[Marxism] Donna Britt: "For Haiti, A Want Of Concern"

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sat Mar 6 00:37:32 MST 2004

(Finally, ONE columnist who isn't following
the drumbeat of Aristide-bashing in the
US media. A breath of fresh air here.)

For Haiti, A Want Of Concern
By Donna Britt
Friday, March 5, 2004; Page B01 
Washington Post

Why don't we care more about Haiti? 

Americans love freedom. Shouldn't we care deeply about its survival in the teacup-size country whose greatest general, Toussaint L'Ouverture, helped Haiti's citizenry defeat Napoleon's 60,000-man army in 1791, in what some historians describe as history's only successful slave revolt?

I'm asking partly out of guilt. In the early 1990s, I had the chance to dine with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's recently ousted president. Yet I wasn't as frantic with worry as I should have been as armed insurgents approached his capital last week.

Today, human beings who once were required to care primarily about people in their own families and communities are hourly informed of disasters natural and man-made thousands of miles away. We ingest endless reports of bombings, wars, murders and deadly accidents.

We've become sympathy skinflints, meting out a little concern here, a tiny bit there for those who seem blameless for the awfulness that has befallen them.

But Haiti? For weeks, I didn't know what to think about Aristide. At a dinner with journalists during his Washington exile, he'd radiated intelligence and an enveloping gentleness. His sweetness seemed more appropriate to the priest he once was than to the displaced national leader he had become.

Aristide displayed no bluster or hauteur. Over and over, he expressed concern for his countrymen, who were being murdered by a military dictatorship that the Clinton administration finally deposed in 1994. Aristide was soon restored to the office to which 67 percent of his countrymen had elected him -- and I felt the country was in good hands.

But last week, as rebels encroached, news reports kept describing Aristide's "corruption." How he was "the wrong leader" for Haiti. Had I been blind?

God knows, leading Haiti would challenge a saint. The Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, Haiti endures infant and maternal mortality rates more than 10 times those of its closest neighbors; epidemic disease remains a major killer. 

Harvard Medical School professor Paul Farmer, 44, cares. The author of the 1994 book "The Uses of Haiti" cares enough to have established five medical facilities in the nation. This week, he's returning to Haiti despite the unrest and having twice been held at gunpoint while his ambulances were stolen, he said, "by the thugs who are now running things."

Farmer asked me a caring question:

"What could be a deeper wrong than the last 200 years of U.S. policy toward Haiti?"

Americans would care more, he continued, if they understood the U.S. contribution to Haiti's woes. "No one wants to believe that our government would block water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. I didn't.

"But we did and we are."

In fact, the same U.S. government that gave aid to Haiti during the brutal regimes of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude blocked money that would have fed children, provided clean water to malaria-threatened citizens and built hospitals and roads.

On Aug. 7, 2002, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder wrote in this newspaper: "The United States is actively impeding the flow of foreign aid to Haiti's government, a total of approximately $500 million, a sum roughly equal to the country's annual budget. We are even blocking, illegally, a series of already-approved loans from the Inter-American Development Bank totaling $140 million."

Why would the United States undermine a neighboring democracy that poses no threat to it? A democracy whose first "remarkable" constitution, Farmer said, stated that "any slave from anywhere in world who came to Haiti would be declared free."

Farmer paused. "Skip ahead 180 years and you find 30 coups, a brutal family dictatorship and, finally, a democracy movement that promises poor people the right to enough to eat, to an education, to a dry place to sleep.

"That movement was begun by the guy who just got overthrown."

The American most famous for caring about Haiti is Randall Robinson, the former TransAfrica chief who staged a 28-day hunger strike that embarrassed then-President Clinton into stopping the repatriation of Haitian political refugees. 

Today, his concern drives him to outrage. Over his belief that the U.S. government supplied the M-16s and crisp uniforms sported by rebels. Over hearing Aristide -- whom social activist Jonathan Kozol once called "one of the morally transcendent leaders of our time" -- dismissed as unscrupulous. Over the phone call he received from Aristide in which his friend insisted that he'd been forced to resign by American soldiers.

The U.S. State Department vigorously denies those assertions. But shouldn't any democratically elected president threatened by demonstrated thugs merit America's unqualified support rather than suggestions that he cut and run?

The Bush administration "removed every wherewithal [Aristide] might have had to govern," Robinson said. "They blocked loans for safe drinking water, for literacy, for building health care clinics. They ensured that democracy would not survive."

Was Aristide corrupt? Supporters point out that the "flawed" elections often attributed to him involved 10 senators, six of whom offered to resign, whose seats were in question after their election during Rene Preval's -- not Aristide's -- presidency.

Why would the United States hamstring Aristide?

"Aristide is the voice of the Haitian poor," said Robinson. " He . . . felt he belonged to the people of Haiti and to God. Not to the United States."

Everyone who cares about democracy should care about Haiti, at least enough to insist on learning what really happened there and why. Anyone who loves this nation knows that too many people, in places far more troubling than tiny Haiti, believe what Robinson told me he's begun to believe:

"That America is capable of doing anything, to anybody, at any time."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company 

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