Trials of Haiti
by Tracy Kidder
The Nation magazine, October
In the winter of 2003, when war loomed
in Iraq and every rock was suspected of concealing a terrorist,
one might have imagined that the last thing on the minds of American
diplomats would be a little impoverished country like Haiti, a
mere third of an island, which lacks even an army. But the United
States has a foreign policy everywhere, and, as a rule, the weaker
and poorer the nation, the more powerful the policy is.
Most Americans if they visited Haiti would,
I imagine, come away with new definitions of poverty. What you
notice most of all are absences of the most basic things. Water,
for instance. In a recent survey of the potable water supplies
in 147 nations, Haiti ranked 147th. It's estimated that only 40
percent of Haiti's roughly 8 million people have access to clean
In the capital, Port-au-Prince, the morning
after rain, you see working men take up manhole covers and lean
in beneath the pavement, dipping buckets into the city's brimming
drainage channels. They use the water to wash cars for pay, and
occasionally, when the day gets hot, you'll see one of them invert
a bucket over his head. This is very dangerous, because any contact
with sewer water invites skin diseases and a mere thimbleful swallowed
can cause bacillary dysentery.
All over Haiti, you see boys and girls
carrying water, balancing plastic buckets on their heads as they
trek long distances up and down the hillsides of Port-au-Prince
or climb steep footpaths in the countryside. Many of the water-carriers
are orphans, known as restavek-children who work as indentured
servants for poor families. Contaminated water is one of the causes
of Haiti's extremely high rate of maternal mortality, the main
reason there are so many orphans available for carrying water.
"Sanitation service systems are almost nonexistent,"
reads one development report. Many Haitians drink from rivers
or polluted wells or stagnant reservoirs, adding citron, key lime
juice, in the belief that this will make the water safe. The results
are epidemic levels of diseases such as typhoid, and a great deal
of acute and chronic diarrhea, which tends to flourish among children
under 5, especially ones who are malnourished. Hunger is rampant.
"Haitians today are estimated to be the fourth most undernourished
people on earth, after Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia," the
World Bank reported in 2002. The cures for many water-borne ailments
are simple. But in Haiti, it's estimated (almost certainly overestimated)
that only 60 percent have access even to rudimentary healthcare.
In the countryside, the vast majority have to travel at least
an hour, over paths and main roads that resemble dry riverbeds,
to reach health centers, which not only charge fees that most
can't afford to pay but also lack the most basic provisions.
Last winter, I visited the centerpiece
of Haiti's public health system, the University Hospital in Port-au-Prince.
It was founded in 1918, during the time when American Marines
occupied and essentially ran the country. It's a large complex
of concrete buildings in the center of the city, and it seemed
to be open when I arrived. My Haitian guide and I strolled over
toward the pediatric wing. It seemed unnaturally quiet. No babies
crying. Inside, the reason was obvious. There were no doctors
or nurses or patients in sight, only a young male custodian, who
explained that the doctors had recently ended a strike but that
the nurses had now launched one of their own. Strikes at the hospital
are frequent; this one had to do with current political strife.
"Where did the sick children go?"
I asked my Haitian guide.
"They went home." She made a
face. "To die."
We walked past rows of empty metal cribs,
and then, turning a corner, down at the end of a long row of old
metal beds with bare, stained mattresses, we saw a lone patient.
A girl Iying on her side, very thin in the arms and legs, with
a swollen belly. Her mother, standing beside the bed, explained
that the girl had been sick for a long time. The doctors said
she had typhoid. When the strike began, the mother and daughter
had simply stayed, because the mother didn't know what else to
do. But a doctor did stop in now and then, and had left behind
some pills. At the hospital, the morgue, at least, was functioning.
I looked into the one reserved for victims of diseases, mostly
diseases that could have been prevented or cured. The door was
made of corroded metal, like the door to a meat locker. The room
inside was filled with trays on racks, stacked horizontally, several
bodies per tray, the majority children, the little girls still
in their dresses, bows in the hair.
Diarrhea alone kills sixty-eight Haitian
children out of every 1,000 before the age of 5. Did many of the
people in the morgue die because of dirty water? I asked the medical
"Oh, of course!" he said. He
also told me, "Sometimes we have to put more bodies together
than we're supposed to, because there isn't room."
Haiti is in dreadful shape. No one disputes
the fact. So it seems odd that over the past few years foreign
aid to the country has actually declined. Haiti still receives
assistance, from the United States, the European Union, Canada,
Japan and various United Nations organizations, but the total
amount has been reduced by about two-thirds since 1995. The United
States has gut its donations by more than half since 1999. The
World Bank, meanwhile, has shut down its lending to the country,
for the time being at least, and has closed its Haiti office,
leaving behind only an administrator and driver.
Then there is the case of the Inter-American
Development Bank. The IDB isn't as well-known as some of the other
IFIs (the international financial institutions, or "Iffles"
in aidspeak) but ranks as a major player in Latin America and
the Caribbean. It has long been one of the most important lenders
to Haiti. In the late 1990s it made comprehensive plans for a
passel of new low-interest loans to address some of the country's
most pressing needs-$148 million in all for improving roads, education
and the public health system, and for increasing the supplies
of potable water. But in the spring of 2001, when the loans were
about to be disbursed, the US representative on the IDB board
of executive directors wrote the bank's president asking that
the process be, halted. This was unusual. No member nation is
supposed to be able to stop the disbursement of loans that are
already approved. Nevertheless, the IDB complied. The Haitian
government also lost access to loans it could have received from
the IDB over the next several years, worth another $470 million.
The State Department seemed reluctant
to discuss this matter. I was granted an interview with a senior
department official only on condition that I not use his name.
He told me it wasn't just the United States that had wanted to
block the IDB loans; it was "a concerted effort" of
the Organization of American States. The legal justification for
blocking the loans, he said, originated at an OAS meeting called
the Quebec City Summit, which produced something called the Declaration
of Quebec City. But that document is dated April 22, 2001, and
the letter from the IDB's US executive director asking that the
loans not be disbursed is dated April 6, 2001. So it would seem
that the effort became concerted after it was made. The reason
for blocking the loans, according to the official, was "to
bring pressure to bear on the Aristide government, to address
what the OAS itself and other members of the international community
saw as serious flaws in the 2000 electoral process.
The official was referring to elections
held in May 2000, in which Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas political
party won large majorities *n both houses of the Haitian Parliament.
Each candidate had to win a clear majority to avoid a runoff,
but the election procedures made it impossible to determine whether
some had won majorities or merely pluralities. This was the case
with eight Senate seats, *n seven of which Lavalas candidates
had received the most votes. But the Provisional Electoral Council
eschewed runoffs, and declared those eight the winners. Opposition
parties claimed the elections had been stolen, and many foreign
diplomats made a fuss. Soon, many were calling the entire election
"fraudulent." This seemed rather harsh, given the fact
that to a great extent, foreigners had financed, managed and monitored
the proceedings, and in the immediate aftermath many observers
had declared a victory for Haiti's fledgling democracy. Sixty-five
percent of Haiti's eligible voters had turned out, many walking
miles along mountain paths and waiting for hours in the hot sun
to vote. Moreover, those eight contested Senate seats didn't affect
the balance of legislative power. Even if they'd lost them all,
Lavalas would still have had control of Parliament.
The election didn't seem like a sufficient
reason for cutting aid to Haiti. To me the State Department's
explanation seemed like obvious diplomatic obfuscation, what diplomats
called "irregularities in vote-counting" serving as
the pretext for reducing the amount of money that went to Haiti's
Back in 1990, after centuries of slavery
and dictatorship, Haitians finally got the chance to vote in free
and fair elections. They chose Aristide, a Catholic priest from
a poor parish of Port-au-Prince, as their president by an overwhelming
margin-he received 67 percent of the vote in a field of thirteen
candidates. Aristide's liberation theology-a doctrine whose central
tenet is "to provide a preferential option for the poor"-
won him a devout following among Haiti's poor but few friends
in the first Bush Administration. After just seven months Aristide
was deposed by a military junta, which ruled the country with
great violence and cruelty for three years. Finally, in 1994,
the Clinton Administration sent troops, which restored Aristide
and his government. In the remaining year and a half-of-his term,
Aristide made some small progress in rooting out the endemic corruption
that various juntas and dictatorships had left behind. With the
help of the United States, he also disbanded the Haitian Army,
which the US Marines had reconstituted during the American occupation
of Haiti in the early part of the century-an army, it was often
said, that never knew an enemy besides the Haitian people.
An array of foreign governments and 'iffies'
pledged their help in rebuilding Haiti, but many of the donors
insisted that in return for their aid, Aristide institute "structural
economic adjustment"- the privatization of state-owned enterprises,
for example. According to one diplomat who spent a great deal
of time conferring with him, Aristide was "privately ambivalent
and publicly ambiguous" about the 'iffies' recipes for Haiti.
Too ambiguous to suit some of his former admirers on the left,
for whom neoliberal economic reform is anathema, but also too
ambiguous to win over any of his numerous detractors on the right.
In 1996, Aristide, barred from seeking
a consecutive term by the Haitian Constitution, endorsed as his
replacement an old friend, Rene Preval, and for the first time
in Haitian history, a democratically elected head of state turned
over power to another. Aristide ran for president again in November
2000. Citing the unresolved flaws in the May legislative elections,
the United States declined to assist or monitor the presidential
elections, which the political opposition in Haiti also boycotted.
Aristide won easily, though-and legitimately, in the eyes of most
of the world. But by then he had acquired many detractors, a large
and varied cast, mostly situated outside Haiti.
To the American right, liberation theology
had long seemed like an especially dangerous doctrine, combining
Marxist analysis with a call to connect the struggles of Christ
to those of the poor. And Aristide's preaching and criticisms
of the United States, combined with his great popularity among
the Haitian poor, made him a natural target for right-wing politicians,
such as Jesse Helms, who had denounced Aristide, even retailing
slanders against him. Some of Aristide's early detractors are
still in the American government. One of Helms's chief aides on
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Roger Noriega, was until
recently the permanent US representative to the OAS. In that capacity,
he issued a number of statements criticizing Aristide and his
government. Recently he was nominated as the Bush Administration's
chief of policy on Latin America.
Today, Aristide's critics argue variously
that he is guilty of fomenting corruption and violence, or of
condoning them, or, at the very least, of being too irresolute
to put a stop to them. And it may be that, as one former diplomat
told me, Aristide returned to power in 1994 with a "never
again" attitude, resolving that if his enemies had guns and
thugs, he would not be without them either. When I interviewed
Aristide, he allowed that the issue of controlling his supporters
was "a preoccupation," and added that he couldn't control
agents provocateurs who committed crimes in the name of Lavalas.
(A common sort of charge in Haiti. Opposition leaders have claimed,
for instance, that Lavalas staged the notorious armed attack on
the presidential palace on December 17, 2001, in order to have
a pretext to attack them.) Aristide also told me, "I will
do more to try to provide security and push the judicial system
to render justice and not to delay and delay."
I wasn't sure he'd get very far in those
efforts. Haiti now has about 3,500 poorly trained and ill-equipped
police, including many amenable to payoffs and bribes, and some
involved in drug trafficking. The United States has withdrawn
all its support for the police and judicial system and, with the
OAS, has been demanding that Aristide improve security and the
administration of justice. A State Department official told me
that the United States was trying to give "recognized political
parties as much training as possible so they can compete nationally."
In fact, Washington has long tried to create a counterforce to
Aristide's vast popular support-most preposterously back in the
mid1990s, when the American soldiers temporarily occupying the
country were told by their commanders that a right-wing terrorist
organization called FRAPH was the "loyal opposition"
More recently, public documents show,
the United States helped to create the main political opposition,
the Democratic Convergence, and has aided it in developing platforms
and strategies. In theory, this could be a laudable program; democracy
benefits from real competition. But it is sinister if, as Aristide's
supporters say, part of Washington's strategy is to make room
for an opposition by crippling Aristide's government-by blocking
IDB loans, for example.
Over the past few years, the United States
and the OAS have placed increasingly onerous conditions on the
Aristide government, which have included satisfying the demands
of the political opposition. Foreign diplomats insisted that the
senators in the contested seats resign; all did so several months
after Aristide's re-election as president. Aristide has continually
called for new elections, but the opposition has demanded that
Aristide resign before they will cooperate. A State Department
official in Haiti told me that the United States won't countenance
such intransigence but also said that no support for new elections
in Haiti will be forthcoming until Aristide improves "security,"
among other things. But it may be, as Aristide's supporters believe,
that no support will be forthcoming until Washington thinks elections
will yield the result it wants.
There is no telling, of course, how new
elections would turn out, but it is possible to guess. The United
States has commissioned opinion polls in Haiti. These have not
been released publicly, but I managed to obtain one, dated March
2002. The most striking thing about the data is that on many significant
issues between 40 and 46 percent of those surveyed either refused
to answer or said they had no opinion. Among those who responded,
the poll reveals a rise in national cynicism. And the poll does
show significant declines in Aristide's ratings from a poll conducted
a year before, but those are declines from a very high level.
About 60 percent of those who responded in 2002 named him as the
leader they trusted most, and no more than 4 percent named anyone
else. About 40 percent of respondents also named Lavalas as the
political party they sympathized with, while only about 8 percent
named the Convergence.
One foreign journalist recently wrote,
"Among the disaffected former supporters [of Aristide] are
virtually all of Haiti's leading intellectuals and artists, the
persons who had best articulated the humane values that should
be at the basis of any new Haitian society." But should Haiti's
leading artists and intellectuals, however well articulated and
humane their values, be the ones to define a new Haitian society?
Perhaps 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty, about 70 percent
in poverty so desperate that they've never had a chance to go
to school, let alone become intellectuals. These are the people
most often invoked in discussions about Haiti's suffering, but
they are also the people least often consulted on the question
of what should be done. The main exception has been elections.
The Haitian poor demanded the right to vote. They ran grave risks
to get it-in the aborted elections of 1987, for instance, when
thugs employed by the junta in power gunned down would-be voters
at polling places. And when they've finally had their chance,
the impoverished majority has, time and again, turned out in large
numbers and expressed their hopes by electing Aristide.
The saga of the blocked IDB loans has
continued. In September 2002, the OAS seemed to relent a little,
and resolved that the 'iffies' should resume normal relations
with the Haitian government. But this had no immediate practical
effect. The World Bank had no plans to make new loans. And the
IDB couldn't disburse the loans for clean water and health and
roads and education, because arrears had accumulated since 2000.
Haiti now owed the bank millions more in debts on previous loans,
ones taken out, ironically enough, by Aristide's predecessors-by
"Baby Doc" Duvalier and by various military juntas that
had tried to kill Aristide several times back in the late 1980s.
Haiti didn't qualify for the international program of debt relief
because Haiti didn't owe enough. It did, however, owe more than
it could pay. So if the loans were t going to be released, some
foreign government or institution would have to make a bridge
loan to Haiti. One senior State Department official told me that
the United States was in favor of a bridge loan, but only if Aristide's
government met various conditions. Clearly, the IDB loans were
still being used to exert pressure on Aristide.
This past summer the Haitian government
decided to pay the arrears itself, a total of $32 million, a sum
that represented more than 90 percent of the country's foreign
reserves. In effect, the government has all but bankrupted itself
for the sake of those loans and in the hope of more to come.
Last winter I made a call to the World
Bank, to the person then serving as its Caribbean country director,
Orsalia Kalantzopoulos. I knew that the World Bank had run into
the same problems as the IDB, and that loans were being held up
by about $25 million in arrears. But I wondered why it had pulled
out of the country. It seemed like a strange thing to do, given
that its mission statement reads, "Our dream is a world free
Kalantzopoulos told me, "The problem
was that most of the projects, with very few exceptions, did not
meet their objectives. In addition, the projects had a lot of
execution problems. There was not proper procurement and sometimes
money was not going to the projects described." She added,
" The bottom line is, if there is not the political will
to use the money properly, does it really make sense to mortgage
the next generation?"
Of course, the status quo doesn't promise
future generations much of a future in Haiti. And the 'iffies'
are already making the current generation of Haitians pay for
the sins of the past.
Today, the United States is passing almost
all of its direct aid to Haiti through USAID, which then funnels
the money to various NGOs. But according to Gerard Johnson, until
recently the IDB's representative there, this tactic is only a
palliative, not a cure. "In the sense of development, NGOs
cannot replace the government. They can satisfy short-term humanitarian
problems, they're very important as a partner to government, but
I don't think you can avoid the government and do lasting development."
The only real solution in the long run, Johnson felt, was to strengthen
the institutions within Haiti, and one way to do that was through
IDB loans. Haiti, he explained, has an informal economy, untaxed
and untaxable, that probably accounts for about 85 percent of
the country's employment. Incompetence and corruption are problems,
but the bigger problem is that the government can't raise enough
in taxes to do much more than pay its employees' salaries. Low-interest
IDB loans could provide the capital for making real improvements.
There are a few examples of successes
even in Haiti. One of Johnson's favorites was a recent Canadian
project that had brought reliable electricity to the city of Jacmel.
One of the most harmful legacies of the American occupation early
in the twentieth century and of the Duvaliers' long rule has been
the centralization of everything. The Jacmel project was so far
fairly successful, Johnson thought, because the Aristide government
had ceded control; including over revenues, to the local government.
"This is exactly the model that we would like to replicate
with the water loan," Johnson told me. "Support good
governance, support local government, and that's definitely linked
to democracy. The people are to stand in relation to the state
to the point where they're willing to trust enough to pay their
water rates, which sounds like something automatic in Washington,
DC, but in Haiti when you pay your water rate, you may or may
not get water."
Of course, some opponents of neoliberal
economic reform believe that poor countries should have no truck
with the 'iffies', because the conditions that are invariably
attached to their aid usually end up doing further harm to the
poor. I raised this objection with Dr. Paul Farmer. He is a professor
of medicine and medical anthropology at Harvard and the medical
director of a remarkably effective and expanding public health
system in a desperately impoverished region of rural Haiti. He
has also published a number of articles critical of the 'iffies'
and neoliberal economic reforms. He told me, "Anti-neoliberal
people say Haiti would be better off without the IMF and the World
Bank and the IDB, but there's no topsoil left in a lot of the
country, there are no jobs, people are dying of AIDS and coughing
their lungs out with TB, and the poor don't have enough to eat.
These are problems in the here and now. Something has to be done.
Haiti is flat broke, and I don't see what else the government
can do but turn to the 'iffies'. It's the job of the true friends
of Haiti to protect it from the hypocrisies of the 'iffies'."
I have spent portions of the past three
years in Haiti, mostly in the country's famished, deforested
central plateau. During that time I've met a number of people
who describe themselves as peasants, among them a man in his 30s,
named Ti Jean Gabriel. When I spoke with him last winter in Haiti,
he said he wished he could talk with President Bush and tell him
about the problems in the country. He could tell his own story,
how when he was 8 he had so few clothes that he used to work naked
in his father's field. "I feel like if I could get to the
right person, so I could explain the situation.. ."
I told him that some people thought giving
more aid to Haiti now would be a mistake. What was his response
He leaned toward me. "I will answer
your question with a question," he said. "You have seen
Haiti. Do you think Haiti needs more aid?"
Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains
was recently published by Random House.