In the article I wrote last year for Inroads (“Haiti: The Island’s Wounded Wing,” Inroads 13, Summer/Fall 2003), I concluded that “Haiti is mired in the worst kind of poverty, spinning its wheels.” By contrast, the neighbouring Dominican Republic has made impressive progress over recent decades. Again to quote myself, “It would fly in the face of every trading nation’s interests to sit back and let the weight of Haitian poverty crush the Dominican progress.”

Since I wrote that article, Haitian political wheels have continued to spin – and have dug in deeper. In March of this year an armed rebellion toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. What should the international community – by which I mean the United Nations and, in particular, the United States, France and Canada – do now? The answer can be found by looking at what it did the last time it intervened in Haiti. The lesson is obvious: there is no quick fix.

In 1994, UN troops took over from 20,000 Americans who had just pushed out the military dictator, Lt.-Gen. Raoul Cedras. Then they escorted back Aristide, who had fled in 1991 after a coup. It was a hopeful time. Aristide, once a priest, was the first fairly elected leader in the nation’s 190-year history. He talked like a visionary – a man of the people. He seemed obsessed with the need to be honest and fair.

Canada was involved big-time with Aristide’s return. Our foreign affairs minister of the day, André Ouellet, flew with him to Haiti in a show of solidarity. Canada donated 50,000 shovels – a modest but practical gift to farm families that had nearly starved during a three-year trade embargo imposed by the U.S., France and others to put pressure on the military dictator. We also reopened schools and hospitals. Our soldiers patrolled the streets, with colleagues from Jamaica, Bangladesh and a dozen other countries. And 100 Mounties helped out, keeping an eye on the work of those deemed to be the best of the old regime’s police officers, who were allowed to stay on the job, while training recruits for what was to be Haiti’s first honest and professional police force. Indeed, reform of all aspects of Haiti’s corrupt, dysfunctional justice system became Canada’s focus for the nearly three years we stayed.

It didn’t take a lot of effort then to maintain order. It was a time before drug thugs turned Haiti into a major transshipment point, and there were few weapons around. Besides, order was something most Haitians craved. Though Aristide asked the UN troops to leave, they were made to feel welcome by most of the people.

In 1997, the Canadians and their UN colleagues decided to go home. Aristide’s dark side began to surface. He led Haiti down a slippery slope of political corruption. By last year, his government had the shameful distinction of being ranked the third most corrupt in the world by Transparency International. He and the Chimères, his armed supporters, embraced violence, intimidation and fraud as political tools to maintain power. All of the reforms launched by Canada and its UN partners fell apart.

The lesson to draw from this failure is that Canada and other countries pulled out before they finished the job. Prime Minister Paul Martin understands as much. Speaking last March, he said, “The international community left Haiti prematurely, and we saw what happened. The international community must not make that mistake again. And Canada is going to stay there and make sure this does not happen.”

But there is no sign that the PM means what he says. Indeed, Canada’s contingent of 450 soldiers is only half what we sent in 1994, and they are to stay only three months. Although Martin has committed Canada to a year’s involvement, officials in Ottawa are already making excuses about not having enough troops to replace the 450 when their tour is up – though we may send some a few months later.

If the 1994 intervention was too little and too short to do lasting good, what does Martin expect to accomplish with a much flimsier effort this time? And if the UN again leaves Haiti on its own before a competent, democratic government is in place, what are the country’s prospects?

The past suggests they are dismal.

Economically, Haiti has been mired in misery for decades. Despite billions in aid from North America and Europe (nearly $500 million from the Canadian government alone in the 1980s and 1990s) and countless millions in private charity, it still ranks a dismal 150th on the United Nations Development Programme’s quality of life index.

In the late 1970s, when we began to get serious about aid, Haiti was an awful place. Men lived, on average, just 51 years, and women not much longer. Per capita GDP peaked at US$3,200 (measured in purchasing power parity terms). There was only one doctor for every 10,500 people and less than one hospital bed per 1,000. People got, on average, just 84 per cent of the food needed to stay healthy.

By 2002, after all that spending, men were living to an average age of 47 years and women to 50. Per capita GDP (again measured in purchasing power parity terms) had declined by 40 per cent and was less than US$1,900. This is one of the world’s worst economic performances – equivalent to the dismal economic outcomes in many sub-Saharan African countries. There has been a slight improvement in the ratio of doctors to population, but a worsening in the ratio of hospital beds. And people were getting just 83 per cent of the food they needed to stay healthy.

The prospects for Haiti’s quality of governance might be even worse.

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s second oldest republic, its independence dating from 1804 when its black slaves threw out the French, but it has never once enjoyed a stable democratic government. Its first 150 years saw 102 coups, wars or revolts. Only one of its 22 leaders ever served a full term.

The country had stability, but not democracy, from 1915 to 1934 while it was occupied by the United States, and again during the Duvalier family dictatorship from 1957 to 1986. Since the overthrow of the Duvaliers there has been an unending succession of iffy elections and forcible oustings – three in 1988 alone.

Aristide’s 1990 victory came in what was seen as the country’s first fair and open election, but the army deposed him just a year later. Tragically, since 1994, he has betrayed the trust of the countries that restored him to power and of the people who first elected him. He has maintained power through violence, intimidation and electoral fraud. He has done little or nothing to enhance the public good – for example, public expenditure on education has fallen from 1.4 per cent of GDP in 1990 when he was first elected to 1.1 per cent by 2000. He has presided over the establishment of a huge narcotics trade – perhaps the only growth industry in Haiti – and he stands accused of corruptly amassing personal wealth at the expense of his people.

The interim government cobbled together since Aristide’s departure in March appears to be made up of people who have integrity and some credibility in the country. But the levers of power they have to operate are weak. The country is so poor – not only in terms of per capita income but also in infrastructure, competent personnel and functional institutions – that it is doubtful they can do much no matter how well intentioned they may be. The order that is now imposed by outside forces is fragile, and the armed thugs who overran Aristide’s regime in the early spring of 2004 prior to the intervention may act again. Until it gets on a stronger financial and democratic footing, Haiti will need outside help – money and expertise – to maintain what little infrastructure it has and to deliver its very basic services.

If it does not get that help and it falls apart again, the consequences will not be just internal to Haiti. They may affect much of the hemisphere.

The 1994 U.S.-led intervention was in large measure motivated by concerns about boatloads of Haitians trying to make the 1,000-kilometre crossing to Florida, and there is renewed concern about a mass exodus. A warning last fall from the Canadian military about instability in Haiti noted that desperate migrants could become a problem for Canada too. Yet most Haitians do not have the resources to get to the U.S. or even to try to set out for Canada. The countries at greatest risk of being overwhelmed by fleeing Haitians are in the Caribbean. On the front line is the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Haitians already cross the long, wild frontier to the Dominican Republic more or less at will. At any given time, about a million of them – one Haitian in eight – are living and working among the eight million Dominicans next door. The Dominicans need many of these workers. In recent years, their economy has, for the most part, been bounding ahead. And Haitians do the grunt work in many key industries, notably agriculture (rice, coffee, sugar) and construction.

Although the Dominican Republic’s per capita income is nearly four times that of Haiti, its economy is still fragile. It is in chronic danger of being overrun by more poor Haitian migrants than its rudimentary social services can support. If the flow of migrants turns into a flood because Haiti’s economy worsens, political instability may erupt across the island.

The Dominican government of Hipolito Mejia has sought to share its progress by building metaphorical bridges across the border (See “Hispaniola: Two Wings of the Same Bird,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2003). But, there is a long, nasty history of wars and flareups between the two countries extending from the 19th century well into the 20th, and there continue to be reports of sporadic abuses of migrant workers’ rights. Traces of deep-rooted xenophobia can be found in some Dominicans. And an uncontrolled flood of dirt-poor migrants, and the problems they will inevitably bring, could push even the more tolerant Dominicans over the edge.

To end on a note of faint optimism, this threat might, in the end, be a trigger for the developed world to commit to actually solving Haiti’s problems. A modern mantra of intervention is that it is warranted to stabilize any government committed to democracy, human rights and policies to help the poor. Haiti’s government fails on all three counts. But the Dominicans pass these tests rather well. So if the world does not care to intervene on behalf of Haitians, among the most downtrodden people on earth, perhaps it will to protect the progress of a bright spot in the developing world.