ready to deal with this disaster, I know that Haitians are a hardy people. They survived the unspeakable cruelty of their colonial masters and their colonial opponents. They survived centuries of corrupt rule and, when they gained the opportunity to emigrate to the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, their success showed that the plight of Haiti is not inevitable, that the relentless bad news and bad luck is not something inherent to Haiti and Haitians.
There will be a major rescue operation; experts will argue and debate how to remake Haiti again. Consultants will collect large fees. Bill Clinton, who has been serving as the pied piper for Haitian development, will bring investors on another trip to look for opportunity – construction companies will surely join the delegation this time. My hope is that all the experts will listen carefully to the Haitian people and help them rebuild what they need to change Haiti’s future.
Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root, is a native of Haiti.