Life has never been easy in Haiti, and that may be why the current nightmare there is not getting more attention. For about seven weeks now, a struggle between President Jovenel Moïse and the opposition has fed a storm of violent demonstrations, burning tires, looting and arson, all but shutting down transportation, schools, gas stations and medical services and leaving at least 30 dead.
The ostensible goal of the demonstrations is the ouster of Mr. Moïse, a businessman who came to power in 2017 after a two-round election plagued by accusations of fraud and a meager turnout. Before that, he had been involved in a scandal over whether he received funds for road repairs that never took place, allegations he denies. He refuses to step down, and few Haitians have put forward any ideas on who or what should come next, or how Haiti can pull itself out of its tailspin.
At the heart of the crisis is a broad despair that the existing political and economic system has not overcome the rampant corruption, spiraling inflation, food and drinking water scarcities, lawlessness and endless other indignities that have steadily worsened the lives of people in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. The country has had at least 10 presidents since its first democratic election in 1990; only three have completed five-year terms.
Compounding the misery is a sense that nobody cares. During the Cold War, the United States tacitly supported the dictatorships of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier because of their anti-Communist stance, and in the 1990s Washington first propped up and then helped force out the first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
After a horrific earthquake in 2010, in which more than 200,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed, many countries and organizations responded with generous aid and teams of rescue and medical workers. A United Nations peacekeeping mission set up in 2004 provided a modicum of stability, but it was also blamed for bringing cholera to Haiti, and dozens of its peacekeepers were involved in sexual abuse scandals. The last of the United Nations peacekeepers recently departed, contributing to the current lawlessness.
In the present crisis, protesters have accused the United States of standing by Mr. Moïse, who curried favor with the Trump administration by turning against Haiti’s former patron in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, the leftist president the administration is trying to oust. In fact, the American “support” has consisted solely of limp calls for “dialogue.” Haiti has been on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s ill will, which has been focused in migrants and the movement of drugs, most notably when he said in 2018, among other crude things: “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
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It is clear from the current meltdown that Haiti needs more than another election or a “dialogue” among elected leaders to tinker with malfunctioning institutions. Some followers of the crisis have argued for a concerted effort by the international community to restart a functioning system. Some Haitians believe that the future requires the convening of a council of elected officials and civil and business leaders to stop the continuing deterioration of the rule of law.
What is clear is that something has to change, and the country needs outside help. The question is where to begin. The Trump administration is not in the business of helping poor countries unless there is some sort of reciprocal deal. The current spasm of destructive demonstrations does not seem capable of bringing real change.
Yet it is demonstrably in the interest of the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere to help their poorest neighbor get back on its feet. There must be enough expertise and imagination available in Haiti and among international and nongovernmental organizations to formulate a plan and to help form a coalition government, and there must be long-term international assistance to get them going.
The first step is to recognize that Haiti, a nation of 11 million just over 800 miles south of Florida, is in dire straits and getting worse by the day. And to care.