Can Haiti Change?

Courtesy Reuters


Every nation is unique; no two are identical. But Haiti is in a class by itself, not because it is the hemisphere's poorest country or because no one there before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had ever been elected by popular vote. Poverty and a lack of electoral politics, after all, typify societies spread across a substantial portion of the earth's surface. What makes Haiti unique is that no other nation in world history has ever been created by slaves. Those slaves wrested their weapons from the hands of their masters and then threw the masters out. What Spartacus was crucified for failing to do, the Haitian people did. Haiti's uniqueness inheres in that historical experience, and some features of it still figure in its political present and allow for predictions about its future. Of course background facts do not tell us what to do about Haiti. But not knowing them has led to some plans for Haiti that make relatively little sense of what is possible.

Haiti's current crisis, then, is historical. Even while conceding the very real importance of scanty resources, dilapidated infrastructure, and popular exhaustion, the forces that have helped keep Haiti immobilized (if not immobile) were in place soon after independence. In 1915, when the United States occupied Haiti for the first time, it strengthened those forces. Whether that mistake is repeated is the challenge of the latest American intervention. It is difficult to be anything but pessimistic. Haitian stability will depend on fundamental economic change -- change in the distribution of power to make economic decisions. That change seems extremely unlikely, not least because it will require time. For the current American intervention to accomplish anything more lasting in Haiti than feeding the hungry, repairing electric generators, and fixing roads will take the kind of extended commitment that a restless American electorate -- and a tired Haitian people -- may lack.

But looking ahead is difficult; looking back is far easier. What one sees in the

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