Who Cares About Haiti?
The Wall Street Journal
MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
November 21, 2010
Ten months after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000
Haitians and destroyed an already decrepit infrastructure, some 1.3 million
impoverished souls are still barely surviving in tent cities around the
country. Living conditions are deplorable and after nearly a year, optimism
about a way out of what were once dubbed "temporary" camps has dimmed.
Now more than 1,100 people have died in a cholera epidemic, and riots that
began in the northern city of Cap-Haitien spread to the capital of Port au
Prince last week. Protestors allege that the United Nations peace-keeping
mission brought the disease to Haiti. The jury is still out on the source of
the cholera, but the unrest has taken a further toll.
And so it goes. Just when you think things can't get any worse, more
poverty, violence and sorrow conspire to increase the sense of helplessness
in what is the ultimate economic basket case in the Western Hemisphere.
Millions of people the world over watch from afar and wonder why something
can't be done.
Here's the $64 million question: Is Haiti's seemingly intractable misery the
result of a society and culture that is incapable of organizing itself to
create civil order and a viable economy? Or is it the consequence of ruling
kleptocrats—abetted or at least tolerated by influential foreigners—treating
every economic transaction in the country as an opportunity for personal
Evidence abounds that it is the latter. So why have the U.S. and the U.N.
refused to take even small steps toward shutting down an official corruption
racket that pushes millions of helpless people into lives of desperation?
Instead they've put Bill Clinton—whose political family famously went into
business with the notoriously corrupt former President Jean Bertrand
Aristide—in charge of rebuilding the country with billions in foreign aid.
Development takes generations, and nation building by outsiders is a fool's
game. But often there is a simple change that can yield fast returns. One
no-brainer target in Haiti is the port at Port-au-Prince, where the bulk of
imports must enter the country, but where Haiti's legendary mafia will only
release containers after sizable bribes are collected.
A report this year by the Rand Corporation describes the port's importance
this way: "The costs of shipping through Haiti's ports have imposed a major
burden on Haitian consumers and businesses. Because imports play such an
important role in consumption, investment, and business operations, the cost
of imports is a key determinant of living standards and economic growth."
And yet, Rand says, "importing a container of goods is 35 percent more
expensive in Haiti than the average for developed OECD countries."
Haitian officials like to blame inefficiency at the capital's port on a lack
of modern infrastructure. But Haitians know that's only part of the story.
Writing for the online magazine The Root in October, Haitian-born business
consultant Yves Savain explained that pulling a container out of the port in
the capital "takes walking the documents from office to office to secure an
unspecified number of signatures." The full cost, which he said includes
"legitimate and illicit duties," constitutes "a substantial and arbitrary
financial drain on all sectors of the national economy."
Mr. Savain was being diplomatic. On a visit to the Journal offices last
week, former Haitian ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph—who resigned in
August—was more direct. "The corruption situation in the ports was one of
the major reasons I decided I could no longer defend this government," he
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Mr. Joseph says, "I had so many
[nongovernmental organizations] calling me and saying 'ambassador, could you
help me get our things out of the port?' They kept telling me [port
officials] want so many thousands of dollars to get the things out." Mr.
Joseph says that by calling the minister of finance he could sometimes get
the goods out but that he wasn't always successful.
Another example: A Nov. 14 CBS "60 Minutes" report featured the case of six
containers destined for an NGO housing project that had been "stuck" in the
port for months. No one could figure out why the goods couldn't be released,
but the NGO was still forced to pay $6,000 to the Haitian government for an
"imposed storage fee."
Haiti holds elections on Nov. 28 for parliament and president, and enemies
of representative government want to disrupt that process. This partly
explains the recent violence. Yet it would be foolish to write it off as
solely the work of the nefarious underworld.
Haitians are fed up with the squalor that seems to promise an end only in
death. They are angry not only with their own crooked politicians but with
the way in which outsiders turn a blind eye to their tormentors. The fact
that Washington and the U.N. have refused to rein in the extortionists
running the port demonstrates the lack of international political will to
alter the status quo.