‘Panel discussion’ considers Haiti’s past and future

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 3, 2010

The crisis in Haiti has resulted in a learned – and very lively – cyberspace conversation among three of our coffee companions. I’ll summarize their remarks here in the form of a “panel” discussion.

The three “panelists” are:

Michael Bopp, Ph.D., of Cochrane. Michael and his wife, Judie, are directors of Four Worlds Centre for Development Learning, an international not-for-profit organization committed to social infrastructure wellbeing and recovery.

Denise Youngblood Coleman, Ph.D., of Houston, Texas. Denise is an international affairs specialist. She is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Country Watch, an information provider on the recognized countries of the world.

Richard Maillet, lieutenant-colonel (retired 2007), of Cochrane. Richard’s reflections on his Canadian Forces time in Haiti were featured in last week’s column. I’ll give Richard the first word with his closing remarks from last week.

RICHARD: “Haiti will never be able to get out of its current situation without the assistance of the international community . . . (but) the Haitians must take some responsibility for the state of their nation.”

MICHAEL: “Mr. Maillet obviously sees with the eyes of the heart. But sometimes we also need to see with the eyes of history in order to understand what we are seeing.

“Haiti is the only place on earth (that I know of) that carried off a slave revolt successfully and formed a country, despite severe repression by Europeans.” To maintain their freedom, Haitians were forced to pay reparations to France, and to do this they “cut down all their usable timber – hence, the massive deforestation and subsequent environmental degradation.”

American occupation around the time of the Great Depression was followed by a succession of corrupt dictators culminating in the Duvaliers and their feared militia, the Tonton Macoutes.

The removal of the democratically-elected left-leaning president Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the turn of the century “was just another in a long chain of episodes in which we see again the undermining of Haitian development from within in order to serve perceived ‘interests’ of non-Haitians.

“When, in all this history, were the Haitian people supposed to have developed self-reliance, entrepreneurial spirit, good governance systems and for that matter, a viable economy?”

DENISE: Yes. I actually just wrote a piece on “Why is Haiti so poor?” (CountryWatch.com), because “I am appalled by the U.S. media's failure to constantly reference Haiti's poverty without placing that reality in context.”

After Haiti’s break with France, issues of land ownership and the devolution of an agro-economy into subsistence farming combined with years of internal battles to exact “a painful and destructive toll on the landscape and resources of Haiti.”

The resultant “mass exodus of the country’s intelligentsia served to ensure that Haiti may not have sufficient human capital capable of solving the country's complex political and economic challenges.”

Although there has been an outpouring of international aid, some critics question how much actually reaches the Haitian people, arguing that countries like Haiti suffer from a dearth of strong governance and corresponding institutions.

Since the 2004 ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, “a democratically-elected leader-turned-despot,” United Nations, peace-keeping and International Monetary Fund initiatives “have yielded modest results relative to the previous decades. As such, Haiti’s long-term prospects will invariably rest upon the international community’s corresponding level of commitment to helping this beleaguered country.”

MICHAEL: Back to Aristide. Whatever the official story, “it is a fact that in the last free election Aristide’s party got 90% of the vote and they have now been denied access, as a party, to the next election. How can Haitians really develop if they are never allowed to make their own choices and learn from the consequences – good or bad?”

RICHARD: “It is really getting interesting. Always good to finally start opening our eyes to such an open sore that is so close to our world. I am not sure, though, if there will be real progress once the media spotlight is off. The solution in part must come from the Haitians, and I am not sure that they will ever be ready.”

WARREN: Ready or not, time stands still for no nation. Thanks, panelists. I’ll wrap things up for now with a quotation from the Talmud that appears at the end of every letter I receive from Denise:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's misery.
Do justly, now. Walk humbly, now. Love mercy, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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