The news from Haiti is always terrible; when there is no Haitian news, it does not so much suggest that the news is good as that the long, slow catastrophe that is Haitian history is merely continuing as usual. But this week’s apocalyptic earthquake makes Haiti’s recent past seem almost like a golden age.

No one who has been to Haiti ever loses his interest in the country. It is one of those places that, because of its history, because of its culture, because of its torments, captures the imagination and never lets it go. You respond to it not with tough, but appalled love. The American writer, Herbert Gold, summarized the country in the title of his wonderful memoir of his experiences there: The Best Nightmare on Earth.

By now it is a commonplace, a piece of received wisdom in every country, that the devastating consequences of the Haitian earthquake are not those of a natural disaster alone, but of a natural event interacting with extreme poverty. The causes of the poverty itself are a matter of deep ideological contention. What is beyond dispute is that so many buildings collapsed because they were so flimsily constructed in the first place.

That Haiti was a slow-moving disaster even before the earthquake was visible—obvious, in fact—from a height of 35,000 feet. When you flew from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince, the border was as clearly visible as on any map, a straight line drawn on the earth’s surface: on the Dominican side, verdant, on the Haitian side, brown, bare as a desert. It’s difficult to imagine now, but Haiti was once deeply forested; but 98 percent of the tree cover is gone, leaving eroded hillsides with gullies down which the rain torrentially washes whatever soil is left.

Perhaps this explains why one of the themes of Haitian naïve painting (one of the glories of Haitian culture) is lush forests inhabited by sleek African animals and exotic birds. The inheritance spent, the painters indulge in reverie, romanticizing the past, retreating into what Jung would call the collective unconscious. Writers have responded differently. The increasing desperation of Haiti is traceable in its twentieth-century literature. Gone is the gentle satire, the bourgeois refinement and gentility of the works of Fernand Hibbert; the situation calls for holy rage, savage denunciation.

A Nigerian journalist once said of his country, “No known system of government works in Nigeria.” This is even truer of Haiti. It’s often claimed that Haiti’s desperate situation is the consequence of outside interference—principally American, of course—plus recurrent, often bizarre, dictatorship. But Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has suffered similar disadvantages; yet it prospers. Moreover, descriptions of Haiti after the American occupation of 1915 make clear that the country received many benefits from it, whatever the attendant humiliations. As with other forms of external help, however, the occupation’s benefits proved temporary and ultimately fruitless.

Nor does voluntary assistance seem to do much better. It’s estimated that 10,000 voluntary organizations operate in Haiti—one for every 800 residents—but the effect, globally speaking, has been minimal, whatever good work each organization does individually. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Disaster relief is, of course, something completely different. No one can remain unmoved by the pictures of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake (the situation outside the capital remains unknown, but one can imagine). Everything that can be done should be done: the financial resources necessary are, comparatively speaking, tiny.

But because of the very problems that contributed so much to the disaster in the first place—appalling infrastructure, absent administration—such relief will be difficult to provide efficiently, without the absurdities of supplies accumulating where they are not useful, and not reaching the places where they’re desperately needed. Terrible as the Haitian army was, and often harmful as its role was, its deliberate and total dissolution in 1994 may now be a severe handicap, an unintended consequence of a good intention.

And after the immediate crisis has passed, what? International administration? Restoration of national sovereignty under a government incapable of governing? More aid that results in little but corruption and infighting? Laissez-faire? The mind reels.


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