By Donella Meadows
–July 14, 1994–
Poor Haiti. Intractable Haiti. Haiti, oppressed by Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and now a pack of even more rapacious generals. Haiti, the problem that keeps washing up on our shore.
I am hearing some of the most peaceable folks I know, folks who know and love the Haitian land and people, say with great reluctance that it’s time for an invasion. They are particular about the nature of that invasion, however, and about what should happen afterward, if Haiti is to stop being the basket case of the Western hemisphere.
We should start, they say, by understanding that the problem there is an entrenched elite that sucks wealth out of the country, leaving the populace not only terrorized, but devastatingly poor. Even if the terror ends, if the greed is controlled, and if democracy is installed, there will still be the poverty.
A magnificent book by Canadian TV producer Helene Tremblay documents one day in the lives of typical families in each nation of the the Americas. Only one family in that book is starving — the one from Haiti.
The Barthelemy household consists of father Albert, mother Mercegrace, and four remaining children. The oldest daughter was married last year. Another daughter died, “sick in the chest,” without seeing a doctor. Eight-year-old Alfese had polio at the age of four and cannot walk. Fourteen-year old Indianise was born deaf and dumb. The two older children, Amors and Mercenise, are healthy and a great help in the house and fields. Amors is 17 and barely literate, but he has dropped out of school because the family can’t pay the fees. On the day Tremblay describes, Amors finds in the drought-stricken garden one ear of corn and a stalk of sugar cane. These are the entire day’s food for six people.
Says Tremblay: “When Albert was young, this part of the Northwest was green and covered with tropical forests. Deforestation has dried out the soil, and the lack of moisture prevents the formation of clouds large enough to produce rain. The land is now so desolate that the inhabitants are forced to … choose between two tragic alternatives: to move to the dismal shantytowns clustered around the capital or to escape by sea.”
Tremblay was not overdramatizing when she chose this family to represent Haiti. When you look at the numbers, Haiti sticks out like a sore thumb.
GNP per capita: U.S. $22,500; Puerto Rico $6330; Jamaica $1380; Dominican Republic (Haiti’s neighbor on the island of Hispaniola) $950; Haiti $370.
Average life expectancy: U.S. 75; Puerto Rico 75; Jamaica 74; Dominican Republic 68; Haiti 54.
Infant mortality (deaths before age one for every thousand live births): U.S. 8.6; Puerto Rico 13; Jamaica 17; Dominican Republic 43; Haiti 105.
Average number of births per woman: U.S. 2.0; Puerto Rico 2.2; Jamaica 2.4; Dominican Republic 3.3; Haiti 6.0.
Population doubling time: U.S. 92 years; Puerto Rico 64 years; Jamaica 36 years; Dominican Republic 31 years; Haiti 25 years.
So, I ask those who know and love Haiti, what to do? Only force will get rid of the murdering, extorting, drug-trafficking leaders, they reply, preferably a multinational force, trained to understand that the people of Haiti are not the targets of the exercise and not objects of contempt. There is a legitimate leader to install, one about whom all kinds of lies have circulated in our country, but one who was elected by the Haitian people and who is dedicated to their welfare.
He will need all kinds of help, first in controlling his army (which could, my informants say, be put to work building badly needed roads, water systems, electric systems).
As for the wealthy Haitians, William O’Neill of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees thinks their self-interest would actually be better served with a shift from feudal capitalism to modern capitalism. “Right now they’d rather pay $20,000 in bribes than $2000 in taxes,” he says, “and they’re right, the bribes give a better return.” But a still better return would come from a functional government and a developing economy.
When it comes to the people who need everything — housing, education, clean water, health care, food, jobs, a fair justice system, clear land titles, reforestation, restored soils — Haiti will require long-term support. That’s why the more insular and heartless leaders of our country don’t even want to think about getting involved. But their idea of getting involved — sending wealth in a direct pipeline from the U.S. to Haiti — is not necessary and not what’s wanted.
In Haiti and out there are talented, inventive Haitians, who want nothing more than to take on the development of their nation. There are teachers, engineers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, farmers, builders. Expatriot Haitians would stream home, if there were peace and freedom there, and a level playing field.
What is needed is a comprehensive, well-planned assistance program, coming not just from the U.S. but from the hemisphere, one that offers help when requested, but does not stride in and tell everyone what to do. As Haiti’s neighbors testify, development is certainly possible in the Caribbean, and it is the only thing that brings down birth rates and emigration ratesz.
I am no expert on Haiti. But since I read about the Barthelemys, I have not been able to forget them. I suspect it would be cheaper to support Haiti’s development than to keep absorbing refugees in Miami or scooping them up from the sea, quarantining them, and sending them back to hopelessness. It would certainly be easier to live with our own consciences.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994