By Garry Pierre-Pierre
The Haitian Times
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Whenever someone has asked me what will it take to turn Haiti around, I have always warned them that my answer is meant to be sardonic. ‘It’s going to take a large natural disaster hitting Haiti,’ I would say. ‘In its aftermath, more than 200,000 will die and misery will be parceled 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 blow by cracking some kind of joke. After all, such thoughts are un-American. But then again, Haiti is un-American.
In the last two decades, I must have had this conversation at least three-dozen times with non-Haitians, but it was also a common topic of conversation among those of us who have followed Haiti closely, and have emotional or financial ties to the region.
I once heard a joke that one time 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 of course 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.
My glib prediction sort of came true when a category 7 ripped through Haiti on January 12, killing thousands and leaving millions literally living in the streets and in yards.
Today in Haiti, no matter how rich you once 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, and the parliament building. The entire political infrastructure has disappeared overnight. The SOGEBANK building along with other private enterprises has either crumbled or will have to be demolished for safety reasons.
In short the great equalizer had indeed come to bear. As cynical as we may have been we never imagined that this 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 recent developments are any indication, I’m afraid not. Haitian 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 of Haiti that their president cares, and it will also open the eyes of these foreign officials to the destruction and the challenges that await the nation. Preval could appeal to their souls and heart so that they don’t forget Haiti after they return home.
At times Preval acts more like a small town mayor than the 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 megalomaniac, 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.
Haiti has always captured people’s imagination. It has a fascinating history and its people are admired for their tenacity and their ability to survive despite the self-destructive 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. They believed Haiti could inspire slaves in the American South to think that they too could be independent. That would have 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 after the other. In the process the Haitian people became cynical and lost confidence in the state. The Haitian psyche became centered around self-interest instead of the collective good. 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. Yet 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 divides them. It’s time to construct an new beginning, not only physically, but mentally.