NEW YORK — “Did you see this?” My colleague asked me in a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, in 2005.
Regrettably, I had seen it — a dead child covered with a sheet, flies buzzing around it, seemingly abandoned in a hospital hallway. For days afterward that sight haunted me. It also was proof of the desperate state of Haiti’s hospitals.
I went to Haiti twice, first in 1993 as head of a U.N. mission to determine the effects of the U.N. embargo on the population, and again in 2005 to assess the Pan American Health Organization’s efforts in the area.
After my first visit we concluded that the embargo was worsening the status of the population, yet the greatest damage to Haitians was caused by the ineffectual and corrupt governments that had plagued the history of this island, as well as by the deleterious influence of colonial powers.
It would not be fair, however, to easily conclude that everything is wrong with Haiti. In my two visits I was impressed by the Haitians’ entrepreneurial spirit, even among the poor, and by their strong desire for progress and better education. I still remember emerging from the Montana Hotel, now totally destroyed, and seeing clean, impeccably dressed children going to school. And I wondered where they were able to get the water for their basic needs.
I also learned that although the country has among the worst health status indicators on the continent and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, it also had one of the most effective programs for combating the infection (until the recent disaster.)
I saw what centuries of unregulated deforestation had done to the country’s environment and how this deforestation would exacerbate the worst effects of natural disasters such as the earthquakes the country has recently experienced — as if the Haitian people hadn’t already suffered enough. Like many others, I ask myself whether this country has a future, and what shape that future will have, particularly after the first phase of reconstruction is completed.
I believe that Haiti’s natural and human resources should be the base for a strong new society, one that will right the many wrongs done to the country before. Some have proposed strengthening the country as a manufacturing outpost for industrialized nations, mainly the United States. But this view hardly takes into account the tremendous intelligence and resourcefulness of Haitians.
Although re-creation of a manufacturing base is important, it is only part of what Haiti needs. A base for a sustainable future must be established through agricultural renewal, education, solid infrastructure, further development of tourism through the stimulation of artistic endeavors and, yes, manufacturing.
Haiti has long been a nation of farmers, even though the country has gone through one of the worst deforestation processes of any country in the Americas. That’s why reforestation — as had already been carried out in a limited way — and creation of a strong agricultural basis are crucial.
To accomplish these goals, Haiti needs other governments to cooperate in rebuilding agriculture in a sustainable, ecological way. It also needs fair trade policies from industrialized countries, particularly the U.S.
There cannot be a rebirth of the country without a massive education effort. A national education plan can be created with input from teachers and administrators from other countries who wish to collaborate.
The strides Haiti was making in the fight against HIV/AIDS show that, given appropriate support, the country can respond adequately to its needs. The same is true with regard to artistic creation, which is closely linked to its tourism potential.
Aside from houses, roads need to be built to facilitate the movement of people and goods throughout Haiti. It could be the most useful way of employing large number of workers who stimulate local economies.
Over the years Haiti has experienced a brain drain. The collaboration of the Haitian diaspora is crucial for rebuilding the country, a process that can be encouraged through the financing of temporary contracts with Haitian professionals and technicians living overseas. The degree of cooperation of national authorities and international aid organizations will determine the future of this suffering, noble country.
Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D. and international public health consultant, is a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.