The Corner

What to Do About Haiti?

Derb and Jonah’s discussion on why Haiti is a basket case misses the point, I think. The question is not “Why isn’t Haiti like Denmark?” It’s “Why isn’t Haiti like Jamaica or Barbados?” Those places certainly have their problems, but they’re not dystopian like Haiti. (Haiti doesn’t just have the lowest per capita GDP, based on purchasing-power parity, in the Western Hemisphere; the next-lowest, Nicaragua, is at twice Haiti’s level.) It’s obviously not race — Caribbean blacks are all from the same basic background. It’s not because of their different colonial masters; while Britain’s influence in the world has certainly been more salutary than that of France, Guadeloupe and Martinique are also French former sugar colonies in the Caribbean, and they’re infinitely better off.

My guess is that Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough. The ancestors of today’s Haitians, like elsewhere in the Caribbean, experienced the dislocation of de-tribalization, which disrupted the natural ties of family and clan and ethnicity. They also suffered the brutality of sugar-plantation slavery, which was so deadly that the majority of slaves at the time of independence were African-born, because their predecessors hadn’t lived long enough to reproduce.

But, unlike Jamaicans and Bajans and Guadeloupeans, et al., after experiencing the worst of tropical colonial slavery, the Haitians didn’t stick around long enough to benefit from it. (Haiti became independent in 1804.). And by benefit I mean develop a local culture significantly shaped by the more-advanced civilization of the colonizers. Sure, their creole language is influenced by French, but they never became black Frenchmen, like the Martiniquais, or “Afro-Saxons,” like the Barbadians. Where a similar creolization took place in Africa, you saw a similar thing — the Cape Coloureds, who are basically black Afrikaaners, and even the Swahili peoples of the east African coast, who are Arabized blacks. A major indicator of how superficial is the overlay of French culture in Haiti is the strength of paganism, in the form of voodoo — the French just weren’t around long enough to suppress it, to the detriment of Haitians.

So what can we do about it? As much as we’d like to go back to ignoring the place, we can’t, if for no other reason than a continually dysfunctional Haiti means boat people in Miami. Bret Stephens is right that conventional foreign aid delivered by transnational progressive NGOs is worse than useless. But if Haiti’s problem is a stunted, dysfunctional culture caused by an interrupted process of colonial development, then it follows that a solution would be to resume colonialism — or, in David Brooks’ words, “intrusive paternalism.” The United States certainly shouldn’t be the colonial power; we ruled the place for nearly 20 years, and did all the usual stuff — roads, bridges, schools, etc. — but, as we’ve found in Iraq, Americans just don’t do colonies very well. In fact, the time of conventional colonization is past — it’s not just that the Haitians value their independence, nominal though it might be; it’s that there’s no developed nation who’d want to bother.

Instead, Haiti needs to become a like U.N. Trust Territory, essentially putting it into receivership. Unlike past examples, Haiti wouldn’t be administered by a single nation but rather collectively, perhaps by the OAS, since the U.N. is almost as feckless as Haiti itself. This is the de facto situation now, with the complete absence of national government, but by formalizing it, the needed “intrusive paternalism” might be more likely. And such an administration should have as little overt U.S. or French presence as possible, beyond funding, to make it less obnoxious to Haitians; just our takeover of the capital’s airport, to speed the arrival of relief supplies, has gotten people bent out of shape.

I don’t think this is actually going to happen, and I’m not confident that it would work. But nothing else is going to fix Haiti’s malformed, “progress-resistant” culture.


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