Haitians," François (Papa Doc) Duvalier self-servingly said in 1966, "have a destiny to suffer."
For millions of his countrymen, it seemed a good enough answer, maybe the best. And just as it was during his murderous reign of terror, it may be the closest the Haitian people come to settling on an explanation for the unspeakable pain their country is experiencing today.
Superstition, animism, voodoo - call it what you may - continues to condition how Haitians view the world and their place in it. Papa Doc conveniently drew on this belief system to cast as predetermined the nature of his own election and inauguration and even the assassination of John Kennedy - all took place on the 22nd day of the month. Voodoo has enabled Haitians to get through the worst moments of their dreadful history, but all too often made them too accepting of their tragedies, man-made or otherwise.
The particularisms of Haitian culture have also long split the global community - and especially the superpower most equipped to help its impoverished Caribbean neighbour - on how to help the country get its act together.
For some, the only nation that owes its existence to a successful slave revolt is a lost cause. The two centuries of dysfunction that allowed this week's earthquake to wreak countless times the devastation a similarly scaled natural disaster might cause in any "normal" country is simply inalterable. Beyond humanitarian aid, there's not much that can be done for these most wretched of the Earth. This attitude prevails among even the most thoughtful Americans, as New York Times columnist David Brooks demonstrated yesterday by concluding that "some cultures are more progress-resistant than others and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them."
For others, imbued with an unsettling sense of certainty about what the country needs, there will be an overwhelming temptation to seize this unhappy occasion to sell the rich nations on "fixing" Haiti once and for all. We can expect every aid organization, think tank and global institution from the United Nations through the World Bank to summon the development intelligentsia to innumerable confabs and conferences to settle the "Haiti problem." Urgent calls for a Marshall Plan for Haiti can already be heard, as if this were the first time such pre-packaged solutions have been suggested.
In the middle of all of this stands Barack Obama. For the first black American president, himself the father of descendants of slaves, Haiti offers both a compelling case for making his mark in the region with broad U.S. intervention and an opportunity to correct the errors of his predecessors since at least Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Obama, whose sense of decency cannot be in doubt, seems earnestly sincere when he says, as he did on Thursday: "This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership. … To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you."
A SLAVE-LED REVOLUTION
Could it fall to the first African-American president to finally right the litany of U.S. wrongs inflicted on Haiti since its birth in 1804 in the wake of more than a decade of struggle by African slaves against their French owners? How fitting would that be? Before getting caught up in that romantic possibility, however, those who envision Mr. Obama as Haiti's latest would-be liberator need to liberally douse their enthusiasm with dollops of history.
It was far too dangerous for the fledgling U.S. republic to acknowledge, much less endorse, Haiti's slave-led revolution. South Carolina senator Robert Hayne warned, in 1825, that the topic of Haiti could not even be discussed in the U.S. Congress so as to avoid compromising "the peace and safety of a large portion of our union." Indeed, it was not until the U.S. was on the verge of abolishing slavery itself that Haiti could be recognized.
When the U.S. occupied Haiti for two decades starting in 1915, under Woodrow Wilson, its generals became the nation's de facto rulers and oversaw the building of basic infrastructure. It looked like progress. But it came via labour practices that Haitian peasants considered analogous to the slavery endured by their forefathers. And for what? To protect the assets of U.S. banks, which had taken over the Banque nationale de Haïti to thwart creeping German influence over the country on the eve of the First World War?