Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Now's the time to help Haiti escape the past

By Jeffrey Sachs

This spring's presidential election in Haiti sadly re-enforced the country's blighted reputation. The paradox is that today Haiti has a chance, perhaps the best in its modern history, to escape from its long history of extreme poverty and turmoil.

A mere one-hour flight from Miami, the country struggles with poverty levels akin to the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But, whereas many parts of the world are extremely poor because of their isolation, Haiti is extremely poor despite its proximity to the world's largest market. Now, Haiti can turn its geography into a competitive advantage, but only if the US helps.

Haiti recalls a famous lament once heard about another US neighbor, Mexico: "So far from God and so close to the US." As with Mexico, Haiti's proximity to the US has cut both ways in its history. Proximity to the US should, of course, be an advantage for exports and attracting investment.

However, proximity has also meant US meddling. Haiti was the second country, after the US, to win its independence from Europe, following a slave rebellion in 1804. But the US regarded Haiti as a threat rather than as a colleague in freedom, refusing to extend diplomatic recognition until after the outbreak of the Civil War, which finally brought an end to slavery in the US.

Even after recognition by president Abraham Lincoln in 1862, relations remained sour. Haiti was exploited and occasionally occupied by US troops, rather than being regarded as a legitimate partner in trade and diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Haiti's ecological and demographic conditions posed huge development challenges that have never been overcome. The island is hit regularly by devastating hurricanes. It has been massively deforested and its soils have been depleted of nutrients. Tropical diseases remain killers to this day.

A devastating economic blow occurred in the mid-19th century, when Europe learned to produce sugar from a temperate-zone crop, beets, rather than from tropical sugar cane. World sugar prices collapsed and Haiti fell into deeper disarray. Extreme poverty bred illiteracy and miserable governance, which in turn intensified hunger, disease and instability.

Haiti's recent economic history is marked by a remarkable and tragic downslide since the mid-1980s, exacerbated by sometimes well-intentioned but typically disastrously executed US diplomacy. In an attempt to push Haiti toward democracy, the US imposed economic sanctions, which crippled Haiti's fragile and newly emerging export sector, especially apparel and other labor-intensive production. Unemployment soared. Urban violence spiraled.

The US then entered into a destructive 15-year relationship with president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is very popular among Haiti's poor, but distrusted by most of the business sector and many leading US politicians. When Aristide came to power in 2001, the Bush administration cut off most international aid, thereby helping to send the economy into a freefall. Aristide's government was ousted under highly contested circumstances in 2004.

The newly elected president, Rene Preval, is a highly talented and experienced agronomist and thus has the perfect background to revive Haiti's degraded rural economy. With the US market close by, Haiti could achieve a remarkable recovery of exports of horticulture, fruits and other agricultural products, as well as tourism and light manufactured goods.

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