Originally: The Trials of Haiti

In the winter of 2003, when war loomed in Iraq and every rock was suspected of concealing

a terrorist, one might have  imagined that the last thing on the minds of American

diplomats would be a little impoverished country like Haiti, a mere third of  an island,

which lacks even an army. But the United States has a foreign policy everywhere, and, as a

rule, the weaker and  poorer the nation, the more powerful the policy is.

Most Americans if they visited Haiti would, I imagine, come away with new definitions of

poverty. What you notice most of all  are absences of the most basic things. Water, for

instance. In a recent survey of the potable water supplies in 147 nations, Haiti  ranked

147th. It’s estimated that only 40 percent of Haiti’s roughly 8 million people have access

to clean water.

In the capital, Port-au-Prince, the morning after rain, you see working men take up

manhole covers and lean in beneath the  pavement, dipping buckets into the city’s brimming

drainage channels. They use the water to wash cars for pay, and  occasionally, when the

day gets hot, you’ll see one of them invert a bucket over his head. This is very

dangerous, because any  contact with sewer water invites skin diseases and a mere

thimbleful swallowed can cause bacillary dysentery.

All over Haiti, you see boys and girls carrying water, balancing plastic buckets on their

heads as they trek long distances up and down the hillsides of Port-au-Prince or climb

steep footpaths in the countryside. Many of the water-carriers are orphans, known  as

restavek–children who work as indentured servants for poor families. Contaminated water

is one of the causes of Haiti’s  extemely high rate of maternal mortality, the main reason

there are so many orphans available for carrying water. “Sanitation  service systems are

almost nonexistent,” reads one development report. Many Haitians drink from rivers or

polluted wells or  stagnant reservoirs, adding citron, key lime juice, in the belief that

this will make the water safe. The results are epidemic levels of  diseases such as

typhoid, and a great deal of acute and chronic diarrhea, which tends to flourish among

children under 5,  especially ones who are malnourished. Hunger is rampant. “Haitians

today are estimated to be the fourth most undernourished  people on earth, after Eritrea,

Ethiopa, and Somalia,” the World Bank reported in 2002. The cures for many waterborne 

ailments are simple. But in Haiti, it’s estimated (almost certainly overestimated) that

only 60 percent have access even to  rudimentary healthcare. In the countryside, the vast

majority have to travel at least an hour, over paths and main roads that  resemble dry

riverbeds, to reach health centers, which not only charge fees that most can’t afford to

pay but also lack the most  basic provisions.

Last winter, I visited the centerpiece of Haiti’s public health system, the University

Hospital in Port-au-Prince. It was founded in 1918, during the time when American Marines

occupied and essentially ran the country. It’s a large complex of concrete  buildings in

the center of the city, and it seemed to be open when I arrived. My  Haitian guide and I

strolled over toward the  pediatric wing. It  seemed unnaturally quiet. No babies crying.

Inside, the reason was  obvious. There were no doctors or nurses  or patients in sight,

only a  young male custodian, who explained that the doctors had recently  ended a strike

but that the nurses  had now launched one of their own. Strikes at the hospital are

frequent; this one had to do with current political strife.

“Where did the sick children go?” I asked my Haitian guide. “They went home.” She made a

face. “To die.”

We walked past rows of empty metal cribs, and then, turning a corner, down at the end of a

long row of old metal beds with  bare, stained mattresses, we saw a lone patient. A girl

lying on her side, very thin in the arms and legs, with a swollen belly. Her mother,

standing beside the bed, explained that the girl had been sick for a long time. The

doctors said she had typhoid. When  the strike began, the mother and daughter had simply

stayed, because the mother didn’t know what else to do. But a doctor did  stop in now and

then, and had left behind some pills.

At the hospital, the morgue, at least, was functioning. I looked into the one reserved for

victims of diseases, mostly diseases that could have been prevented or cured. The door was

made of corroded metal, like the door to a meat locker. The room inside  was filled with

trays on racks, stacked horizontally, several bodies per tray, the majority children, the

little girls still in their  dresses, bows in their hair.

Diarrhea alone kills sixty-eight Haitian children out of every 1,000 before the age of 5.

Did many of the people in the morgue die  because of dirty water? I asked the medical


“Oh, of course!” he said. He also told me, “Sometimes we have to put more bodies together

than we’re supposed to, because  there isn’t room.”

Haiti is in dreadful shape. No one disputes the fact. So it seems odd that over the past

few years foreign aid to the country has actually declined. Haiti still receives

assistance, from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan and various United

Nations organizations, but the total amount has been reduced by about two-thirds since

1995. The United States has cut its donations by more than half since 1999. The World

Bank, meanwhile, has shut down its lending to the country, for the time  being at least,

and has closed its Haiti office, leaving behind only an administrator and driver.

Then there is the case of the Inter-American Development Bank. The IDB isn’t as well-known

as some of the other IFIs (the  international financial institutions, or “Iffies” in

aidspeak) but ranks as a major player in Latin America and the Caribbean. It has  long

been one of  the most important lenders to Haiti. In the late 1990s it made comprehensive

plans for a passel of new  low-interest loans to address some of the country’s most

pressing needs–$148 million in all for improving roads, education and  the public health

system, and for increasing the supplies of potable water. But in the spring of 2001, when

the loans were about  to be disbursed, the US representative on the IDB board of executive

directors wrote the bank’s president asking that the  process be halted. This was unusual.

No member nation is supposed to be able to stop the disbursement of loans that are already

approved. Nevertheless, the IDB complied. The Haitian government also lost access to loans

it could have received  from the IDB over the next several years, worth another $470


The State Department seemed reluctant to discuss this matter. I was granted an interview

with a senior department official only  on condition that I not use his name. He told me

it wasn’t just the United States that had wanted to block the IDB loans; it was  “a

concerted effort” of the Organization of American States. The legal justification for

blocking the loans, he said, originated at an  OAS meeting called the Quebec City Summit,

which produced something called the Declaration of Quebec City. But that  document is

dated April 22, 2001, and the letter from the IDB’s US executive director asking that the

loans not be disbursed is  dated April 6, 2001. So it would seem that the effort became

concerted after it was made. The reason for blocking the loans,  according to the

official, was “to bring pressure to bear on the Aristide government, to address what the

OAS itself and other  members of the international community saw as serious flaws in the

2000 electoral process.”

The official was referring to elections held in May 2000, in which Jean-Bertrand

Aristide’s Lavalas political party won large  majorities in both houses of the Haitian

Parliament. Each candidate had to win a clear majority to avoid a runoff, but the election

 procedures made it impossible to determine whether some had won majorities or merely

pluralities. This was the case with eight  Senate seats, in seven of which Lavalas

candidates had received the most votes. But the Provisional Electoral Council eschewed 

runoffs, and declared those eight the winners. Opposition parties claimed the elections

had been stolen, and many foreign  diplomats made a fuss. Soon, many were calling the

entire election “fraudulent.” This seemed rather harsh, given the fact that to a  great

extent, foreigners had financed, managed and monitored the proceedings, and in the

immediate aftermath many observers  had declared a victory for Haiti’s fledgling

democracy. Sixty-five percent of Haiti’s eligible voters had turned out, many walking 

miles along mountain paths and waiting for hours in the hot sun to vote. Moreover, those

eight contested Senate seats didn’t  affect the balance of legislative power. Even if

they’d lost them all, Lavalas would still have had control of Parliament.

The election didn’t seem like a sufficient reason for cutting aid to Haiti. To me the

State Department’s explanation seemed like  obvious diplomatic obfuscation, what diplomats

called “irregularities in vote-counting” serving as the pretext for reducing the  amount

of money that went to Haiti’s government.

Back in 1990, after centuries of slavery and dictatorship, Haitians finally got the chance

to vote in free and fair elections. They chose Aristide, a Catholic priest from a poor

parish of Port-au-Prince, as their president by an overwhelming margin–he  received 67

percent of the vote in a field of thirteen candidates. Aristide’s liberation theology–a

doctrine whose central tenet is “to provide a preferential option for the poor”–won him a

devout following among Haiti’s poor but few friends in the first Bush  Administration.

After just seven months Aristide was deposed by a military junta, which ruled the country

with great violence and cruelty for three years. Finally, in 1994, the Clinton

Administration sent troops, which restored Aristide and his government. In  the remaining

year and a half of his term, Aristide made some small progress in rooting out the endemic

corruption that various  juntas and dictatorships had left behind. With the help of the

United States, he also disbanded the Haitian Army, which the US  Marines had reconstituted

during the American occupation of Haiti in the early part of the century–an army, it was

often said,  that never knew an enemy besides the Haitian people.

An array of foreign governments and Iffies pledged their help in rebuilding Haiti, but

many of the donors insisted that in return for their aid Aristide institute “structural

economic adjustment”–the privatization of state-owned enterprises, for example. According

 to one diplomat who spent a great deal of time conferring with him, Aristide was

“privately ambivalent and publicly ambiguous”  about the Iffies’ recipes for Haiti. Too

ambiguous to suit some of his former admirers on the left, for whom neoliberal economic 

reform is anathema, but also too ambiguous to win over any of his numerous detractors on

the right.

In 1996, Aristide, barred from seeking a consecutive term by the Haitian Constitution,

endorsed as his replacement an old  friend, René Préval, and for the first time in Haitian

history, a democratically elected head of state turned over power to another. Aristide ran

for president again in November 2000. Citing the unresolved flaws in the May legislative

elections, the United States declined to assist or monitor the presidential elections,

which the political opposition in Haiti also boycotted. Aristide won easily, though–and

legitimately, in the eyes of most of the world. But by then he had acquired many

detractors, a large and varied cast,  mostly situated outside Haiti.

To the American right, liberation theology had long seemed like an especially dangerous

doctrine, combining Marxist analysis  with a call to connect the struggles of Christ to

those of the poor. And Aristide’s preaching and criticisms of the United States,  combined

with his great popularity among the Haitian poor, made him a natural target for right-wing

politicians, such as Jesse  Helms, who had denounced Aristide, even retailing slanders

against him. Some of Aristide’s early detractors are still in the  American government.

One of Helms’s chief aides on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Roger Noriega, was

until  recently the permanent US representative to the OAS. In that capacity, he issued a

number of statements criticizing Aristide and  his government. Recently he was nominated

as the Bush Administration’s chief of policy on Latin America.

Today, Aristide’s critics argue variously that he is guilty of fomenting corruption and

violence, or of condoning them, or, at the
very least, of being too irresolute to put a stop to them. And it may be that, as one

former diplomat told me, Aristide returned to  power in 1994 with a “never again”

attitude, resolving that if his enemies had guns and thugs, he would not be without them 

either. When I interviewed Aristide, he allowed that the issue of controlling his

supporters was “a preoccupation,” and added that he couldn’t control agents provocateurs

who committed crimes in the name of Lavalas. (A common sort of charge in Haiti. 

Opposition leaders have claimed, for instance, that Lavalas staged the notorious armed

attack on the presidential palace on December 17, 2001, in order to have a pretext to

attack them.) Aristide also told me, “I will do more to try to provide security and push

the judicial system to render justice and not to delay and delay.”

I wasn’t sure he’d get very far in those efforts. Haiti now has about 3,500 poorly trained

and ill-equipped police, including many amenable to payoffs and bribes, and some involved

in drug trafficking. The United States has withdrawn all its support for the  police and

judicial system and, with the OAS, has been demanding that Aristide improve security and

the administration of  justice. A State Department official told me that the United States

was trying to give “recognized political parties as much training as possible so they can

compete nationally.” In fact, Washington has long tried to create a counterforce to

Aristide’s vast popular support–most preposterously back in the mid-1990s, when the

American soldiers temporarily occupying the country were told  by their commanders that a

right-wing terrorist organization called FRAPH was the “loyal opposition” to Aristide.

More recently,  public documents show, the United States helped to create the main

political opposition, the Democratic Convergence, and has  aided it in developing

platforms and strategies. In theory, this could be a laudable program; democracy benefits

from real competition. But it is sinister if, as Aristide’s supporters say, part of

Washington’s strategy is to make room for an opposition by crippling Aristide’s

government–by blocking IDB loans, for example.

Over the past few years, the United States and the OAS have placed increasingly onerous

conditions on the Aristide  government, which have included satisfying the demands of the

political opposition. Foreign diplomats insisted that the senators  in the contested seats

resign; all did so several months after Aristide’s re-election as president. Aristide has

continually called for  new elections, but the opposition has demanded that Aristide

resign before they will cooperate. A State Department official in  Haiti told me that the

United States won’t countenance such intransigence but also said that no support for new

elections in Haiti  will be forthcoming until Aristide improves “security,” among other

things. But it may be, as Aristide’s supporters believe, that no  support will be

forthcoming until Washington thinks elections will yield the result it wants.

There is no telling, of course, how new elections would turn out, but it is possible to

guess. The United States has commissioned  opinion polls in Haiti. These have not been

released publicly, but I managed to obtain one, dated March 2002. The most striking  thing

about the data is that on many significant issues between 40 and 46 percent of those

surveyed either refused to answer or  said they had no opinion. Among those who responded,

the poll reveals a rise in national cynicism. And the poll does show  significant declines

in Aristide’s ratings from a poll conducted a year before, but those are declines from a

very high level. About  60 percent of those who responded in 2002 named him as the leader

they trusted most, and no more than 4 percent named  anyone else. About 40 percent of

respondents also named Lavalas as the political party they sympathized with, while only

about 8 percent named the Convergence.

One foreign journalist recently wrote, “Among the disaffected former supporters [of

Aristide] are virtually all of Haiti’s leading intellectuals and artists, the persons who

had best articulated the humane values that should be at the basis of any new Haitian
society.” But should Haiti’s leading artists and intellectuals, however well articulated

and humane their values, be the ones to define a new Haitian society? Perhaps 80 percent

of Haitians live in poverty, about 70 percent in poverty so desperate that  they’ve never

had a chance to go to school, let alone become intellectuals. These are the people most

often invoked in  discussions about Haiti’s suffering, but they are also the people least

often consulted on the question of what should be done. The  main exception has been

elections. The Haitian poor demanded the right to vote. They ran grave risks to get it–in

the aborted  elections of 1987, for instance, when thugs employed by the junta in power

gunned down would-be voters at polling places.  And when they’ve finally had their chance,

the impoverished majority has, time and again, turned out in large numbers and  expressed

their hopes by electing Aristide.

The saga of the blocked IDB loans has continued. In September 2002, the OAS seemed to

relent a little, and resolved that the  Iffies should resume normal relations with the

Haitian government. But this had no immediate practical effect. The World Bank  had no

plans to make new loans. And the IDB couldn’t disburse the loans for clean water and

health and roads and education,  because arrears had accumulated since 2000. Haiti now

owed the bank millions more in debts on previous loans, ones taken  out, ironically

enough, by Aristide’s predecessors–by “Baby Doc” Duvalier and by various military juntas

that had tried to kill  Aristide several times back in the late 1980s. Haiti didn’t

qualify for the international program of debt relief because Haiti didn’t  owe enough. It

did, however, owe more than it could pay. So if the loans were going to be released, some

foreign government  or institution would have to make a bridge loan to Haiti. One senior

State Department official told me that the United States was  in favor of a bridge loan,

but only if Aristide’s government met various conditions. Clearly, the IDB loans were

still being used to  exert pressure on Aristide.

This past summer the Haitian government decided to pay the arrears itself, a total of $32

million, a sum that represented more  than 90 percent of the country’s foreign reserves.

In effect, the government has all but bankrupted itself for the sake of those  loans and

in the hope of more to come.

Last winter I made a call to the World Bank, to the person then serving as its Caribbean

country director, Orsalia  Kalantzopoulos. I  knew that the World Bank had run into the

same problems as the IDB,and that loans were being held up by  about $25 million in

arrears. But I wondered why it had pulled out of the country. It seemed like a strange

thing to do, given that  its mission statement reads, “Our dream is a world free of


Kalantzopoulos told me, “The problem was that most of the projects, with very few

exceptions, did not meet their objectives. In  addition, the projects had a lot of

execution problems. There was not proper procurement and sometimes money was not going  to

the projects described.” She added, ” The bottom line is, if there is not the political

will to use the money properly, does it  really make sense to mortgage the next


Of course, the status quo doesn’t promise future generations much of a future in Haiti.

And the Iffies are already making the  current generation of Haitians pay for the sins of

the past.

Today, the United States is passing almost all of its direct aid to Haiti through USAID,

which then funnels the money to various  NGOs.  But according to Gerard Johnson, until

recently the IDB’s representative there, this tactic is only a palliative, not a cure. “In

the sense of development, NGOs cannot replace the government. They can satisfy short-term

humanitarian problems, they’re  very important as a partner to government, but I don’t

think you can avoid  the government and do lasting development.” The  only real solution

in the long run, Johnson felt, was to strengthen the institutions within Haiti, and one

way to do that was through  IDB loans. Haiti, he explained, has an informal economy,

untaxed and untaxable, that probably accounts for about 85 percent of  the country’s

employment. Incompetence and corruption are problems, but the bigger problem is that the

government can’t raise  enough in taxes to do much more than pay its employees’ salaries.

Low-interest IDB loans could provide the capital for making  real improvements.

There are a few examples of successes even in Haiti. One of Johnson’s favorites was a

recent Canadian project that had brought  reliable  electricity to the city of Jacmel. One

of the most harmful legacies of the American occupation early in the twentieth  century

and of the Duvaliers’ long rule has been the centralization of everything. The Jacmel

project was so far fairly successful,  Johnson thought, because the Aristide government

had ceded control, including over revenues, to the local government. “This is  exactly the

model that we would like to replicate with the water loan,” Johnson told me. “Support good

governance, support  local government, and that’s definitely linked to democracy. The

people are to stand in relation to the state to the point where  they’re willing to trust

enough to pay their water rates, which sounds like something automatic in Washington, DC,

but in Haiti  when you pay your water rate, you may or may not get water.”

Of course, some opponents of neoliberal economic reform believe that poor countries should

have no truck with the Iffies,  because the  conditions that are invariably attached to

their aid usually end up doing further harm to the poor. I raised this  objection with Dr.

Paul Farmer. He is a professor of medicine and medical anthropology at Harvard and the

medical director of  a remarkably effective and expanding public health system in a

desperately impoverished region of rural Haiti. He has also  published a number of

articles critical of the Iffies and neoliberal economic reforms. He told me,

“Anti-neoliberal people say Haiti  would be better off without the IMF and the World Bank

and the IDB, but there’s no topsoil left in a lot of the country, there are  no jobs,

people are dying of AIDS and coughing their lungs out with TB, and the poor don’t have

enough to eat. These are  problems in the here and now. Something has to be done. Haiti is

flat broke, and I don’t see what else the government can do  but turn to the Iffies. It’s

the job of the true friends of Haiti to protect it from the hypocrisies of the Iffies.”

I have spent portions of the past three years in Haiti, mostly in the country’s famished,

deforested central plateau. During that  time I’ve met a number of people who describe

themselves as peasants, among them a man in his 30s, named Ti Jean Gabriel.  When I spoke

with him last winter in Haiti, he said he wished he could talk with President Bush and

tell him about the problems  in the country. He could tell his own story, how when he was

8 he had so few clothes that he used to work naked in his father’s  field. “I feel like if

I could get to the right person, so I could explain the situation…”

I told him that some people thought giving more aid to Haiti now would be a mistake. What

was his response to that?

He leaned toward me. “I will answer your question with a question,” he said. “You have

seen Haiti. Do you think Haiti needs more aid?”