Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Haitian Heart of Darkness

Michael J. Kavanagh files a wrenching dispatch from Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's pooerest country, for Slate. There, he reports from the ironically named Bel Air, where people do their damnest to cope with the grueling poverty and incessant violence that grew worse after Aristide's downfall.

Kavanagh describes Haiti today as:
a miasma of self-interested power-brokers, violent gangs, and a distrustful, victimized citizenry. No single center of power—not the United Nations, the interim government, nor any political or armed group—has filled the void left by Aristide's departure, and the result has been a year of violence where chaos has reigned and it isn't clear who is responsible for reining it in.

At times over the past 18 months, Port-au-Prince's poorest neighborhoods—places with upwardly mobile names like Bel Air and Cité Soleil—have seemed like killing fields. Thousands have been wounded and displaced; hundreds have been killed. A wave of kidnappings terrorized Haitians to the point where parts of Port-au-Prince looked like a ghost town, even in broad daylight.

And while many blame Aristide's supporters for the continuing violence—his partisans insist he's still the president, and some have vowed to fight (clearly with his blessing) until he returns—at this point, the blame extends far beyond the former president's gangs. Anti-Aristide gangs, drug-traffickers, members of the defunct Haitian army, and corrupt elements of the Haitian National Police have all played major roles in the conflict. All benefit in some way from the chaos—and all could play a role in ruining the upcoming elections.
While the U.N. security force and Haiti's National Police have sought to curb the influence of these violent gangs, the people's real hope is a national identification card that presents a slim chance a small minority of Haitians will receive a passport and therefore freedom from Haiti's endemic poverty and violence.

POSTSCRIPT: Americans should remember that President Aristide alleged he was the victim of a U.S. supported coup. When he left Haiti, it was in the confines of a plane sent by the Pentagon. Today, he's in exile in South Africa. For a little history lesson in the ends the U.S. has gone to keep its "backyard" quiet, here's Paul Reynolds from the BBC. More scholarly works on this subject are Peter H. Smith's Talons of the Eagle and Lars Schoultz's Beneath the United States. Both are excellent introductions to the U.S.'s hegemonic role in maintaining the status quo throughout Latin America.