By DeWayne Wickham
The last time I was on the grounds of Haiti’s presidential palace in 1994, it was the country’s government that had collapsed. Now the palace, a Beaux Arts structure built by U.S. Navy engineers in 1918, has been toppled.
Felled by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck this Caribbean nation last week, the palace’s destruction is a chilling symbol of the broad collapse of the Haitian state.
Twenty years ago, Haiti’s hopes of emerging from decades of political feudalism were boosted when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became its first democratically elected president. But less than a year later, in 1991, he was chased from office by a military coup that was followed by years of bloodletting.
He was returned to power in 1994 with the help of 20,000 U.S. troops, deposed again and now waits in the wings hoping for a third turn at running his now-devastated nation. It was already the hemisphere’s poorest. Now Haiti teeters on the brink of a calamity that threatens its very existence.
With the country’s parliament and presidential palace leveled and few signs of a functioning civil service or security force, President René Préval, who succeeded Aristide, is the titular head of a phantom government. Control of the capital’s airport is in the hands of the U.S. military, which has assumed a lead role in guiding the multinational effort to resuscitate this nation of 9 million people.
But eventually there must be more than just a relief effort. A way must be found for Haitians to attain the stability on which they can build a future. That won’t be easy. Since its founding, Haiti has been the victim of unrelenting foreign intrigue and crushing domestic turmoil. A couple of years after Haiti declared its independence in 1804 – and a quarter-century after a regiment of free black Haitians fought for America’s freedom in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah – Congress imposed a trade embargo on the new nation. U.S. merchants should not do business with people whom “it is the interest of the United States to depress and keep down,” the bill’s sponsor said.
The U.S. didn’t recognize Haiti until 1862. Then in 1915, the U.S. military began a 19-year occupation of the country. During that time, the U.S. took over control of Haiti’s treasury and required citizens to submit to forced labor.
Throughout much of Haiti’s history, internal strife also has contributed to its troubles. Most of its leaders have been overthrown, assassinated or executed. Knowledge of all this, as well as the daunting tasks of rebuilding that lie ahead, may have caused President Obama to speak so compassionately to the Haitian people two days after the quake.
“Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle. And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some (of you) to look up and ask, have we somehow been forsaken?” Obama said.
His initial commitment of $100 million to help Haiti’s recovery is a good answer to that rhetorical question. And in getting former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a relief fundraising effort, Obama gives Haitians reason to believe their country will stay on America’s radar longer than it takes to rebuild the fallen presidential palace.
Ultimately, that could be what Haiti needs to create a “more perfect union” like the one a regiment of Haitians helped this nation achieve.