Jocelyn McCalla: Obama & Haiti’s Window of Opportunity

By Jocelyn McCalla

Barack Obama delivered a sober yet forceful speech at his inaugural as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America. The speech covered a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time. He balanced a reality check on the state of the union with an appeal to the American people that, with their help and support, the country would be better off in the years ahead, and that the obstacles that stand in their path to a better future today would be but history when their grandchildren looked back on the historical record.

Obama spoke mainly to the American people, but he had a few choice words for allies and foes abroad. What should Haitian leaders take away from his words? Two things: a warning and a promise.

The warning: “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Since these words were preceded by others meant to convey to the Muslim world that the United States was not its enemy, some may very well say that such warnings were directed at terrorists and their international supporters rather than poor Haiti. Au contraire.

The story of Haitian leadership since virtually the country’s inception has been one of wanton destruction rather than nation-building. Haitian leaders have treasured personal gains over the collective welfare, resorted to plundering state coffers rather than enforcing tax collections and managing revenues in ways that benefit the collective good. While Haiti proclaimed its love of freedom, equality, and brotherhood, it stopped short of calling for the pursuit of happiness—and implemented neither freedom, equality, or brotherhood.

At least one out of ten children in Haiti live in slavery, tied to a system of domestic bondage that robs them of educational opportunities and the socio-economic advancement that comes from the acquisition of knowledge which in turn leads to foresight and innovation. At least half the youth living in Haiti is functionally illiterate. Yet the Haitian state loudly proclaims its embrace of universal primary education, and free education up to university level, while providing little of either.

Most Haitians live in abject poverty, relying on handouts from and programs set by international charities, most of which are based in the United States. Very few homegrown Haitian charities exist. The state barely delivers basic services: potable water, healthcare, shelter, electricity, or sanitation. Haitians literally eat dirt to assuage their hunger. In so doing, day by day they poison their bodies, weaken their immune systems, and ability to pull themselves up by the bootstraps—should they be lucky enough to have boots and straps.

The socio-economic disparities between the wealthy and the poor are so huge that hyperbole has a hard time pinning the gap down. Transparency International has consistently ranked Haiti among the five most corrupt countries in the world. Only since Robert Mugabe has cared less about the welfare of Zimbabweans and more about staying in power until death, has he led his country to the heights of desperation, eclipsing Haiti for the undesirable lead in corruption and mismanagement. Let us have no doubt, however, that Haiti’s dire state of affairs is primarily due to the behavior of its leaders, the carelessness of its small slice of well-off people and the chronic disinvestment in the Haitian peoples’ well-being.

Yet Haitian leaders have consistently drawn historical references to their valiant struggle against French colonialism to justify blaming outsiders for the ills that have beset Haiti in the last 200 years. Rarely have they taken responsibility for the destruction of their habitat. (Forest cover no longer rates a percentage of total land mass; 5 years ago it was estimated to cover less than 2 percent of Haiti, and it is useless to keep count now—the reality is too depressing.) And even more rarely have Haitian leaders acknowledged that they could have done more to infuse their people with knowledge, building on the spirit of pride, defiance, ingenuity, and resolve to inspire greatness in the face of adversity.

In the age of Obama, Haitian leaders should listen to their better counsel and heed the new president’s warnings, for even Patrick Gaspard, the White House political director, cannot shield them from being held accountable for their poor performance should they insist on business as usual.

The promise: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

President Obama appears to not back away from a strong and proactive foreign policy that intelligently uses U.S. assistance to lift up the poor. Of the countries in the Caribbean, Haiti takes the largest share of U.S. aid, be it via the HIV-AIDS program PEPFAR, or other bilateral assistance programs. While U.S. troops are not among the more than 9,000 troops and police officers fielded by the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti, Washington bears the brunt of the cost for the peacekeeping operation that is now in its fifth year and swallows about half a billion dollars a year in expenditures.

Obama and his advisors are smart enough to know that “make work” programs without an end in sight will do little to promote economic and social development. A large part of U.S. aid to Haiti in recent years has been designed to promote peace and stability, i.e. to keep people in densely populated urban areas busy and fed enough so that they don’t resort to violent uprisings or so that things in Haiti don’t come to a screeching halt, sending forth yet another wave of refugees onto U.S. shores, or compelling yet another “robust” military intervention.

However, in the absence of strategies and programs that do nothing more than keep Haiti afloat, it is likely that the initial good will towards rethinking Haiti and U.S. aid will fade away, falling back on the feeding programs that have now become the lot of the Haitians.

Therein again lies the challenge: it is not up to the United States to think for Haitians. Haitian-Americans may soon enlighten policy and may have entrées into the White House and the halls of Congress that are unprecedented. But Haitian leaders will be required to adopt a new approach to governance and international relations.

The Obama administration has little leeway and a very narrow window of opportunity. While it enjoys much political capital right now (given the symbolism of the man and the hope that surrounds the transfer of power from neo-conservatives to progressive centrists) the probability that such goodwill will evaporate quicker than expected is immense.

The administration’s performance will be judged not by its policies vis-a-vis Haiti, but by its ability to arrest the real global economic decline that seriously tests the ability of the United States to remain the world’s international leader.

Thus, while President Obama has promised much to poor countries like Haiti, they in turn must make every effort possible to help him keep his promise.

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Jocelyn McCalla is president/CEO of JMC Strategies, a grassroots campaign consulting service. He is an expert on Haitian and Dominican politics and a member of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and the Haitian Studies Association, among others.

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