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David Rothkopf

Haiti: "It was our fault"

The disaster in Haiti did not occur now. While the tragedy was triggered by the earthquake, its real roots were in two centuries of misfortune and most heart-breakingly in the failures of the international community and the country’s leaders during the recent decade and half – when hope backed with money bloomed and faded.

It was the poverty in the hemisphere’s poorest nation that resulted in Port-au-Prince being a city of shanties. It was decades of neglect that left communications, power and water at what even other poor nations consider crisis levels.

While it was impossible to know when an earthquake would hit, or hit so close to this hemisphere’s most fragile city, it was known that it was possible, not only by seismologists. We have watched hurricanes batter Haiti and leave it staggered because just a few hundred miles from the richest country was one ill-equipped even for predictable weather. We knew this and yet with every failure to act, we assured todays outcomes.

Perhaps Haiti’s greatest moment of hope since independence came just a decade and a half ago. America finally took interest in its neighbor as a consequence of a political crisis that, thanks in part to our intervention, resulted in the departure of a dictator and his replacement by a quiet priest who was embraced as our hemisphere’s Mandela. As it turned out, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hardly the saint that Hollywood stars and misty-eyed journalists had seen him to be. 

But we in the Clinton administration did not know that then – or at least many did not. We saw his restoration as possibly the latest in the wave of hope-inspiring political upheavals that marked the end of the eighties and the early nineties. We committed troops and billions of dollars to the country to help give it a new chance. We offered opportunity to tap into financial resources from us and the international community. We sent in AID and the Army Corps of Engineers. We trained police and built schools.  

I was given the assignment of helping lead the inter-agency effort tasked with assisting Haiti’s economic recovery. We brought a trade mission to consider investments, though there were few. We tried to identify projects that might bring phone service to 70  000 villages or electricity or water to millions. 

But we made serious errors. The first was misreading Aristide. This was the result of an intelligence failure as serious as any in the news in the past few decades. Many in our own intel community knew he was a bad guy, affiliated with bad guys, not a good ally. But top policymakers ignored the intel, even firing folks who had the temerity to tell the truth. Later, we made the mistake of demanding Aristide leave at the end of the term of office he had largely not been able to serve due to his exile ... which may have seemed logical at the time but resulted in his effectively become the opposition to his own party so he would have a chance to run again for office.

The political turmoil left us focused on process and uneasy about dispersing the aid. Further, the country lacked absorptive capacity. Bureaucracy was weak. Some was corrupt. Helping was hard.

International interest waned ... although to the credit of the United Nations, they remained engaged. But over time, due to our naiveté and the fecklessness of Haitian political leaders the energy behind recovery efforts ebbed and with terror and economic crises, the United States lost the political will. In a way, that’s when the tragedy began. With every dollar withheld, program withdrawn, aid worker shifted, somebody’s death was foretold.

This is not to lay blame at those who sought to help but who could not due to shifting political winds. There was real care for Haiti among many atop the Clinton team, beginning with the president who remains deeply involved. Rather, it is to note that the tragedy of the missed opportunity of the ’90s seem much more poignant today, almost unbearably so.

Thousands are dead, perhaps many times that. It is due to the callous neglect of neighbors. (And to the failures of local political leaders.)  It is due to political calculations that resulted in winding down U.S. efforts and our choice to spend in a couple of weeks in Iraq or Afghanistan what it would have taken to lift this neighbor up ... and save countless lives. It is due to the fact that too much of what we spend is for relief rather than for preparedness. If you leave a ramshackle city of 2 million on a fault line while the knowledge and the means to shore it up exist at your disposal you are complicit in whatever follows.

The State Department and the White House are in the midst of rethinking how we approach aid and development. Haiti should be a case study in how the best of intentions can go awry and of the incalculable costs of letting conflicts and catastrophes set priorities. We need to identify those places that are most vulnerable and lead an international initiative to aggressively invest in crisis prevention. The urgency is clear. Haiti illustrates that we can almost always do more to prevent the foreshocks of crises than their aftershocks.

David Rothkopf

Tidigare USA:s biträdande statssekreterare för internationell handel,  Författare till bland annat  ”Running the World:
The Inside Story of the National Security Council and
the Architects of American Power”.