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Originally published Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:20 PM

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Guest columnist

Haitian earthquake victims need our help, not misplaced pity or scorn

Haiti is too often referred to as a basket case that is responsible for its history of political violence, writes guest columnist Richard H. Watts. What Haiti needs is our help — help that empowers the Haitian people — not pity or scorn.

Special to The Times

THERE are many possible responses to the devastating earthquake in Haiti: shock, horror, profound sadness, empathy and the urge to help.

Tens of thousands of people are dead and much of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, its edge-city slum Carrefour, and its one relatively prosperous suburb, Pétionville, have been reduced to rubble. Those are appropriate responses, but what comes after must be a wholesale rethinking of what international aid can and should do.

Blaming the victim, as in the last paragraph of a lead New York Times article that appeared on the day after the earthquake, is patently absurd.

Simon Romero and Marc Lacey, with others contributing, wrap up their reporting on the human tragedy in Port-au-Prince with the following: "Haiti's many man-made woes — its dire poverty, political infighting and history of insurrection — have been worsened repeatedly by natural disasters."

It is true that Haiti has known a remarkable combination of political violence and natural disasters over the course of its history. Are we to infer, though, that Haitians would be better off today had the insurrection that began in 1791 and led to the emancipation of slaves and the creation of the first independent black republic in 1804 not occurred?

Furthermore, should we understand from the phrase "political infighting" that Haitians are their own worst enemies and that they are solely responsible for the man-made woes (and maybe even what insurers call "acts of God") that befall them? Are we to conclude, after absorbing the lengthy descriptions of death and destruction, that they brought it on themselves?

This paragraph at the end of an article that seems to otherwise bravely and objectively report the facts is part of a long-standing and dispiriting pattern of demonizing Haitians by erasing relevant aspects of their past. (Think: Pat Robertson.) Haiti is often — all too often — referred to as a basket case, a country on the verge of social, political and ecological collapse without any mention of how it might have arrived at that state.

The fact is that many of Haiti's problems today stem from the response of nations that saw its insurrection as a threat or a taunt. In 1825, the French engaged in a bit of gunboat diplomacy and demanded that Haiti pay compensation of some 150 million francs — a sum derived by figuring the value of the property, in the form of slaves and land, that French planters had lost — or face a total economic blockade. This amount was roughly equal to 10 years' worth of total revenue in Haiti.

By the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to France still consumed around 80 percent of the national budget. One generation of Haitians had bought its freedom with its blood, and the generations that followed had to pay cash.

In the 20th century, the United States twice occupied Haiti, once from 1915 to 1934, with soldiers bringing the attitudes of the Jim Crow South along for the trip; and again from 1994 to 2000, the second time with arguably better intentions but ambiguous objectives and, consequently, poor results.

Many have argued that the "structural adjustment" imposed on Haiti by the International Monetary Fund in the 1990s led to the liquidation of state assets but promoted little in the way of private investment and, it almost goes without saying, did nothing to benefit the average Haitian. Is it any wonder that the country is characterized by crushing poverty and political instability?

To say this is not to remove all blame from the Haitians themselves. The country's tiny economic elite has done little other than consolidate its own power in the past 200 years. More recently, groups that opposed former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was democratically elected twice, opted out of a nascent and fragile democratic process, giving it little chance of survival.

And massive emigration has deprived Haiti of many of its most highly skilled citizens, though who could blame them for leaving? Regardless, the responsibility for Haiti's problems in popular accounts is almost always exclusively borne by Haitians.

The question, then, is what a more nuanced knowledge of Haiti's past can bring to an understanding of and response to the present catastrophe. People who are reduced, in the imaginations of those who might help them, to violent, irrational, incompetent people solely responsible for their fate are not likely to receive the help they need.

Having lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, I worry that what happened there might be repeated in Haiti; namely, the transformation of hungry, frightened and displaced people into a "security threat" first and people in need of immediate and sustained care second, if at all.

Looking further down the road, we need to find ways to help Haiti rebuild its public institutions so that it can rebuild a city and suburbs that were home to 3 million people. Aid needs to be rethought to empower Haitians, not repeatedly "save" them. Perpetuating the boom-and-bust cycle of aid and intervention of that past century is not the solution.

Right now, though, the people of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas need our help. They need clean water (difficult to find for many Haitians in the best of times), medicine, food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities of survival.

What they clearly do not need, though, is pity mixed with scorn.

Richard H. Watts is an associate professor of French at the University of Washington. He specializes in Caribbean studies.

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