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Kristof on Haiti

From the NYTimes:

Why is Haiti so poor? Is it because Haitians are dimwitted or incapable of getting their act together?

Haiti isn’t impoverished because the devil got his due; it’s impoverished partly because of debts due. France imposed a huge debt that strangled Haiti. And when foreigners weren’t looting Haiti, its own rulers were.

The greatest predation was the deforestation of Haiti, so that only 2 percent of the country is forested today. Some trees have been — and continue to be — cut by local peasants, but many were destroyed either by foreigners or to pay off debts to foreigners. Last year, I drove across the island of Hispaniola, and it was surreal: You traverse what in places is a Haitian moonscape until you reach the border with the Dominican Republic — and jungle.


Without trees, Haiti lost its topsoil through erosion, crippling agriculture.

To visit Haiti is to know that its problem isn’t its people. They are its treasure — smart, industrious and hospitable — and Haitians tend to be successful in the United States (and everywhere but in Haiti).

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Mike Clawson

posted January 21, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I’ve been to Haiti. I have friends there. I have studied their history. Kristof is exactly right. But he’s also being cautious with his words and leaving out an important detail, which is that most of these problems – debt, political corruption, deforestation – were caused, either directly or indirectly, by us, Americans. We were the foreigners who occupied Haiti for 20 years in order to collect on their slave debt which we had bought from France. While we were there, we were the ones who clear cut their mahogany forests to send back to American furniture makers. We were the ones who dealt with them so paternalistically during this period that their self-initiative to build and maintain their own public institutions atrophied. Since then we’ve been the ones propping up corrupt dictators and manipulating their politics to the point where Haitians don’t feel like they have any control over their own governance. We might not like to face it (and I’m sure some will accuse my recital of basic historical facts of being “anti-American”) but the uncomfortable reality is that we are the devil Haiti has been dealing with these past 200 years.

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posted January 21, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I really hate to agree with you Mike, but you are right. Maybe some struck a deal with the Devil–but “the Devil is in the details” and we have been the ones who have profited so much at their expense. I am not anti-American and I don’t believe we’re the “Great Satan”. But we’ve been very unaware of the power of our own actions and perhaps the unintended consequences of agreements we have made.

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Sharon Autenrieth

posted January 21, 2010 at 7:25 pm

I put up an article on this very subject at the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s site this week. I’ve gotten some flack (I think any negative mention of Rush Limbaugh guarantees flack), but I think it’s important that we see the role of Europe & the U.S. in Haiti’s condition. Thanks for linking to Kristof’s editorial, but I agree with Mike that he might be overly cautious in implicating the U.S.

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Mick Porter

posted January 21, 2010 at 10:15 pm

It seems pretty clear that the deforestation and subsequent lack of topsoil is a massive issue there. I’m often wondering how to motivate Christians to be more engaged with concepts of sustainable agriculture and its application into developing countries. We seem way too suspicious of the hippies and environmentalists, rather than bringing a Christian worldview into that arena. That said, I love what these guys are doing in Africa in that regard:

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posted January 21, 2010 at 10:29 pm

It is so easy for anyone to slander any person or entity without any proof to back them up. When you say we the United States, that doesn’t include me. More specifically, who is the we? Name companies and/or people. I will respect you for your research and your ability to point me into the direction of where to get it. If you are not willing to do this, then you may want to reconsider any future posting stating such accusations.

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Mike M

posted January 21, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Val@4: that’s pretty cold-blooded. Did Jesus tell you say that?

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Mike Clawson

posted January 21, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Val – for specifics and “proof” read “The Uses of Haiti” by Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor and founder of Partners in Health, an excellent NGO with a long track record in Haiti. If you want more corroboration, simply look at any of the other books he cites. If you are “willing” to do your own research and inform yourself that is.
You can also get a brief overview of these facts in this recent Newsweek interview with Michele Wucker, the executive director of the World Policy Institute and author of “Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola” (another book you could check out): The article is too short for her to elaborate much, but she essentially confirms what I just said.
And when I say “we” I do mean all of us here who are Americans. These are actions undertaken by our government on behalf of the American people. Whether we knew it or not, whether we condoned it or not, whether or not we were even alive at the time, we are still nonetheless complicit in this oppression and are the beneficiaries of it. “We the People” are responsible for the actions of our government.

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posted January 22, 2010 at 8:12 am

“by Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor”
Then I am certainly sure he is objective (no bias)

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posted January 22, 2010 at 11:27 am

I think Mike Clawson makes an important point, and none of the people who don’t seem to like it have offered any facts to refute it.
Assuming Mike is right in general terms – which I think he is – then rather than quibbling about specifics I am more interested in the answer to the question of what would most help Haiti now, given that the situation is what it is? As right as Mike may be about the cause of many of Haiti’s problems, it is also true that billions in aid given to Haiti and huge numbers of person-hours from relief agencies, mission agencies and the like over recent years have done little to help alleviate the massive problems there. So if what is being done isn’t working, what would work? Is David Brooks right? If not, then what?

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posted January 22, 2010 at 11:49 am

I was not saying Mike was wrong, just that we need to take into consideration the source(s). However, in lieu of Scot’s post earlier in the week about liberalism in the academy, I probably should not have furthered that stereotype.
I do disagree with Mike on how much responsibility the American people have in this, especially for actions done in the past. For those of us living today, our main responsibility is for what is taking place in the present….Which brings us to your good point: What is the solution?

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posted January 22, 2010 at 11:55 am

I think the important point is not how much responsibility the American people have for actions in the past – but how do those actions have to influence how we act today. Certainly corporate memory of Haitians will effect the way they today understand and react to any proposed actions or offers.
Knowing the history is an important part of determining the proper future course.

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posted January 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I certainly do not disagree with that. I only brought up the “responsible” element because Mike and Val had been dealing with it.

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posted January 22, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Someone once said, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past”.

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Mike Clawson

posted January 22, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Rick – of course every academic has a bias, but the things I mentioned are not even really a matter of bias or not. They’re simply a matter of the historical record. The facts of the matter are not in dispute. These things happened. We did these things. Like it or not, we have to deal with it.
As for our current responsibility, when I hear people arguing that we shouldn’t bother helping Haiti because it’s none of our business, or we should take care of Americans first (not that I’ve heard that here, but I have elsewhere), or that it’s the Haitians own fault that they’re so bad off (and therefore we shouldn’t bother helping them), then yes, I’d say the past is still relevant and we do need to own our government’s role and responsibility in all of it.

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posted January 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Mike #13-
I don’t disagree with much of what you said there.
However, present day Americans holding our government responsible to do the right thing(s) now is somewhat different than, in regards to every American, that “…whether or not we were even alive at the time, we are still nonetheless complicit in this oppression…”

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posted January 22, 2010 at 7:12 pm

While the US and others may have contributed to Haiti’s current conditions, native Haitians have shown themselves to also be quite capable of screwing up their own affairs over the last several hundred years, with or without Western involvement. A more balanced reading of the history of US government involvement in the region may also note the infrastructure built (roads, hospitals, bridges, canals, schools), sick people cared for, and number of people educated. Western involvement both good and bad has occurred. But, there’s a fine line between learning from our mistakes and making excuses by pointing fingers at the past, trying to pin the blame on the villain d’jour.

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Your Name

posted January 22, 2010 at 8:15 pm

When a group or nation has reason to be proud of a characteristic of itself, it often points to it’s past/history as a reason (in part) for where/why it is today. We do this all the time when we reflect on the U.S., right? We deify the “Founding Fathers”, the rugged puritan worth-ethic that shaped our country, etc.
And yet, when we view the negative characteristics of another group/nation (such as some of the tragic elements of Haiti), we squirm at how the U.S. has played a significant role in it’s history, and try distance ourselves from it by essentially saying, “The past is the past…”

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Trevor Fox

posted January 22, 2010 at 8:20 pm

oops…”Your Name” (#17) was me.
By the way, for an eye-opening account of some of the not-to-glorious facts in our American history, read Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the U.S.: 1492 to present”
Interestingly, the story starts in Hispaniola (present day Hatia/Dom. Repub), where Columbus and his bunch first landed. The indigineous popultion was virtually anhilated within a few short years by Columbus et al.

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Mike Clawson

posted January 23, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Rick – I base my claim that we are still “complicit” in the oppression on two arguments:
1) We are still, today, reaping the benefits of our past oppression of Haiti. America’s power and prosperity today is due, in part, to the unjust ways we have dealt with others in the past. Thus if we ourselves enjoy the benefits of American wealth and power, that makes us complicit in the means used to acquire such benefits.
2) The oppression is not past. It is and continues to be ongoing. We still meddle in Haitian politics. We still keep them chained to crippling debt via the IMF/World Bank. We still undercut their economy through our trade and agricultural policies. Things have been getting better, yes, but not entirely. Thus we are still complicit.

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