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The Ghosts of Port-au-Prince

The Ghosts of Port-au-Prince

Given the torrent of maladies that Haiti has suffered in recent years, it is tempting to conclude that the country lies beyond the edge of hope. Even before a massive earthquake transformed much of the capital city of Port-au-Prince into rubble, Haitians were already bound together by the shared trauma of collective memory. Ever since Haiti gained independence in 1804, the country has excelled in producing millions of refugees and at least 34 coup d’états, but it has failed to achieve even the most basic levels of economic and social development. Although much of the blame can be laid at the feet of generations of selfish Haitian leaders who cared for their power more than their people, Western countries played a crucial supporting role through battering Haiti with military interventions, unfair trade arrangements, and political isolation. During the Cold War, U.S. support for the staunchly anti-communist Duvalier regime provided succor for a noxious dictatorship.

Following Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990, the country became subject to the fickle battle between the humanitarian and punitive instincts in U.S. foreign policy, as Haitian leaders were alternately cajoled and scolded, celebrated and denounced, according to Washington’s whims. No single figure has so represented the bristling contradictions of modern Haiti as former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was twice ousted from power in 1991 and 2004. Aristide remains beloved and reviled, and his rule seared and perhaps betrayed the Haitian body politic like no other. Still, it remains true that his 1990 election and 1994 restoration by U.S. forces (after a 1991 coup forced him into exile for three years) remain the only two moments of national jubilation that Haiti has experienced in the past two decades. More recently, President René Préval, elected in 2006, has gradually moved the country forward, and Haiti’s endemic poverty, nonexistent social safety net, and vulnerability to hurricanes and tropical storms have bent but not broken the Haitian spirit. Now faced with a disaster that appears almost apocalyptic in its magnitude, one wonders exactly how much suffering the Haitian people can reasonably be asked to bear.

Few would dispute that Haiti is one of the most troubled countries in the world, but the precise causes of its seemingly never-ending political and economic turmoil defy easy classification. Haiti is not at war with its neighbors, nor does it face a violent insurgency from within. The Haitian military, once among the most noxious armed forces in the Western Hemisphere, has been disbanded and replaced by a police force that is corrupt and incompetent, but hardly a major force for state repression. The country is frequently described as a "failed state," but it shows no signs of breaking apart into separate territories and is arguably one of the most culturally cohesive nations in the Americas. All Haitians speak the common language of Haitian Creole, and the vast majority of Haitians are of African descent. Haiti’s occasional paroxysms of dramatic political violence have created the widespread impression that Haiti is an unrelentingly violent country, but, on a per capita basis, Haiti’s murder rate is actually quite a bit lower than many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given Haiti’s weak state, deeply entrenched poverty, absent social safety nets, and the prevalence of weapons flowing through the country, it is striking to note that Haiti has thus far avoided the kind of major conflagrations and mass violence that have occurred in many African countries. Haiti, for all its problems, is not the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, or Zimbabwe. The country may conjure up images of burning tires, strident protests, and political malfeasance, but there are few if any child soldiers, rogue pirates, or killing fields.

At least until Jan. 12, when the 7.0-magnitude earthquake unleashed by the callous hand of nature transformed sprawling Port-au-Prince into a city of ghosts, strewn with collapsed buildings shrouded in an eerie grey dust. In an instant, buildings turned to rubble and houses into graves. Even the confident structures that provided a veneer of authority and order to the chaos of Haitian life lay in ruins. The Hotel Christopher, which served as the command center for the 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, was destroyed, adding much of its leadership to the list of possible victims. Haiti’s National Palace, an absurdly beautiful and ethereal building amid the squalor of downtown Port-au-Prince, was crumpled and flattened. When President Préval was asked by CNN where he would now sleep, he stared blankly and said, "I don’t know" — experiencing, for a moment at least, the displacement and uncertainty that thousands of Haitians will face for months to come. The number of affected people might reach 3 million, nearly one-third of Haiti’s population. Meanwhile, in the absence of any way of knowing, fatality estimates ricocheted across Port-au-Prince and around the globe. How many dead? The number of confirmed deaths was in the hundreds, but estimates quickly raced into the tens and then hundreds of thousands. Haitian Senator Youri Latortue ventured that half a million might have died, and in the fever dream of the moment, anything seemed possible.

Faced with such a monumental catastrophe, public officials in Haiti and abroad generally struck the right balance between words and action. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released $10 million dollars in emergency funds. U.S. President Barack Obama mourned what he called an "especially cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, "[I]t is biblical, the tragedy that continues to daunt Haiti and the Haitian people," as the U.S. government readied urban rescue units, medical ships, and military forces to assist the country in its time of crisis. The World Bank announced $100 million in emergency grant funding, and the Inter-American Development Bank plans to redirect $90 million in funds toward Haiti. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans reached into their own pockets to donate millions more through international aid organizations.

This humanitarian impulse is laudable, and every effort should go toward saving lives that can be saved and helping Haitians through their shock, grief, and loss and toward some kind of recovery. Still, even at this early and critical stage, one can glimpse some hard questions that will linger long after this latest effort to help Haiti recover from catastrophe has vanished from the headlines. How can the international community rebuild a country that had been broken long before the earthquake arrived? And what happens when we discover that, despite our best efforts, finding a solution to the challenge of Haiti remains as elusive as ever?