Why U.S. must aid a neighbor in need

October 04, 2005|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

FONDS DES NEGRES, Haiti -- Here's a story about how bad it can get for many of the people of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It was told to me last week by Wesley Noel, a 39-year-old Haitian who is a program coordinator at the Bethel Clinic in this town in southern Haiti. The clinic is operated by the Salvation Army. It treats the people of Fonds des Negres for a variety of diseases, mostly AIDS. Its programs include a school for AIDS orphans.

The story Mr. Noel tells is of a woman whose husband died recently of AIDS, leaving her and their three children even more destitute than they were before, living in a community of shacks near Fonds des Negres. "One day, a man living nearby sent her a plantain. She was grateful because she had no food for her children," said Mr. Noel. "The next day he sent her two plantains. And the next day he sent her 20 gourds" - the Haitian currency equivalent of 50 cents.

"Then one night he brought himself to her bedroom for repayment. She had no choice," he said.

So the woman told him she gave herself to her benefactor, for 50 cents and three plantains.

Mr. Noel told this story the day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unexpected visit to Haiti, an event that attracted little notice outside of Haiti.

Ms. Rice was here to help advance Haitian national elections scheduled for next month. Haitians will vote for a new president to take the place of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest who left Haiti in February 2004, with the help of U. S. authorities, whether he wanted to or not. Thirty-two people are running for president, which narrowed last week from a crowd of 54 candidates.

"We believe that ... this electoral process can change the course of history for Haiti. It can make for so much [of a] better future for the Haitian people," she told a Haitian radio interviewer.

It might do that. It might not. That will depend on whether a clear winner emerges from the elections and is accepted by all the losers, which would be uncharacteristic.

Whatever the case, it will take a lot more than the election to bring about real changes in Haiti, where the illiteracy and unemployment levels are stratospheric, where violence and banditry - especially kidnapping - are common events, where corruption and drug-running are rampant. All, really, because there are so few opportunities.

And where a 40-year-old widow feels obliged to give her body to a man for plantains and pennies.

No, it's about more than an election. It's about seriously helping to rebuild a whole nation close to America's borders and deserving of genuine and generous acts of solidarity.

Last year, the United States and other international donors promised about $4 billion to help Haiti rebuild. So far, because many donors view the interim government as an illegitimate beneficiary, most of the money has not been turned over. What has been spent has gone to support a U.N. military presence here - a costly and rather ineffective force - and to help prepare for the election.

America has helped with money to fight AIDS in Haiti and with indispensable food aid, although that is being reduced or eliminated in some cases. In the world outside of America, attention is focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. But Haiti is a lot closer to America than those places, and if the trend toward total collapse is not reversed here, it will land right on America's doorstep - or beaches, really. It already is landing in America because the absence of authority here has created a center for drug smuggling and money laundering.

The story of the woman who gave herself for a little food and some coins is metaphoric.

That's vulnerability. Haiti is a vulnerable place. And America is vulnerable to the consequences of those vulnerabilities. Make no mistake about it.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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