Outlook for Haiti extremely bleak, says author of only Czech history of troubled Caribbean state

Port-au-Prince, photo: CTK

Almost exactly a month ago, on January 12, the already impoverished Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people and left hundreds of thousands more without shelter. Anthropologist and historian Markéta Křížová is the author of the only history of Haiti in Czech, and has been following recent events there keenly. This week we discussed the situation in the country and the outlook for the future. But first I asked Křížová how often she had been to Haiti when preparing her book.

“I have never been to Haiti and honestly I will not risk it. For a historian, as I am a historian, it’s much easier to study the history of Haiti in other places. Because the Haitian archives were in ruins even before the earthquake.

“Basically Haiti is so dangerous a country…my very good friend goes very often to the [neighbouring] Dominican Republic, because he deals in agricultural implements and so on, and he told me that in the Dominican Republic they may kill you for ten dollars. In Haiti it often happens that they kill a white man first and only then do they see if he has any money.

Port-au-Prince,  photo: CTK
“So I would like to go there, but I would not risk it at this moment.”

Now it’s about a month since the earthquake happened in Haiti. What was your reaction when you heard on January 12 what had happened?

“I really thought, that’s the end. What’s interesting is that after working for more than a year on the history of Haiti and going through the archival materials in France and London and so on I really feel very compassionate towards Haiti.

“The news struck me much more for example than the news of the tsunami. It was bad, but it was not in the region that I know so well.

“I really thought, that’s the end. Because the society has no reserves. It has no infrastructure that could help the people to start anew.

“The first day after the earthquake I was asked by Czech Radio to give a very brief comment and my students told me, it was interesting, but could you say something positive? And I said, I don’t see any future, because there’s nothing you can start with.

“In many, many Third World countries at least the peasants can make a bare living out of their soil. But in Haiti you can’t do even this. And the only possibilities to earn anything were in Port-au-Prince, the assembly factories and so on…

Markéta Křížová
“So it’s really a problem. And there’s no potential for tourism, for example. The problem is that now you send to Haiti medical teams for example, they can save people’s lives, but what next?”

That leads me to my next question. Šimon Pánek from the Czech NGO People in Need has suggested there could be a protectorate in Haiti. What’s your view of that idea?

“I think it will end in a protectorate, because I think there’s no other chance. But I don’t see much future in that, because the American occupation [from 1915 to 1934] tried to establish some foundations for a Western-style democracy in Haiti and they failed – in a much better economic situation, when there still could have been a market for Haitian sugar.

“The problem is that you can’t transplant to Haitian society Western-style democracy from one day to another. The society needs some time to…not to mature, but to establish by its own force the mechanisms that would suit best those people….”

But do you think that that’s possible, given that it’s so unstable and always has been?

“Well, now it’s not possible. And it would be cruel to these people who are dying, who are hungry, and their government is not able to give them what they need…But in the view of further decades I think people would protest, especially in Haiti because the whole ideology in the past two centuries was built on their distrust of European or Euro-American culture.

Port-au-Prince,  photo: CTK
“The ideology of Duvalierism, the two Duvaliers that were reigning in Haiti from the middle of the twentieth century…”

That’s Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

“Papa Doc and Baby Doc, yeah. Also their ideology was built on the premise that it’s [Haiti’s problems] the fault of the West.

“And also if you decide that you will give the greatest possible amount of self-government to some people, to some culture, to some nation, then you have to be willing to accept that some of the features of this system would diverge from the European way of self-government.

“It’s a very delicate problem. Do you accept nepotism, do you accept the harassment of women as a part of the cultural system? Or do you the force the people to accept your rules?

“You see it every day on the News. You can establish international armies, but still these soldiers would not be able to monitor the life of every individual.

“And the power of the gangs, the power of the informal networks in the cities, the power of the voodoo…authorities – I don’t believe even an international protectorate would be able to change this.”

Finally, where do you see Haiti in, say, ten years from today?

“I think the people who would be able to will try to leave Haiti. And now is a good time, because the states of the American continent have relaxed their…persecution of illegal immigrants. So I think those who have some relatives abroad already will try to get out.

“Those who don’t have that chance will somehow survive on international humanitarian aid. I think the only possible way would not be to bring more food and more medicines, but to establish some factories, to establish something to promote the development of the Haitian economy.

Port-au-Prince,  photo: CTK
“But not in the way it was done in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when only assembly plants were established that did not bring anything to Haitian society itself.

“So if the great powers will be willing to help with this…but still I think ten years from Haiti will be the poorest country on the American continent, and one of the poorest countries in the world.”