Willam C. Brehm '08 is a comparative and international education graduate student in Lehigh’s College of Education. As an undergrad at Lehigh, he majored in international relations.
Contrary to the mainstream media's belief, the United States' (US) involvement in Haiti did not begin in 2010. It even began before the 1806 US trade embargo on the small island nation. But it was this embargo, lasting for 75 years, that helped impoverish a people off the shores of the US for over 200 years. Fearful of the Haitian revolution, which successfully overthrew Napoleon’s army, the US did not want the spirit of nationalism to spread to the slaves of the American South. The US essentially isolated Haiti as a young, free nation to protect its economy dependent on the slaves supplied in part by Haiti. As the ruling elite could not provide basic institutional systems nations require because it was effectively shut off from the rest of the world, it became more despotic in nature and Draconian in practice, causing Haiti’s isolation to harden and become more widespread; the island eventually lapsed into inescapable poverty, forced to pay indemnities to the French and unable to trade with most nations. The US stood by, never seeing how its involvement—or lack there of—provided the catalyst for poverty.
When elections were held, the US put pressure on certain candidates in what can only be understood as Cold War styled geopolitics. If the favored candidates lost, which happened in 2000 for instance, the US pulled its support and continued to isolate the country. Free elections, Americans shouted; free elections with planned outcomes they meant.
In the aftermath of the latest devastation in Haiti, we must re-conceptualize our conversation away from “help” and “solutions” and towards a truthful understanding of history and a real belief in democracy and self-determination. The US must first own its history with Haiti (why is our sad involvement not in our history textbooks?), and then support bilateral and multilateral aid, similar in size to the Marshall Plan, to the government of Haiti—not feel-good $10 cellphone donations to the Red Cross.
Haiti has legacies of democracy and independence. The international community must now believe in and support Haiti's ability to govern. Until this happens, all the money in the world will keep Haiti dependent, proving George Santayana's maxim. And when aid inevitably stops, do we want to bear witness to another chapter of history written about this moment that brought more poverty and degradation to a nation with (what should be) a proud legacy of revolution similar to Americas?