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Aristide and more: There's plenty of history to consider before attempting to right two centuries of Washington's wrongsJoe Raedle

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."


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?

The U.S. was no more a force for good in Haiti during the reigns of Papa Doc and his son Baby Doc, who was finally driven into exile in 1986, when Ronald Reagan pulled the plug. Haitians had endured three decades of brutal treatment at the hands of the Duvaliers' tontons macoutes , all to satisfy the Cold War U.S. goal of preventing the country from slipping into the hands of a Communist antagonist as Cuba had.

There have been numerous fitful post-Duvalier attempts at reparation. But when the rest of the world has paid attention to Haiti, it has invariably ignored the social fault line within the country that has made it "stand still in its own way," in the words of Johns Hopkins University anthropologist Sidney Mintz. That division is between the black descendants of white French slave owners and those of black slaves. The former were already free before Toussaint L'ouverture led the slave revolt in 1791. They have formed the core of the country's elite ever since. They, unlike the masses, have read, written and spoken French. The rest have used Creole, a language that was neither written nor read until recently With those advantages, this elite "learned to siphon off every productive effort of the agrarian masses to enhance their personal consumption - and it has always been a consumption that results in zero expansion of domestic production." That is what Prof. Mintz wrote in 1995, just months after Bill Clinton's administration embarked on the last major U.S. effort to fix Haiti. His article, in Foreign Affairs, was titled Can Haiti Change?


Now, Mr. Obama will be urged on in his Haitian mission by his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and her husband, the former president who's now a United Nations special envoy for Haiti. The Clintons spent their belated 1975 honeymoon in Haiti and have nourished a soft spot for the semi-island nation at least since then. But Mr. Clinton's own failure in Haiti should be enough of a warning for Mr. Obama to set expectations appropriately low.

Mr. Clinton's mission to "fix" Haiti with U.S. military intervention in 1994 was prematurely aborted when domestic politics - Democrats lost control of Congress that fall - reared its angry head. But it was probably doomed from the start by its repetition of the all too common error in U.S. foreign policy of backing the wrong horse. The mission dubbed Operation Uphold Democracy was anything but, as it ensured the return to power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. Mr. Aristide may have been elected, but his own government's slide into corruption has given democracy a bad name in Haiti to this day.

Once again, domestic American politics could determine whether the U.S. cuts bait. Democrats face a tough battle in midterm congressional elections this fall, and Republicans and their handmaidens in the right-wing media will sow doubt about the motivations and efficacy of any U.S. intervention in Haiti. It has already begun. For Rush Limbaugh, the radio host for whom class is only an economic indicator, the Obama administration's eagerness to alleviate Haiti's plight is blatantly political. "They'll use this to burnish, shall we say, their credibility with the black community, both the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made to order for him."

Any U.S. post-disaster plan to help Haiti will be subject to attempts by Mr. Obama's opponents to undermine it for political gain and by unrealistic expectations about what can be "achieved" in that sorry land. But that's no reason for Mr. Obama to hold back.


Haiti does not suffer from a "progress-resistant" culture or its indulgence in voodoo. It suffers, rather, from a gapingly unequal distribution of wealth that has left its masses without the human capital to take control of their own destiny. This appears to suit the country's elites just fine and they remain Haiti's interlocutors with the world community.

"I'm skeptical that any kind of religious belief system is antithetical to development," Raj Desai, a professor of international development at Washington's Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, insisted in an interview. "I'm more inclined to think that the arrow runs the other way around. It is the lack of stability, the lack of economic development, the chaos, the poverty, the corruption and the lack of opportunities that are more likely to turn people to voodoo rather than the other way around."

Can Mr. Obama reverse this vicious circle once and for all? Or, once the rubble has been cleared and the injured healed, is the United States doomed to forsake Haiti as God himself seems to have done once again this week?