With additional reporting by Julian Hattem
In the wake of Haiti's catastrophic earthquake, highly respected foreign policy voices -- including American officials who have specialized in Haitian relations -- are calling for a fully revamped approach and commitment from the U.S.
Former National Security Adviser Tony Lake -- who helped spearhead the Clinton administration's relations with Haiti in the early '90s -- makes the case that any recovery effort had to be broad in scope and long-term in focus.
"When you are doing disaster relief, you need to do it with at least one eye on how you can not only make up for the destruction but help create a better future, because everything you do is starting to set new patterns whether it is in building or in schools or in health care, that can continue into the future," Lake told the Huffington Post. "I would never say that this disaster provides an opportunity, because who would want to create opportunities under these conditions? But it is important to understand just what the longer-term possibilities are as one who is trying to help out these people who are suffering terribly."
Other Haitian experts also see not just a moral but also a geopolitical imperative to reinforce a country that was fragile even before the earthquake. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview on MSNBC Thursday morning, hinted of such a plan. America, she said, is "going to be [in Haiti] for the long term. It's not just what we do today or tomorrow but what we are going to be doing for weeks and months ahead."
President Barack Obama, in remarks addressed to the Haitian people on Thursday, said "you will not be forsaken you will not be forgotten... American stands with you. The world stands with you.
A long-term commitment would be a welcome break from historical precedent. Too often, Haiti's turn in the world spotlight has been either temporary or for the wrong reasons. The country's poverty is the worst in the region -- with 80 percent of the population below the poverty line. Its politics are incorrigibly fractious. Its industries are nascent if not non-existent (there is, according to the CIA World Factbook, zero percent industrial production growth). Its struggles with medical illness are legendary -- there are roughly 60 deaths for every 1,000 live births.
But instead of being embraced as a reclamation project for first-world developers, Haiti has often been cast off as a hopeless cause.
"You get a punctuated interest that has to do with particular tragedies or moments of instability," said Professor Greg Beckett, a Haitian expert at the University of Chicago. "For the U.S. government the main conceptual frame in dealing with Haiti is usually crisis, and you always respond to the crisis by dealing with it. Instead of looking at the country in a long-term frame and a major project, it is seen as an entrenched series of problems that need occasionally to be confronted."
This is not, of course, universally true. A host of prominent religious and medical organizations have done spectacular work in the country. The U.S., likewise, allocated more than $245 million in foreign assistance for Haiti in FY2009, according to USAID more than any other Caribbean or Latin American country other than Colombia or Mexico.
In terms of direct diplomatic or political focus, however, America's relations with Haiti have often been dictated and defined by moments of tragedy or chaos. During the Clinton years, it was the heavy flow of refugees fleeing the country's military junta that put the nation at the front of America's foreign policy agenda. When Clinton secured the restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, it was accompanied by implicit promises that the nation would not disintegrate into such forms of social instability again.
But it did. Internal political deadlock crippled Haitian progress at the turn of the century. And by the time George W. Bush was in the Oval Office, Haiti was once again in chaos. A coup nearly erupted in January 2004 over a corruption-marred Aristide re-election -- almost compelling U.S. military intervention.
"Should those killers come to Port-au-Prince, you may have thousands of people who may be killed," Aristide ominously declared at the time. Weeks later, he would leave the country in exile, preempting a bloodbath but also allowing the international community to divert its attention.
Remarkably, in the years since the Aristide's departure and the introduction of UN peacekeeping forces, Haiti's situation improved. According to a December 2009 story in The Miami Herald, Haitian exports last year rose 23 percent, with an expected growth rate of 2.4 percent. The minimal damage caused by what was once expected to be a heavy hurricane season seemed like an added blessing.
On a personal note: When my father, a surgeon, traveled to Haiti for a medical mission several weeks ago, he remarked on the country's improved infrastructure (no small achievement when considering the difficulties in transporting food and medical supplies).
Lake, who recently visited the island himself, noted that the government had, "overall, a good job in not only in making progress, some progress, on roads, health care, etc.... but in also trying to sort out the political knots that have, for the last decade, been such a barrier to progress."
Now, of course, all that progress has been brought to ruin and the country once again finds itself in desperate reliance on the charity of others. It's an all too familiar equation, say longtime followers of the country, but one that hopefully can be put to rest with a final, sustained recovery effort.
"Haiti has the capacity, to shoot like the rocket to the top of the agenda or sink like a stone to the bottom of the ocean," said, Professor Dan Erikson, Inter-American Dialogue's senior associate for U.S. policy. "We have seen mobilization of aid like this to Haiti before and yet that focus is inevitably lost as the situation becomes less urgent."