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Los Angeles Wave: Haiti in Crisis: Can an ambitious plan save an abused nation once and for all?

September 27, 2010
In The News

by Betty Pleasant

Editor's Note: Wave Contributing Editor Betty Pleasant spent three days (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) in Haiti with members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Global Mission. This is the third in a series of reports on the people and places she saw while visiting the earthquake-ravaged nation.

Haiti — a country created by Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved by Spain and France in the 17th and 18th centuries — has always been a land of extreme deprivation and misery caused by White people, Black people and people of both colors: mulattos.

Between its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492 until the infamous Duvaliers took over the country in the mid-1950s, Haiti was not that poor a place. In fact, for about 100 years — from the 1690s to the 1790s — Saint Domingue, as Haiti was called then, was the richest colony in the world, and its capital, Cap Français, was known as the Paris of the New World.

While the ruling French enjoyed the riches the country had to offer, White people flogged, starved and buried alive their predominate African slave population at will and any whim, until the first Black rebellion occurred in 1791 against the White slave masters and the slaves freed themselves. This success resulted in civil wars in which the former Black slaves in the north of Haiti and the mulattos in the south savagely slew one another.

Led by Haiti's national hero, Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slaves beat Napoleon Bonaparte and his 34,000-man army's attempt to re-enslave them and the country was proclaimed the independent Black Republic of Haiti in 1804 — the first Black republic on the planet.

Nevertheless, rivalry continued between the Whites, Blacks and mulattos of Haiti and between 1843 and 1915 the country was led by 22 heads of state — many of whom were tyrants and self-proclaimed "kings" and most of whom left office by violent means. And when the last one, President Guillaume Sam, was found dismembered, the United States invaded Haiti and stayed there for 19 years, to the great displeasure of the Haitian people. Americans made some improvements to the Haitian infrastructure and when they left in 1934, the country was prospering again.

By the time François Duvalier, strongman terrorizer of the country and "president for life," died in 1971 and was replaced by his 19-year-old son, Jean Claude, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has been the world's most entrenched welfare recipient to this day.

The devastating effect of the Jan. 12 earthquake has put Haitian residents, Haitian expatriates, Haitian government officials, international benevolent organizations, foreign countries and people of goodwill around the world in a mindset to fix Haiti once and for all. Experts from everywhere came together in Haiti and generated a 60-page "Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti" in March, which describes — almost to the point of minutiae — the plans for a whole new Haiti. The document is impressive, covering, as it does, every aspect of a country and its people. It describes needs and how to meet them; it has timelines and projected costs; it relates the amount of money Haiti has on hand to pay for each specific renewal project, the amount of money it lacks to meet a specific goal and the source from which it expects to acquire the funds it still needs to get each job done. Every document I read should be so thorough and understandable and forthright.

Developers of the plan acknowledge that the earthquake's horrendous toll on the country could not be caused just by the force of the tremor, but is also due to Haiti's excessively dense population, inadequate building standards, disastrous state of the environment, as well as an unbalanced division of economic activity in which the capital city, Port-au-Prince, accounts for more than 65 percent of the country's economic activity and 85 percent of Haiti's tax revenue.

Authors of the plan insist that "Rebuilding Haiti does not mean returning to the situation that prevailed before the earthquake. It means addressing all of these areas of vulnerability so the vagaries of nature or natural disasters never again inflict such suffering or cause so much damage or loss."

The plan is inspired by a vision that goes beyond a response to the losses and damages. Even though it proposes actions to be taken within the next 18 months that deal with immediate earthquake-related matters, it also launches a number of key initiatives to act upon now to deal with the structural causes of Haiti's continuous underdevelopment.

The plan is divided into two phases. The first is in the immediate future through the next 18 months and covers the end of the emergency period and includes preparations of projects to generate genuine renewal. The second phase has a horizon of 10 years and takes into account programs in Haiti's already developed "National Strategy for Growth and Poverty Reduction."

The plan does not ignore or downplay the country's long history of corrupt governments, but rather tackles it head on, and the authors have pledged to review the country's political, economic and social governance practices. In conjunction with that review, the plan itself has a whole section of activities designed to rebuild Democratic institutions, relaunch central governmental functions and administrations and secure justice and security for the people.

In addition to that, authors of the plan have included within it funding and management apparatus for Haiti's renewal and have designated by name and/or country (including the United States) who will be voting members of the Haiti Interim Commission for Reconstruction (HICR) and serve as the board to oversee the entire renewal process.

All of this was shared by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive's chief of staff with a group of AME clerics and officials when he briefed them last month on the status of recovery efforts in the country. The African Methodist Episcopal church has been deeply involved in Haitian humanitarian efforts for 28 years through its AME Service and Development Agency (SADA), and the denomination has raised $1.5 million for earthquake relief.

Bishop Sarah Frances David, prelate of the AME 16th Episcopal District, expressed approval of the plan and said she would recommend a five year commitment of the AME church to help build a new Haiti as set forth in the plan.

Rep. Maxine Waters, whose Haiti Debt Relief Bill was signed into law by President Obama in April, has indicated her support for the plan. In addition to canceling the Haitian government's heavy financial burden to the United States and making outright grants available to the country, Waters is taking further steps to help Haiti move forward.

"I will be assisting Haitian small business people and non-governmental organizations in forming partnerships with the United States Agency for International Development so they can have a substantive role in the rebuilding of their own country," Waters said.