Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti: another nation for U.S. to rebuild?

Express Staff Writer

On assignment from The Miami Herald in the late 1950s, I swung through a string of countries in the Caribbean, the Antilles and South America—from Puerto Rico to Venezuela and between—to check political, economic and social conditions. In those days, the Southern Hemisphere was as much a part of the Herald's news beat as Florida. The Herald's overnight Clipper Edition was sold on newsstands as far south as Santiago, Chile, more than 4,000 miles away.

No amount of advance reading, however, prepared me for the spectacle in Haiti. The squalor and sense of purposelessness 50 years ago is what thousands of earthquake rescue and relief workers find today.

Haiti is and has been the poorest nation in the hemisphere. Reasonable people might wonder whether the nation has any meaningful future and can be saved from itself, or whether it needs perpetual life support.

The starkness of Haiti's deplorable condition is even more dramatic when considering these data from the CIA World Factbook:

· Although Haiti shares the same island, Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic, shares histories of concurrent political tyrannies and corruption (Haiti's "Papa Doc" Duvalier and the Dominican Republic's Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo) and shares identical population sizes and economic opportunities, Haiti lags far behind its neighbor in virtually everything.

· In Haiti, 80 percent of its 9 million people are below the poverty line. In the Dominican Republic, 42 percent.

· Life expectancy at birth: 61 years in Haiti, 73 in the Dominican Republic.

· Literacy: 53 percent in Haiti, 87 percent in the Dominican Republic.

· Haiti has 67 radio stations, the Dominican Republic 176. Haiti has two television stations, the Dominican Republic 25.

· Haiti has 14 airports, only four with paved runways. The Dominican Republic—25 airports, 16 paved.

· Per capita GDP: Haiti, $1,300. Dominican Republic, $8,200.

Both are equally vulnerable to devastating earthquakes and rampaging tropical hurricanes.

Humanity demands heroic global help to Haiti's earthquake-shattered country.

But what of the ongoing and persistent Haiti disaster—a nation stuck in poverty, crippled by cultural and economic paralysis, and torn by social helplessness?

If the United States is driven to spend billions abroad in distant Iraq and Afghanistan in lifting nations out of despair, is there a moral dictate to do as much for a desperate nation in Washington's backyard with money as well as brainpower?

Or are Haiti and its people doomed to rely on spurts of compassion when natural disasters wreak havoc and instead remain dependent on the charity of modestly funded volunteer religious and social orders?

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