From the air, Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic is easy to trace: it is where the dense forests on the Dominican side abruptly stop. West of the frontier, Haiti’s mountainous countryside is scoured by gullies and ravines; almost all of Haiti’s vestigial forest cover is gone, and in the hills of the drought-stricken northwest, smoldering charcoal pits, scattered across the desolate landscape, consume the few trees and shrubs remaining. Widespread erosion has exhausted land that was once fertile and productive; and apart from islands of semi-arable soil, only cactus and spiky acacia bushes grow in abundance.
By any measure—hunger, disease, infant mortality, access to water—Haiti is in a desperate condition. Much of the rural population lives in the grip of poverty of the most bleak and unremitting kind. In some regions the annual per capita income is less than $100. The sound of an auto engine laboring up the washed-out roads will send groups of naked children, many of them scarcely out of infancy, their hair red from malnutrition, scrambling up to stand on the roadside with hands outstretched.
Although no one really knows how many people live in Port-au-Prince today, the best estimate is about two million, two thirds of whom, over the last twenty years, emigrated from the rural districts and today crowd sprawling shantytowns like La Saline, the slum parish where Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide first came to prominence, or Cité Soleil, an insalubrious strip of landfill, blanketed by smog, that stretches for several miles along the sea. Mother Theresa is said to have described what she saw there as “fifth world.” Dark at night, except for the flickering here and there of a hurricane lamp or the occasional glow from a house that has tapped illegally into a power line, Cité Soleil’s narrow alleys and tin-roofed shacks, slapped together out of cinder blocks and cardboard, are home to more than 200,000 people who cook over charcoal and bathe and do their laundry in sewage-filled ditches.
It would be hard to overstate the gravity of Haiti’s longstanding humanitarian crisis or the intractability of the problems underlying it—the decline of the peasant system of agriculture, catastrophic environmental degradation, a population explosion—problems that in the past were scarcely recognized, much less addressed. For most of Haiti’s two-hundred-year history, its corrupt and authoritarian rulers regarded the Haitian government as an engine for the personal enrichment of the clique in control. “If the cost of maintaining power and continuing to enjoy the spoils of the state was the plunder of the nation,” the University of Chicago anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written, “they were quite willing to sacrifice the nation.”1 During the Night- mare Republic” of Dr. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s président à vie, government corruption and brutality reached their zenith. With the aid of the Tonton Macoutes, a sinister auxiliary of sunglasses-wearing thugs, who murdered and tortured his opponents and terrorized…
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