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Scholars Speak Out on Haiti

Last week’s tragic earthquake that shook the island nation of Haiti does not mark the first time the country has captured the attention of Americans. It is, however, the most graphic. With news now available on a 24/7 basis, not a moment has gone by in the past eight days when Americans have been more than a mouse click away from images of devastation as well as countless articles attempting to explain Haiti, its people, and its complex history.


In order to gain some perspective, Diverse has interviewed three scholars who study Haiti and teach about it on the college level. The first question posed was do you think this crisis could lead to a reinvigoration of the relationship between the U.S. and Haiti?


“It already has,” said Dr. Chantalle F. Verna, assistant professor of history and international relations at Florida International University. “Obviously, it’s reinvigorating the U.S./Haiti connection. It also comes with some reservations.”


Verna, whose parents both come from Haiti, noted the influx of Haitians to U.S. shores, which has already begun, and that people will be housed in home detention centers or in housing at Guantanamo Bay.


“Although it can be presented as very well intended, a really difficult history goes with those places. A history of discrimination, mistreatment and the deaths of many Haitians in those spaces because of negligence, basic disrespect and disregard for the lives and the humanity of Haitians,” Verna said. “We have to be vigilant to make sure that, as the U.S. and Haiti become more engaged with one another in these days, that the humanity of Haitians is respected and the errors that have occurred in the past don’t take place in these days ahead.”


Dr. Francois Pierre-Louis, associate professor of political science at Queens College/CUNY, was in Haiti when the earthquake hit and said he watched people’s lives crumble in less than a minute. Born in Haiti, he moved to the U.S. in 1974 at the age of 14 but has spent extensive time in Haiti in the ensuing years, including serving as a government consultant.


Pierre-Louis said he believes U.S./Haitian relations will be bolstered; he also expressed grave concern about how the U.S. and other countries should address the situation.


“I’m glad the U.S. is helping, but the U.S. sent the Marines into Haiti. They look like an occupying force,” he noted. “Why didn’t they send the Army Corps of Engineers? Why didn’t they send the Civilian Conservation Corps? Why didn’t they send people from the Foreign Service or the Park Service? Or send more doctors, more nurses?


“I know we need security, but you are sending almost 7,000 soldiers and not enough doctors, nurses, psychologists and social workers to help people understand their pain and what they’re going through. The image living in the minds of the small children and the people of Haiti is that there is an occupying force coming and the fear that comes with that.


“In 45 seconds, their lives were destroyed. Their loved ones were killed. Their homes destroyed. They have nothing to hold onto. They need people to understand that and help them out of these things. Sending 7,000 soldiers, most of them Marines who were trained to go into Iraq to fight a battle, (is) not good for humanitarian services.”


Dr. Robert Fatton Jr., the Julia A. Cooper professor of government and foreign affairs in the department of politics at the University of Virginia, said that the U.S. and Haiti have always had a close relationship but that sometimes it has been negative.


“I certainly hope that this crisis might generate a very intense cooperation that also is a much more equal type of cooperation, although that’s very difficult given the disparity of power,” said Fatton, who was born and raised in Port-au-Prince. “Maybe from catastrophe something good will emerge.”


In response to the question how should the international community’s approach to Haiti change during the coming years of rebuilding, each scholar touched on a similar point, which is to look beyond the capital of Port-au-Prince and into other areas of the country.


“Most of the strategies that we’ve been following emphasize the development of purely urban enclaves exporting goods on the backs of cheap labor to the international market and mainly to the United States and Canada,” Fatton said.


“In my view, this is not necessarily something you should avoid given the realities of the country, but I think emphasis instead should be put on the rural areas on agricultural development and on the production of basic necessities for the average Haitian. That would require a complete redirection of investment toward the rural areas, toward the agricultural sector and the development of a different model,” he said.


Verna noted that migration away from Port-au-Prince to rural areas of Haiti is already in progress.


“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to pay attention to some of these provincial cities, towns and villages that have historically been neglected and to create opportunities,” she said. “If we create opportunities across the country, then you minimize the risk of having such a large impact in any one place. You create a greater opportunity for a better livelihood for people if you have balanced development efforts across the country.”


Another important point is to place some faith in the government and work in collaboration with people in government positions.


“There was a conviction on the part of the international community that the state was so corrupt that you shouldn’t deal with it. You should emasculate the state, and you should only empower NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” said Fatton. “While the state was indeed corrupt, it is not clear to me that all the NGOs in Haiti are absolutely behaving like saints. There are a few big ones that are quite good, but there are plenty of them that are absolutely useless and getting a lot of the international assistance. That should be reversed.”


Pierre-Louis said, “You’ve got to trust the people. Yes, you bring in the international aid but don’t use the excuse you need to distribute it yourself because you don’t know the population. You don’t know the leadership. You don’t know the structure of the society. Trust people in the neighborhoods.”


The leadership in Haiti may be lacking greatly, because they’re missing a lot of things, but it’s there,” he added. “You’ve got to work with what you have.”



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