Alan Philps
The National (Opinion)
January 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Since the earthquake struck Haiti 10 days ago, an arresting satellite picture has flitted across television screens. It shows the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which is divided between Haiti, the western third, and the Dominican Republic, to the east, the bigger part of the island.

From space, Haiti is grey-brown, all of its forests having been cut down for timber or fuel. But the Dominican Republic is lush and green, visibly flourishing. The two parts of the island seem to come from separate continents, though all that actually divides them is their frontier.

The blankness of Haiti on the satellite picture is a potent symbol of what has happened since January 12. There is no government, no political leadership, no army, and almost no infrastructure. The American military and the United Nations have stepped in to the political void, but even the 82nd Airborne Division is struggling to deliver food and supplies to the wounded and starving.

Haiti is not alone in being struck by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes. But it is a rare example of a state so comprehensively hollowed out by poverty, corruption, mismanagement and environmental distress that the earthquake brought it crashing down in a few minutes.

The truth is that Haiti has been on the wrong side of history for centuries. During all that time the Haitians have been victims of the most rapacious treatment by governments – particularly France and the US – as well as the world’s bankers and their own ruling elite.

In the 1780s Haiti was the pearl of France’s empire in the Caribbean, with a flourishing slave-powered plantation economy producing coffee and sugar. The slaves revolted in 1791, eventually declaring the world’s first black republic. As punishment for gaining independence, Haiti had to pay 150 million francs in gold to France, forcing it to take out loans at high interest from French and US banks.

In 1911 it was occupied by the US to protect the interests of the bond-holders. The grim dictatorship of the Duvalier clan, which kept itself in power from 1957 to 1986 by manipulating the voodoo cult, was backed by Washington on the pretext of keeping Cuban communism at bay.

All the while, the light-skinned ruling elite lined its pockets and shovelled aid money into foreign bank accounts.

The Dominican Republic also suffered exploitation, slavery and corruption, but the outcome has been very different. It had the advantage of being neglected by Spain, the colonial power, once gold and silver were discovered in South America. It was never bled as a plantation economy, kept its debts under control and maintained good relations with Spain. Without Haiti’s problems of debt, over-population and exhausted land, it attracted qualified Spanish immigrants and investment. Thanks to its greater wealth, it can afford to use gas for fuel, thus saving the forests from the devastation of Haiti’s charcoal-burners.

This tale of two countries show how powerful is the cumulative effect of outside forces and domestic decisions. Thanks to being part of the French-speaking world, Haiti produced an elite that looked to Paris and despised the peasantry. For the Dominican Republic, Spain was a faded power during the modern era, forcing its leaders to make the best of their own resources.

There is a lesson here for the Middle East. Many people have compared Haiti with Gaza: both are over-populated and destitute and have richer neighbours who govern their fate. Haiti, of course, is a victim of a natural disaster, its effects exacerbated by centuries of exploitation; Gaza was devastated by the Israeli army in a planned operation designed to punish its people for supporting Hamas.

Much outrage has rightly been expressed at the contrast between the world’s outburst of sympathy for the Haitians and its shameful acquiescence in the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. In the future this will only grow as Port-au-Prince is rebuilt while Gaza looks like remaining in ruins, its people kept on minimum rations and quietly forgotten by the world.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has promised to support Haiti now and “for the time ahead”. This is not such a cast-iron promise as it sounds: the US has hardly been disengaged from Haiti since 1914, when it sent an occupation force.

If there is a US commitment to rebuilding Haiti it will not be because the Americans love the Haitians. Haitians have, since the slave revolt, been seen as a threat. The US sees Haitian reconstruction as in its national interest to stop an armada of destitute boat people landing on the beaches of Florida. The last thing Barack Obama needs now is an influx of Caribbean refugees, which would only add grist to the right-wing conspiracy mill that he is somehow “un-American” or dedicated to helping only black people.

Mr Obama seems to have accepted that helping Haiti is an issue of national security. But then, he said last year that creating a Palestinian state was in America’s national interest, and that goal has dropped so far down the agenda it seems forgotten.

It is fashionable for Palestinians to say that nothing is going to happen soon, and they should wait for times to change, perhaps for 100 years. I think the wait-and-see brigade should look closely at Haiti. This nation has been fatally weakened by poverty, despair, emigration and feckless leadership. The Haitians have been waiting 200 years since their revolution for things to get better. Despite many pious hopes, it is probably too late to change their fate.

The lesson of Haiti is that history does not wait. It is all the more important for Mr Obama to stick to his promise to rescue the Palestinians from their desperate limbo.


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