On Jan. 12, 206 years after rattling the world by becoming the first (and only) black republic to win its independence by overthrowing a slave system, Haiti made history again. This time, the forces of nature dealt Haiti a cataclysmic blow, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, affecting at least 3 million people - a third of its population. As I turned on CNN and saw the devastation and the loss of human lives, the shock in the eyes of men, women and children, I thought about Haiti's history: the fall of slavery on its shores, the rise of a free nation and the innumerable barriers and challenges that seemed to accompany its unique, glorious legacy.
In 1804, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the independent nation of "Ayiti," or Haiti, emerged - a name taken from the language of the original inhabitants, the Taino people, who had been decimated by the Europeans. Haiti defeated Napoleon's army, the Spanish and the British through countless organized insurrections by free and enslaved Africans. But Haiti's independence came at a great price, as this new nation was mandated to pay France, its former colonial master, 150 million gold francs for "loss of land, labor and capital" through 1947.
Haiti also endured 60 years of U.S. embargo and almost 20 years of U.S. occupation as well as intervention through backing of military dictatorships and undermining of the democratic process with the ousting of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. In the course of the U.S. developing a future relationship with Haiti, it is essential that we reconcile and address the detrimental policies of the past so that future policies serve the interests of the Haitian masses as opposed to the ruling class and foreign corporate interests.
Three days after the catastrophic earthquake, the Obama administration announced that it will grant temporary protected status for 18 months to Haitian immigrants living in the U.S. before Jan. 12. This order will allow Haitian residents the opportunity to receive a work permit. However, it excludes Haitians who arrive on U.S. soil after Jan. 12; they will be deported to Haiti. It also doesn't address the waiving of the $500 application fee to receive temporary protected status; nor does it lead to the granting of a permanent status to Haitian residents after the 18-month expiration date.
Addressing this issue is paramount and would greatly improve the economy of Haiti, as Haitian immigrants in the U.S. send more than $1 billion in remittances, according to the Inter-American Development Bank - more than one-third of Haiti's gross national product. In addition, the U.S. has received sharp criticism for past discriminatory practices toward Haitian immigrants, as compared with other immigrant groups. The U.S. should be held accountable in administering a clear and just application of immigration policy that renders equal treatment and consideration to all immigrants.
In order to accelerate the process of Haiti's much-needed growth and development, an immediate retiring of all debt that Haiti has incurred should be supported by the U.S. and international community. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who serves as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced a resolution on Haiti last week recommending debt forgiveness for the impoverished nation. Also, future foreign aid should be in the form of grants rather than loans, as past loans from the U.S and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been interest-heavy and have come with strict conditions that have been debilitating to the Haitian economy. Grants will ensure that Haiti has the resources to rebuild its public sector and provide its citizens with basic public services to support its economic restoration.
As Nicole Lee, executive director of TransAfrica Forum, has noted: "Haiti is poor because it was made poor." From its inception through the present, Haiti's development has been stunted and plagued by debt and destructive economic policies implemented by France, the U.S and institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. The historical and continuous destabilization of Haiti, led by the U.S. and Western powers, is evidenced in policies that have affected all facets of Haitian economic life.
Haiti has more international nongovernmental organizations, per capita, than any other country. However, if Haiti is to be truly independent and prosperous, it is Haitian grass-roots organizations and NGOs that need to be bolstered. The focus should be on capacity building, as well as supporting the sovereignty of a democratically elected Haitian government and the will of the people.
In the distribution of the $100 million that the Obama administration has issued, the larger percentage should be going to local institutions: cooperatives, businesses and NGOs. These organizations are intricately woven into the social, economic and political fabric of Haitian society and intimately understand how to address the short-term and long-term needs of the people.
The U.S. has a moral obligation to assist its close neighbor in recovering from this disaster, and rebuilding for the future. It also has a unique opportunity to turn a new page in history, where the people are prioritized over profit and Haitian self-determination and sovereignty are honored and respected.
Makeda Crane is an independent journalist and human rights activist in Baltimore. Her e-mail is makeda.crane@ yahoo.com and her blog is www.makeda crane.com.