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Haiti: Don't ignore the politics

Like Bill Easterly, I think David Brooks goes a bit too far here:

Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

"Dictators, corruption and foreign invasions," it seems to me, vastly understates the political turmoil of Haitian history. Haiti has experienced 34 coups in its history -- an average of one every six years. There's simply no way to develop institutions under those conditions.

Brooks' analysis also seems to assume that all dictators are created equal. While the Dominican Republic's late 20th century dictators Rafael Trujillo (who played a not insignificant role in Haiti's tragic history) and Joaquín Balaguer were certainly brutal, they did at least demonstrate some interest in building that coutry's infrastructure, unlike the Duvaliers whose most lasting contribution to Haiti's infrastructure was probably the  98 percent deforestation that makes Haiti's hurricanes so deadly. 

Unlike Haiti, he Dominican Republic has also had a continuous, if flawed, democracy for the last three decades. Haiti's 2004 Hurricane hit just a month after the coup at Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the interim government was in no position to govern under the best of circumstances. Food riots and the four hurricanes of 2008 followed before the earthquake delivered the knockout punch. Skipping immediately to culture and religion while skipping over other factors, particularly political turmoil, seems far too simplistic. 

As for why Haiti has never had good governance, there's certainly no simple answer, and I think Tyler Cowen is right to ask, "Is it asking too much to wish for an economics [or political science, or journalism] profession that is obsessed with such a question?"

THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

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Aristide wants to return

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Haitian president who was ousted in a 2004 coup and now lives in exile in South Africa, says he wants to return to his country:

''As far as we are concerned, we are ready to leave today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti, share in their suffering, help rebuild the country, moving from misery to poverty with dignity,'' said Aristide, his wife Mildred next to him, eyes downcast, twisting a handkerchief.

Aristide spoke in a hotel meeting room reserved by the South African foreign affairs ministry. A ministry official told reporters Aristide would make the statement and not answer questions, and the former president didn't.

Aristide, a former slum preacher, was beloved by many of Haiti's majority poor but opposition to his rule grew during his second presidential term after he was accused of masterminding assaults on opponents, allowing drug-fueled corruption and breaking promises to help the poor. Still, was a deafening clamor for Aristide's return during food riots in Haiti in 2008, showing he remains hugely popular.

Speaking briefly in Creole, Aristide told Haitians: ''If one suffers we all suffer. Togetherness is strength. Courage. Hold on, hold on.''

If Aristide does return, political instability in an impoverished nation struggling to dig itself out from the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake could result.

 It's a bit hard to imagine the situation could get much more politically unstable. Whatever Aristide's faults as a leader, and they were many, if this popular figure could find a way to work with Haiti's current leaders, it could be helpful in the weeks ahead.