Haiti's Uncertain Future, 2 Years Later

Little progress and a lot of self-doubt remain in the first black republic after the earthquake.


Two years ago, at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, the earth shrugged and added another chapter to the sequence of tragedies that define Haiti's history. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people, destroyed 80 percent of the capital city of Port-au-Prince and left more than a million Haitians homeless. Nearly all public buildings were destroyed, and with them much of a generation of civil servants, doctors, nurses, engineers, professors and students.

The world responded with a generosity that left Haitians -- accustomed to being treated as world pariahs -- truly surprised and grateful. The Obama administration immediately pledged $100 million in support and sent 3,000 troops to manage the airport and a hospital ship to treat the most severely wounded. Help came from governments of France, Switzerland, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile and Colombia and myriad private groups. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush formed the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to raise money for the reconstruction.

Even the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti in an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship, rose to the occasion. President Leonel Fernández promised to help rebuild the world's first black republic. At a meeting of some 90 countries and international organizations at the United Nations in May of 2010, donors pledged $5.3 billion. Haiti's recovery seemed well under way.

Two years later, the outlook for Haiti's future is a lot less clear. The media spotlight has moved away from Haiti. The cameras are gone, as are most of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that rushed to provide emergency care. The big international entities with histories in Haiti, like the U.N. and the United Nations Development Program, remain, but much of the promised aid money was never delivered. The consensus, in Haiti and abroad, is that little progress has been made, and a sense of pessimism has enveloped the country and its million-strong overseas community.

But beyond disappointment at the slow progress of reconstruction, many Haitians and Haitian Americans have begun to lose faith. We have begun to wonder if the sharp divisions of class and color in Haiti are an unavoidable obstacle to progress, and realize that they must be overcome for the poor Caribbean nation of 10 million to move forward.

Divided by Race and Class

There is reason to doubt the leadership of Michel Martelly, the president who took office on May 14 last year. He was a popular singer and bandleader known as "Sweet Micky," famous for his outrageous behavior onstage, and lacking any significant management experience. Martelly's appeal to Haitian youths and those seeking to break away from Haiti's stagnant politics-as-usual helped him easily defeat Mirlande Manigat, a law professor and former first lady, in a much-disputed runoff.

But since taking office, Martelly has surrounded himself with a cabinet largely drawn from Haiti's racially mixed "mulatto" elite and has suggested reconstituting the Haitian army, abolished in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide because of its long history of repression.

Haiti's light-skinned elite has long dominated the country's economics and manipulated its politics. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, 3 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the economy.

Descended primarily from 18th-century French settlers and 19th-century immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, this privileged class owns most major enterprises and has long played a backstage role in politics, financing some candidates and -- some believe -- both the coup that brought down Aristide in 1991 and the ragtag army that drove him to exile in South Africa during his second term in 2004. In the Le Monde article, members of the Haitian elite blame the country's political instability for their unwillingness to take a more dominant role in investing in the country's future.