Haiti — A cursed land
January 19, 2010 Leave a comment
IF ever there was a land that is cursed, it is poor Haiti. In addition to dire poverty, devastating annual storms, a wide variety of diseases, general misery, and hunger, it has now suffered the biggest earthquake in 250 years. Port-au-Prince lies in ruins, tens of thousands are dead and over a million homeless. There is little food, clean water or power in the capital region. Haiti’s ten million people have no effective government. Police and sanitation workers have disappeared. The few hospitals that survived the quake are swamped by dead and injured.
The National Palace, where a Haitian friend and I were once crazy enough to crash a dinner party given by the dreaded dictator, Francois Duvalier, aka ‘Papa Doc,’ has collapsed. ‘Papa Doc’ caught us – but laughed at our escapade instead of having his dreaded secret police, the ‘Ton-Ton Macoutes,’ shoot us. Duvalier, who died in 1971, ruled Haiti through a unique combination of terror and voodoo sorcery. In fact, he was high priest of Haiti’s voodoo (properly ‘Hongan’) religion. Our old hangout, the charming gingerbread Olofsson Hotel, the scene of Graham Green’s book, ‘The Comedians,’ is heavily damaged. Its fabled bar used to be the capital’s watering hole and hotbed of intrigue.
Port–au-Prince always looked half ruined. Today, the damage is complete. Haiti is an island destroyed by human folly and crime as well as natural disasters. France acquired Haiti in 1697. After the native Arawak people were wiped out, France imported a million black slaves from West Africa to work the island’s sugar, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and indigo plantations. Haiti’s slaves suffered frightful brutality. The greatest bourgeois fortunes of Bordeaux were built on slavery, not wine.
Haiti’s amazingly rich soil produced four crops a year. In 1780, the total value of Haiti’s exports to Europe exceeded those of Spain’s silver and gold-producing Latin American colonies, or the entire British West Indies. Today, Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, racked by diseases, including syphilis, leprosy, HIV, TB, typhoid, and blindness caused by lack of vitamin A.
In the late 1700’s, Haiti’s slaves revolted, led by a brilliant black general, Toussaint Louverture. After fierce fighting, he was tricked by the French and died in prison. Toussaint’s lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, finally defeated Napoleon’s troops and liberated Haiti in 1804. But the rival leaders of the liberation soon fell out. Christophe, driven mad by syphilis, finally shot himself in the head with a silver bullet in a massive, but useless fortress he had built atop a mountain above Cap Haitien. For the next century, Haiti was ruled by a feuding mulatto minority and petty dictators. Washington sent the US Marine Corps to occupy Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
Though sometimes brutal, the US occupation is regarded by some Haitians as their ‘golden age.’ The Marine Corps proved a fair, efficient, honest administrator and builder.
This column despises imperialism. But the US could do enormous good for Haiti. Its desperate people have failed to govern themselves and have no other hope. Most Haitians, I think, would welcome long-term US humanitarian intervention. This writer, a former soldier, longs to see the US military saving rather than taking lives.
The US will waste over $1 trillion this year in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can certainly afford a few hundred million dollars to rescue Haiti.
France also has a special responsibility to Haiti.
The Gulf States could provide desperately needed financial aid to long-suffering Haiti.(Eric Margolis)