David Rothkopf, in what I (charitably) assume is supposed to be a political self-confession (complete with self-flagellation) on Haiti:
In all its benighted history, perhaps Haiti’s greatest moment of hope since its independence came just a decade and a half ago. Back then, America finally took interest in its near neighbor as a consequence of a political crisis that, thanks in part to our intervention, resulted in the departure of a dictator whose family had oppressed and raped the island and his replacement by a quiet priest who was embraced by many in the United States as our hemisphere’s Mandela. As it turned out,Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hardly the saint that Hollywood stars and misty-eyed journalists had seen him to be.
But we in the Clinton administration did not know that back then — or at least many did not. We saw his restoration to the country as possibly the latest in the wave of hope-inspiring political upheavals that marked the end of the eighties and the early nineties. We committed thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the country to help give it a new chance. We offered a window of opportunity to tap into real financial resources from us and from the international community. We sent in AID and the Army Corps of Engineers. We trained police and built schools.
I was given the assignment of helping lead the inter-agency effort tasked with assisting Haiti’s economic recovery. We brought a trade mission of business leaders to consider investment opportunities in Haiti … though there were very few. We tried to identify projects of particular promise…ones that might bring phone service to the 70,000 villages that lacked it or electricity or water to the millions who risked life and limb stealing power from exposed wires or drinking water that was less than pure.
But we made serious errors. The first was misreading Aristide. This was the result of an intelligence failure as serious as any in the news in the past few decades. Many in our own intel community knew he was a bad guy, affiliated with bad guys, not a good ally. But top policymakers ignored the intel, even firing folks who had the temerity to tell the truth. Later, we made the mistake of demanding Aristide leave at the end of the term of office he had largely not been able to serve due to his exile … which may have seemed logical at the time but resulted in his effectively become the opposition to his own party from the moment he left office so he would have a chance to run again for office against his own closest political allies a few years hence.
The political turmoil associated with all this left us focused on process and uneasy about fully dispersing the aid that was committed to the country. Further, the country lacked what is commonly called absorptive capacity, the ability to actually take and productively use all we were offering. The bureaucracy was weak. Some was corrupt. Helping Haiti was hard to do.
You don’t exactly have to be Frantz Fanon to pick up on the serious colonialist mindset of this piece. For the love of God, he even uses the word benighted in relation to Haiti (err, dark-skinned Haiti?), whose great moment of hope comes through US “intervention” (and invasions).
Which is not the same as saying the Duvalier regime was anything but the loathsome dictators they obviously were.
We built them roads and schools!!! We brought them trade missions!!!
I would argue that the first major misreading of Haiti did not have to do with a lack of recognition that Aristide “was a bad ally” (and hence a “bad guy”).** The first major mistake is that international development is a weapon in our political arsenal. A mistake, by the way, that the US continues to make in Afghanistan, and with COIN theory more generally.*
When Aristide was exiled (the first time) after a short stint as President, the international community blacklisted the military government by sanctioning them. That didn’t work (quelle surprise!).
The political turmoil caused the Clinton administration to “focus more on process” than development. Politics determined development policy. But despite the Clinton Administration’s disapproval, it’s nearly impossible to argue that either the military government or Aristide at his autocratic worst were headed in any direction approaching the brutality and insanity of the Duvaliers.
“The country lacked absorptive capacity.”
Well yes, Haiti did lack absorptive capacity if we assume only one mechanism by which a country develops–what was then referred to as The Washington Consensus. It lacked absorptive capacity to adopt a neoliberal program overnight, just as it clearly lacked absorptive capacity to democratize quickly.
However, I would venture that Haiti had absorptive capacity for a more indigenous form of development–even if that form of development would have taken much much longer than 4 or 8 years.
But hey, it was the Roaring 90s and democracy and markets were winning, right?
At this point, who knows what will happen in Haiti next. It may be that some will try to use this event as a Shock Doctrine-esque moment to marketize Haiti. Perhaps some good over the long long term can come out of this horrible tragedy (not to suggest that the horrors of the earthquake will be nullified), though it’s probably more likely things will be as bad if not worse than they were before.
I’ve been a little hard on Rothkopf so far, so here is his conclusion, which has some merit to it:
Thousands are dead, perhaps many times that. But it is not solely or even, I would argue, primarily due to an act of God.*** It is due to the callous neglect of neighbors who were content to live with one of the world’s poorest countries at the doorstep of the world’s richest. (And, it must be said, to the failures of local political leaders.) It is due to political calculations that resulted in winding down U.S. efforts there and our choice to spend in a couple of weeks in Iraq or Afghanistan what it would have taken to lift this needy neighbor up … and save countless lives. It is due to the fact that too much of what we spend is for relief rather than for preparedness. In any event, it seems clear that if you leave a ramshackle city of 2 million on a fault line while the knowledge and the means to shore it up exist at your disposal and you are complicit in whatever follows.
The State Department and the White House are in the midst of seriously rethinking how we approach aid and development matters. Haiti should be a case study in how the best of intentions can go awry and of the incalculable costs of letting conflicts and catastrophes set our priorities for us.
I still think it’s a well-intentioned view that is infected with an American-centric brand of colonialism.
The developmental transition to modernity is very, very hard. Prior to such an event occurring (on the large scale) in any country, the people live as humans have lived for our entire existence, under the rule of the biosphere (i.e. “Mother Nature”). As Thomas Malthus showed us, such populations are inevitably headed for a culling–either by natural disaster, human-made destruction, or some combination of the two.
* Take al Qaeda as an example. US policy assumes al Qaeda is going to hole up in various failed states around the world; as a result, COIN is necessary in every failed state to prevent al Qaeda’s presence. Meanwhile, viral al Qaeda-ism spreads over the internet and its primary actors (e.g. the undie-bomber) are from the middle and upper classes.
** Note that this is also not an apologia for Aristide, who was certainly no Nelson Mandela. He was a politician in an illiberal society that too quickly democratized and hence developed some autocratic tendencies, especially given his populist background. His autocratic streak provoked a military counter-reaction. So who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? Politics is rarely (er) black and white.
** As a theologian, it is incumbent upon me to note how mind-blowingly ludicrous it is that the rest of the post argues for an entirely godless human-run world and then blame God for the earthquake. The same goes for Sec. Clinton referring to the country’s conditions as “Biblical.” The “Biblical” conditions arguably are ones where the slaves are free, the poor are fed, and justice rolls down like the waters. In other words, the opposite of Haiti. But that is an argument for another day.