The heartbreaking and pathetic scene that I and a group of American visitors witnessed at the small beach town in Northern Haiti still haunts me. We had no sooner arrived at the beach when a contingent of Haitian police and local officials frantically waved away a throng of the town's residents who had poured onto to the beach to hawk food, trinkets, carvings and tattered clothing items—but mostly to beg. Their torn T-shirts and ragged shorts, and emaciated, hollow-eyed looks bespoke of more than Haiti's legendary, world-leading poverty. It spoke of the sheer, utter desperation to get anything from those they regarded as rich foreign tourists.
The tormenting scene that I and thousands of other visitors to Haiti have routinely witnessed during the past decade has become the national emblem of Haiti. Yet it took a murderous earthquake—complete with clips of bodies sprawled in the streets, a collapsed palace and shanties, torn streets, and the shocked expressions on children's faces—for the U.S. and legions of public agencies and private donors to leap over themselves to promise to send an armada of food, medical supplies, clothing, building materials, construction teams, security forces and cash to Haiti.
Why did it take a natural tragedy for this? Haiti's sorry history is well known: American occupation; brutal dictatorial and military rule; the flood of refugees trying to escape the nation's destitution; the perennial food crises; the wave of devastating hurricanes that tore through the country in one month in 2008; the U.S., Canada and France's meddling in the nation's internal politics; and the grinding poverty.
Haiti's corrupt, repressive military rulers and government officials get standard blame for the country's chronic poverty and bankruptcy. Much of that is true. But Haiti is also a relentless victim of crushing and never ending debt servitude to the International Monetary Fund and foreign banks, vicious labor exploitation, and the blind eye of U.S. aid policies that stunt Haiti's farm and manufacturing growth.
The nation's debt burden would sink virtually any developing nation. Haiti is compelled to shell out nearly $1 million a week to pay off its debt to the World Bank and the IMF—debt incurred by the Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier regimes and their successor military governments in the early 1990s, which the U.S. propped up. The Duvaliers and other dictatorships received half of the loans. They squandered the cash on presidential luxuries with barely a cent going to development programs for the poor.
In 2008, World Bank President Robert Zoellick—in reaction to massive outcry from government officials and Haitian activist groups—publicly pledged to forgive part of the nation's debt totaling a half billion dollars. The Bank reneged on its promise. The money could have bankrolled a vast expansion of health care, nutrition and feeding programs, supplies of clean water and rebuilding the country's badly frayed infrastructure.
The United Nations has hardly been a benevolent force to aid the country's development and Democratic rule. The UN yearly shells out $600 million to maintain its 8,000 peacekeepers.
Yet when the hurricanes ravaged the country, the UN force did not dispatch amphibious units, build temporary bridges, or provide trucks or equipment to provide emergency help to Haitians in distress.
U.S. aid has come under intense fire for turning a blind eye to corporations and contractors who ignore basic Haitian labor rights, human rights, minimum wage and environmental laws, who shun service providers, and invest only a relative pittance of profit back into Haitian small businesses, manufacturing and food production. This is a particular sore point given Haiti's near total reliance on foreign food imports, which has resulted in famine, near starvation and food riots.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that with proper investment in food production the country is more than capable of feeding its 8.5 million population.
In 2008, a coalition of U.S. and Haitian human rights groups flatly accused the U.S. of aiding and abetting corruption in the country. It demanded that then-President Bush and Congress determine which U.S. corporations and Haitian officials pocketed and benefited from the more than $4 billion that the United States Agency for International Development and their sub-contractors spent from 1994 to 1998. They demanded to know who profited and enriched themselves from the over $8 billion dollars spent following the U.S.-engineered overthrow of democratically elected President Jean Aristide. The groups charged that the systematic looting of the country's treasury did not end with his ouster.
Their demands fell on deaf ears.
A colossal earthquake brought the world to Haiti's doorstep. The question though is why did it take that? And what will it take for the world to stick around after the rubble is cleared and help transform Haiti into the democratic, self-supporting nation it can be?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle Passage Press) will be released this month.
What would be funny if he obviously wasn't completely serious is his decrying the foreign meddling in one breath and then closing his piece with, "what will it take for the world to stick around after the rubble is cleared and help transform Haiti into the democratic, self-supporting nation it can be?" Ummm... wouldn't that be foreign meddling too?