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Posted August 9, 2002                                                                                                                              _________________

Why do we punish the Haitian people?

By Tracy Kidder

In the famished, deforested and desperately poor Central Plateau of Haiti, there is a first-rate medical complex, called Zanmi Lasante, which is financed in large part by a small American charity and operated almost entirely by Haitians. Some 56,000 patients visited Zanmi Lasante in 2001. This year the medical complex is on course to receive more than twice as many. Patients fill every bed in its hospital wards and every reclining chair. Many desperately ill people lie on mats on the floors.

The main explanation for this dramatic, indeed catastrophic, increase in patients is obvious. Haiti's public health system was deplorable in 2000 and it has deteriorated since. Private hospitals in the Central Plateau stand all but empty, because they charge user fees that most Haitians can't afford. Impoverished patients are flocking to Zanmi Lasante because they have nowhere else to go.
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A hospital room in Haiti. (AP Photo/Daniel Morel) Tyrant Aristide in his sumptuous presidential office. (AP Photo/Daniel Morel)

The situation is far from hopeless. The wise application of relatively small amounts of money has allowed Zanmi Lasante, working with the cash-strapped Haitian authorities, to vastly improve public health in its vicinity. To reproduce this success throughout the country and to make it last would require the creation of a good national public health apparatus, adequately financed and ultimately managed by Haitians for Haitians. Since Haiti lies only a short plane ride away from Miami, one might expect that the United States, out of self-interest if nothing else, would try earnestly to help start such an endeavor.

In fact, we are sending some aid to Haiti -- about $100 million a year if one accepts the State Department's accounting, often creative. But all of it is being sent to international and charitable organizations and none of it to the government of Haiti. Indeed, the United States is actively impeding the flow of foreign aid to Haiti's government, a total of approximately $500 million, a sum roughly equal to the country's annual budget. We are even blocking, illegally, a series of already-approved loans from the Inter-American Development Bank totaling $148 million, designated for improvements in Haiti's water resources, education and public health.

The Bush administration's foreign policy bureaucrats have spun webs of pretexts to justify this shunning of a democratically elected government -- "irregularities in vote-counting" in a legislative election is only the most ridiculous of these. The plain fact is that our foreign policy establishment despises Haiti's very popular president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, and wants to make sure his popularity wanes.

The hypocrisy of our position is painful. We support many unelected governments throughout the world and have supported many in Haiti -- cruel kleptocrats and military juntas and, most notoriously, the Duvalier family dictatorship. But Aristide, whatever his demerits may be, was elected for a second time in November 2000 by an overwhelming majority.

Many Americans feel hurt and puzzled when they hear that large numbers of people in poor countries fear and resent the United States. But imagine how our current policy must look to the impoverished majority of Haitians. Their ancestors were slaves, kidnapped from West Africa. When they rebelled against their French masters and established the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, the young, slave-holding United States punished them, both politically and economically. To Haitians now, it can't help but seem that we intend to punish them some more for having reelected Aristide.

Haiti is part of the world we occupy. In spite of their long travails, the people of that small island country created their own wonderfully expressive language, their own vibrant literature and art, their own much maligned and misunderstood but rich religion. We have done them a great deal of harm in the past -- it was, for instance, American and Canadian sex tourists who carried AIDS to Haiti. Now we should help them and the leaders they have chosen through free and fair elections. Instead, in the name of all Americans, our government is following a policy that is not merely hypocritical but also murderous.

The writer won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Soul of a New Machine." He is a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

2002 The Washington Post Company. This Column was published in The Washingtonpost, August 7; Page A21.

A reply: Blind Aid to Haiti Will be Wasted / Reply to Mr. Morrell

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