The end of the world is never far behind. The doomsayers have globally warmed us for the big event. The seas have risen 9 feet and water polo is played at Camden Yards. Wall Street echoes with the cries of displaced Venetian gondoliers. Millions of people starve; forests have been reduced to deserts. Many parts of world are without fresh water. Much of the Western United States burns uncontrollably. AIDS infects 8 of 10 Americans, etc.
When I met Antoine in Haiti in 1987, he was cooling off in a sewer in Port-au-Prince. Though he was 11 years old, he knew how to sucker Americans. The deal was this: For $10 Antoine would take me on a guided tour. Otherwise, he said, who knows what unspeakable disease was swimming toward him at this very second. "We Haitians are doomed, non?" He pronounced the word Doom Ed, as though it were a required college course like Phys Ed.
In return for saving his life and a shower, Antoine took me to his hero, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then to an open-air market, a voodoo doctor, a slum, a prison (to visit his uncle) and the rich neighborhoods in the cool hills overlooking the capital.
When Antoine was done, the doomsayers stood in a Greek chorus behind me. Haiti, they said, is what the world will be like in 50 years.
The lush forests that once shaded the whole country now barely cover 2 percent. In 1992, according to the latest United Nations Human Development report, 5.1 million of Haiti's population of 6.8 million lived in absolute poverty; 3.4 million had no access to ,, health care; 4.1 million had no drinking water nearby; and 29,000 children died before age 5.
Father Aristide's eyes had flashed angrily behind his dark glasses. America was responsible for the exploitation of his country. Washington, he said, talked hypocritically about democracy while arming the military to oppress, even kill the voters. The priest was altruistic and naive in grappling with his country's plight. "Everyone will share the wealth, don't you see?"
His was not the terminology of the aid doctors sent to cure Haiti. He was what a U.S. Embassy official called "a dangerous character," a "liberation theologist" and "crypto-commie." In short, he was not in our pocket.
Hundreds came to hear him say Mass each day and receive hope. Then, government thugs shot up the worshipers and the church. Father Aristide was silenced by his bishops and forced underground. But he emerged triumphant as president in the 1991 elections, only to be overthrown a few months later and his supporters systematically murdered.
Now a sea of immigrants was threatening to rise 9 feet over South Florida. The waters would not be bringing the white doctors, lawyers, engineers and wealthy campaign contributors of the Cuban diaspora, but filthy poor people, black people, many of them infected with the AIDS virus.
The flood threatened to sink President Clinton's health care reform and the crime bill. It even might be enough to put George Bush's son in the governor's mansion in Tallahassee. The illegal immigrant issue created sparks in campaigns in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
And last week, Fidel Castro gave another lesson in Doom Ed. He threatened to throw open the gates of his country, sending millions of freedom-loving political refugees paddling toward liberty's shores.
But why stop there?
The Climate Institute released a report on Thursday projecting "millions of environmental refugees" as globally warmed seas flooded the coasts of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Too little water can be expected to produce even more refugees. According to a United Nations estimate, the world's supply of fresh water in 1994 was a third of its supply in 1970. Mark Falkenmark, a Swedish hydrologist, estimates that within 30 to 35 years a number of African countries will be unable to meet their citizens' needs for water.
Still other "dislocations" can be expected from worsening poverty. The New York Times reported that sub-Sahara Africa had become so poor by 1991 that its gross national product (excluding South Africa) was equal to that of Belgium. That is, the region's nearly 600 million people produced the same amount as a European country of 10 million.
Overall, the United Nations reported, the richest 20 percent of the world's population saw its share of the world's income increase from 70 percent to 85 percent between 1970 and 1991. The poorest 20 percent saw its share drop from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent.
Haiti and other basket case countries had gone from bad to worst, and in the words of one World Bank official: "They will either starve or leave."
Others, such as Werner Fornos of the Population Institute, predict that countries will start to disintegrate along fault lines created by economic disparity and ethnic, political and religious differences.
China, for example, might become six or seven federated countries divided between the rich north and poor south, or among different language groups and cultures.
But for all the doomsaying, hordes floating on logs toward Ocean City are not likely to appear soon. What is more likely are the Rwandas, Sudans, Somalias and Bosnias, where thousands will perish in civil wars and genocidal revenge, or simply starve to death in a world growing ever more barren and overpopulated.
In the meantime, the United States enjoys a third of the world's $18 trillion gross national product, while spending $11.7 billion in foreign aid. That amounts to 0.2 percent of GNP or less per capita than Ireland spends on foreign aid.
The Father Aristides of the Third World might wonder if such a disparity in wealth indicates that the world is flat after all, with a rich cheap minority enjoying the sunny side.
The other side of the flat world -- the insect side -- is rarely glimpsed by most Americans. It is hard to envision the Third World sweatshops that make many of our goods. When we visit the other side of the world, it is with a pina colada in our hands and an elephant or ancient ruin in the viewfinder.
As I flew back to Miami, I grew ill at ease thinking of Antoine in his sewer. I had a straw hat, a first-rate bottle of rum and a crude but colorful painting Antoine assured me would fetch $3 million in New York in 10 years.
Yet Antoine's world was not so easily dismissed. Antoine's cousin Gerard picked me up at the airport, only to have his cab die on the expressway in a cloud of steam and smoking oil.
We hitched a ride with a Honduran truck driver who dropped me off at a Cuban-owned hotel. A Nicaraguan, who spoke no English, carried my bag to the room.
Back in Maryland, I met Lazaro, an illegal Mexican migrant who plucked chickens on the Eastern Shore, while others in his family harvested tomatoes and worked in a cannery.
By one unofficial U.S. government estimate, Maryland's illegal immigrant population is about 43,000, ranking it ninth in the country. But their presence had hardly become a campaign issue, especially since workers like Lazaro were being paid $2 an hour below the minimum wage.
In theory, employers could be arrested and tried as criminals for employing undocumented workers such as Lazaro.
But a surprising thing happened on the way to the bank. In fiscal 1993, the immigration authorities arrested 1,474 employers on charges related to undocumented workers.
Seven were convicted.
If you see Antoine, pay him the $10.
John M. McClintock, a former Sun correspondent in Latin America, is now a member of The Sun's copy desk.