Haiti in the sun

Russell Baker

July 07, 1993|By Russell Baker

THE NEWS was so thin over the long weekend that Haiti made the front pages in several newspapers. You can tell an editor has been looking into a bare pantry when he comes back with a Caribbean story. When Haiti is the juiciest Caribbean story going it feels as if the end of history may be more than a book by Francis Fukuyama.

We are not slurring poor Haiti, but merely stating the fact. As the philosopher-journalist James Reston once observed, Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it.

One of the things we will do for Latin America is rid it of governments that irritate ours and equip it with sensible governments that don't. Since 1961 we have been yearning to do this favor for Cuba, but haven't yet managed it. The failure amounts to a rare lapse in our policy of distributing beneficence among neighbors to the south.

Haiti, too, has been passed over lately when Yankee-friendly governments were being distributed. Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua -- in recent years all have had Washington's helping hand to rid themselves of governments that just wouldn't do.

Long ago we did the same sort of thing for Haiti, sending the Marines to occupy the country and provide Haitians a working model of American democracy in action. In modern times, however, Haiti has made a nuisance of itself, not only by failing to produce anything of the slightest value to American corporations, not only by failing to proclaim a hankering for communism that would have entitled us to invade it, but also by being hopelessly, miserably, disgustingly poor.

In the first part of the century everybody used to say, "Turkey is the sick man of Europe." In the second part, everybody says, "Haiti is the basket case of the Western Hemisphere."

Nothing irritates America more than poverty on the grand scale. That's why congressmen turn blue in the face and stamp their feet whenever somebody asks them to do something to prevent the death of America's cities. In a closely fought poverty competition, Haiti could be mistaken for one of America's biggest cities, except that it shares a whole island with another country, the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic, incidentally, is not the home office of the Dominican religious orders, nor is it a basket case like Haiti. In fact, during the 1960s we helped it militarily to form a government that wouldn't irritate us. This may have been because it produces something of great value -- skilled baseball players.

Haiti has other drawbacks discouraging to Americans. For instance, whereas the Latin languages spoken in most of Latin America are Spanish and its close relative, Portuguese, Haitians do not speak these languages that Americans could readily pronounce if we tried.

The Latin language spoken in Haiti is the dreaded French, a tongue which inspires terror and loathing in Americans compelled to say anything beyond "Beaujolais" and "Voulez-vous coucher." Americans who have tried to say "fauteuil" or "vieillard" to a Frenchman go through life convinced that no matter how hard they try to please the world's French speakers, their only reward will be sneering contempt.

Worse for the poor Haitians, they are blacks of African heritage, like so many of the people who inhabit America's big, dying cities. Only a gross cynic would suggest that blackness of population makes Americans ill-disposed to bestow their help on urban compatriots and Caribbean neighbors alike.

On the other hand there is a tendency to believe that the problems of black people do not need such urgent attention as other people's. Typically, Bill Clinton the campaigner denounced the cruelty of President Bush's treatment of Haitian boat people, only to adopt it as his own after assuming office and discovering other presidential burdens so urgent that Haitian business suddenly seemed minor.

For many of these same reasons Haiti usually makes the front page only when the latest military thug to seize power is slaughtering women, children and cattle in the streets of Port-au-Prince. Its peaceable Page-1 appearance over the holiday can only mean that the world has run out of news or that all real editors took vacation, leaving amateurs in charge who didn't know any better.

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