By César Chelala
NEW YORK: Like many, I ask myself if there is a future for Haiti, and what shape that future would have. Unlike those who look with despair at the difficulties that country is facing, I believe that this country’s natural and human resources should be the base for a strong new society, one that will right the many wrongs done to the country before by the colonial powers.
I went to Haiti twice, first in 1993 as head of a UN mission to determine the effects of the UN embargo on the population and again in 2005 to assess the Pan American Health Organization’s collaboration efforts in the public health area.
On my 2005 trip a colleague of mine asked me, “Did you see this?” while we were visiting a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Regrettably, I had seen it. She was referring to a dead child covered by a sheet, flies buzzing around the corpse, seemingly abandoned in a hospital hallway. For days afterwards that sight was a recurring nightmare for me. It also was proof of the already desperate state of Haiti’s hospitals.
Today, the situation hasn’t improved. It is difficult to think of a country than in only one year has gone through four major crises: an earthquake that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced at least one million and a half, a cholera epidemic that has caused at least 2,000 deaths, a hurricane that ravaged the island and a still unresolved presidential election that has provoked a political crisis of major proportions.
It would not be fair, however, to easily conclude that everything is wrong with Haiti. In my two visits I was impressed by the Haitians’ entrepreneurial spirit, even among the poor, and by their strong desire for progress and better education. I still remember emerging from my privileged Montana Hotel, now totally destroyed, and seeing clean, impeccably dressed children going to school. And I wondered where they were able to get the water for their basic needs.
Although the country has among the worst health status indicators on the continent and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, it also had one of the most effective programs for combating the infection (until the recent disaster.)
I saw what centuries of unregulated deforestation had done to the country’s environment and how this deforestation could be a critical factor in worsening the negative effects of natural disasters such as the earthquakes the country has recently experienced. As if the Haitian people hadn’t already suffered enough.
Haiti now confronts the dual challenge of natural and man-made disasters, counting among the last the corruption and ineptitude of its political class. It can do this successfully by implementing policies on key aspects of its economy.
Some have proposed strengthening the country as a manufacturing outpost for industrialized nations, mainly the United States. Although the re-creation of a manufacturing base is important, it is only part of what Haiti needs. What is now necessary is a base for a sustainable future through agricultural renewal, better education, the creation of a solid infrastructure, further development of tourism through the stimulation of artistic endeavors and, yes, manufacturing.
Haiti has long been a nation of farmers, even though the country has gone through one of the worst deforestation processes of any other country in the Americas. That is why reforestation — as had already been carried out, albeit in a limited way — and creation of a strong agricultural basis are critical. In order to accomplish these goals, Haiti needs other governments to cooperate in rebuilding agriculture in a sustainable, ecological way. But it also needs fair trade policies from industrialized countries, particularly the United States.
There cannot be a rebirth of the country without a serious massive education effort. A national education plan can be created with input from teachers and administrators from other countries that wish to collaborate. The strides Haiti was making in the fight against HIV/AIDS show that, given appropriate support, the country can respond adequately to its needs. And the same is true for Haiti as a source of artistic creation, closely associated to its tourist potential.
Aside from the obvious rebuilding of houses, roads need to be built to facilitate the easy movement of people and goods throughout the country. It can be a most practical way of employing large number of unemployed people who can stimulate local economies.
As Beverly Bell, an expert on Haiti’s social and economic issues, recently wrote, “Reconstructing Haiti is not about buildings, projects, or money. It’s about power, about who gets to control what the future Haiti looks like. Redistributing power, and creating a new society based on different theories and practices of it, are perhaps more important in the aftermath of the Jan. 11 earthquake than ever.”
Dr. Cesar Chelala, an international public health consultant, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.