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Haiti: What Can Be Done?

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 228-235 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0005

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Library shelves sag under the weight of books on Haiti, old and new. Many were written by Haitians in the nineteenth century. They are exceptional studies challenging racism, but they also probe and dissect with honesty and candor the causes of Haiti’s repeated failures at sustained development and good governance. Few areas were left unstudied: French colonial slavery and the demand for reparations, European and American racism, domestic failures to plumb the island’s “culture of poverty,” ecological devastation, and endemic corruption. Haitian elites, of whatever color and class, never seem to stop searching for solutions. Foreigners have also contributed well-documented tomes on the island’s labyrinthine economy and politics.

This long-standing interest has been magnified by one calamity after another: a series of killer hurricanes and, more fundamentally, the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. In many ways, the year 2010 could well be said to represent a watershed in Haitian history, even as these tragedies come on top of ongoing structural and systemic problems that have bedeviled the island for the past two centuries. The ravages of overpopulation, environmental devastation, inadequate food and health services, and perhaps most harmful of all, the inability or refusal of the political class to think and act outside its own personal and partisan interests did not start in 2010. One should keep in mind that the United Nations became involved in Haiti in 1990. By 2010, it had seven thousand troops and two thousand police officers from thirty countries in a “stabilization mission” (the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH) there. Although it is true that many more nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) entered Haiti after the earthquake, there were hundreds of others—no one seems to know how many—already there, feeding, instructing, and healing the sick and needy. Because no sovereign country, and certainly none as deeply jealous of its independence as Haiti, can tolerate such a massive foreign presence for long, the question is, have recent disasters created an opportunity for Haitians and blancs (foreigners) to work together to establish the conditions necessary for national autonomy and sustainability, and from there the eventual withdrawal of the blancs?

The three books under review, which together present the opinions of some twenty-seven authors, were all written after the watershed events of 2010 and are specifically geared toward explaining the origins of Haiti’s crisis and what might conceivably be done to fix it.

Paul Farmer’s Haiti after the Earthquake is composed of his own assessment (239 out of 360 pages) and twelve shorter contributions listed as “Other Voices,” virtually all of which were written by authors with ties to Farmer’s Partners in Health and Zanmi Lasante medical centers. These admirable centers have operated in rural Haiti and a dozen other countries for decades. Aside from the evident dedication of Farmer and his team to caring for the poor, they know Haiti well and are clearly eager to have their opinions heard.

The opening chapter, a two-page essay by Joia S. Mukherjee, medical director of Partners in Health, sets the book’s tone. The tragedy of Haiti, she says, is that it has been the victim of powerful foreign countries for two centuries, “resulting in policies which have served to impoverish the people of Haiti” (xi). From this point on, the interpretative stance of the book is essentially frappe les étrangers, or “foreigner bashing,” not least in the long essay by Farmer himself. Farmer had made his views very evident in two previous books: AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame and The Uses of Haiti.1 His dislikes, repeated here in more moderate tones—perhaps because he was serving as deputy special envoy for Haiti under the UN special envoy Bill Clinton at the time of writing—are US investments (whether in tourism, assembly industries, or NGOs), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the neoliberal structural reforms that these forces impose on weak countries. In contrast, his likes include Cuban doctors working in Haiti, a sharp contrast to his less-than-generous opinion of other foreign doctors, such as those of Médecins Sans Frontières, which he characterizes as “the home base...

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