Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and the least capable of dealing with a disaster of the magnitude of the earthquake of January 11. Even in the best of times, the misery in Haiti is impossible for the average American who has never seen it to imagine.
On an official visit to the island in the 1980s, as head of the Latin America/Caribbean Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I witnessed a grown man, my 28-year-old executive assistant, a lawyer who had not traveled extensively outside the U.S., cry inconsolably after touring an orphanage and hospital run by Belgian nuns and supported by USAID food and medical aid. The rest of my team consisted of experienced (read: hardened) professionals who had seen famine and desolation in other countries many times. The assistant had been shocked at the sight of the “triage” set up by the nuns, whereby they calmly and tenderly separated emaciated Haitian newborns into those who would not survive the night and those who might. Both groups received the same loving care from the nuns, but the ones born with no chance of survival did not receive precious resources that could be used to save the lives of other, slightly stronger infants with a chance of living another day and perhaps even surviving.
That hospital, run by angelic Belgians and their Haitian collaborators, was a metaphor for the entire country. The U.S. chose to deliver its significant assistance (more than that of any other nation) only through private organizations, because the government of Haiti was deemed either too incompetent or corrupt to deliver it safely.
Not much has changed in the country, except that the need of the people of Haiti is greater, because they are more numerous, and as a result of the earthquake even more dependent on foreign charity. Most of that charity will come from Americans — as it should, and as it did a quarter century ago, when American grain fed underdeveloped infants who would have otherwise died before sunrise.
– Otto J. Reich served President Bush from 2001 to 2004, first as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and later in the National Security Council. He now heads his own international government-relations firm in Washington.