Haiti Faces Long Road To Stability

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Haiti has a long and difficult history when it comes to development, and now some wonder how and if it is even possible to make progress towards a more successful Haitian state. Host Michel Martin speaks with Bob Perito, senior program officer in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations where he directs the Haiti and the Peacekeeping Lessons Learned Projects, and Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs to get some perspective on Haiti's prospects for recovery.


Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We will talk more about the tragedy in Haiti and were going to ask about those controversial comments made by American evangelical leader Pat Robertson suggesting Haitis problems result from a long ago pact with the Devil. We will ask what exactly was he talking about. And is this just his opinion or was he echoing a common theological belief? Well ask about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to go back to Haitis many needs. And while we recognize that we are still in the middle of this tragedy - the immediate need is to save lives and get immediate help to survivors - we also thought it would be helpful to get a sense of just what it would take in the long term to rebuild Haiti, especially now that the World Bank and other players in the international community are now pledging aid. What would the aid be used for? What would be most beneficial and who would decide that?

For perspective on this, we called Bob Perito. He is a senior program officer in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations where he directs the Haiti and the Peacekeeping Lessons Learned Projects; and Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. LARRY BIRNS (Director, Council on Hemispheric Affairs): Hey.

Mr. BOB PERITO (Senior Program Officer, Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations): Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, Mr. Birns, I want to start with you because you have been quoted as saying if you want to get a prevision of the dimensions of hell, you go to Haiti, an atmosphere of overwhelming despair is the natural condition of the island? Presumably you were talking about, even before the earthquake, pretty dire words.

Mr. BIRNS: Yes, pretty dire words. But even a superficial familiarity with Haitian history will probably go a long way to validate that thesis. And, of course, in recent years, more recent years, Haiti is not only been bedeviled by a kind of fractious internal political life and an ever-appearing inability to come forth with a long-standing viable economy. But also it has its located in the wrong spectrum of U.S. and other foreign policy making.

And as result of that, weve had a situation where Haitian national interest will have - its been a common place. It had been sacrificed in order to achieve the narrow national interest or political interest of the major players nearby, mainly the United States.

MARTIN: Im sorry, I dont think I understand. Youre saying that Haiti has been on the wrong end of the spectrum of U.S. interests. What does that mean? Does it mean its in a low priority or...

Mr. BIRNS: It basically means that the United States has wanted one thing out of its Haiti policy and that is to keep a disruptive presence off the scene. When I say disruptive, I mean a presence that produces migrants, that produces theres always the possibility that the Haitian poor will stand up against the countrys tiny economic elite.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIRNS: And the - and of course in more recent years under the Aristide presidency, what the Clinton administration was mainly afraid of was that Castro - that Aristide would evolve into being another Castro. And this had a very prejuditional effect to the nature of U.S. policy towards Haiti.

During the time that Aristide was in exile in Washington, the Clinton administration appointed Larry Pezzullo to be a kind of guardian of Aristide, really to attempt to delimit him, to neutralize him from being too political or wanting to back too galvanic a change.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, point taken on that, that being the past, even the recent past. What about the future? Is there a path for success in redeveloping the country after this awful, awful event?

Mr. BIRNS: Well, if the if the past is any guide to these things, the real problem that weve suffered in Haiti - and probably was a broader kind of problem elsewhere in the developing world - was a great reluctance to sustain a funding effort to a country where, for example, it may be each day that Haiti is in the news and tomorrow it may be Rwanda, Darfur or Ethiopia or some other new tragedy.

And very often, what we have is an evaporation of existing commitments. And so, its very difficult to plan. And also, in terms of the nature of the planning, very often programs, for example, the Canadians have a program of training Haitians to be Haitian police force at their training facility in Calgary. The Haitian police have never distinguished themselves, and I dont know what they learned from the Canadians, but there wasnt good policing certainly.

MARTIN: Well, lets bring Bob Perito into the conversation. Mr. Birns, seems very pessimistic about prospects for success there. And Mr. Perito, whats your perspective here?

Mr. PERITO: Good morning, thanks. With all due respect, I think what youve heard is a very dated historical perspective. I mean what youve heard may have been true in the early 1990s, but its certainly not true in Haiti today and certainly not true within the last year.

MARTIN: Okay. So tell me, what is the path for success here? What is your perspective...

Mr. PERITO: Well, lets...

MARTIN: ...on whats happened now?

Mr. PERITO: Let me lay a little bit of history. In the last year, the international community has rallied to Haitis support following these massive hurricanes that hit Haiti in 2008, in September 2008. The international community led by the United Nations and by the U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton, rallied to Haitis defense.

In April of last year, there was a large international pledging conference held in Washington, $357 million was pledged. Haiti now has a development strategy worked out for them by the international financial institutions with plenty of Haitian input and leadership. Secretary Clinton has made Haiti a priority. The United States just completed a broad review of its policies toward Haiti. Haiti got through the fall up until just a week ago without any, you know, disruption from the annual hurricane season.

And in fact if we were to have this conversation a couple of weeks ago, I would have said to you that Haiti has turned a corner and that the last year was something of renaissance in Haitian terms. The economy was in positive growth terms, businesses were beginning to invest in Haiti. Haiti is the beneficiary of new economic incentives provided by the U.S. Congress for Trade. And so, things, you know, things were looking up.

And Haiti is no longer a problem in domestic, you know, U.S. politics as it was 20 years ago. Theres strong support for the Preval government. And so, I think that now we have to we have to update our perspectives on Haiti. Fortunately, that places Haiti today, despite this terrible tragedy and the destruction that has occurred, in a much better position than it was...

MARTIN: If youre just...

Mr. PERITO: ...in 1994.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with Bob Perito at the U.S. Institute for Peace and Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Were talking about what next for Haiti, even recognizing that were still in the middle of immediate efforts to save lives and to give aid to survivors. But what is a platform for success going forward?

So, Bob Perito, now that youve given your perspective on sort of the history in where Haiti was at least a week ago before this...

Mr. PERITO: Right.

MARTIN: ...awful event happened, which would tax frankly the United States. I mean, if you would have 50,000, clearly these circumstances are different. But if you had a natural disaster that claimed 50,000 lives, which is what is being discussed here, it would be a terrible strain on any community, just emotionally, financially, economically, all of that. So going forward, whats a pathway for success in your view in rebuilding? What should happen after immediate needs are addressed?

Mr. PERITO: Well, the immediate needs are more enormous. And beyond search and rescue and providing emergency response, theres going to be a need to clean up the capital city. And unfortunately, this earthquake hit the, sort of, nerve center of the capital. It took out the presidential palace. It took out the U.N. headquarters. It took out the parliament building. And so, this is more than just the usual kind of disaster that occurs in the countryside, but the capital city still functions. This was the epicenter of the society which was hit. And so this is going to take some coming back.

But there are number of things in place that are going to be very useful. One is there was a strategic plan for Haitis development. It would have to be amended and adjusted, but it was there and there was an international commitment to that. The response to the international community has been overwhelming. And the president of the United States has said, you know, that we are with the Haitian people and we will be there and stay the course. Even before this, there was a commitment to Haiti in the long term.

I think everybody realized over the last year that one of the big mistakes ever made in Haiti was that the international community would go in and pull out and go in and pull out, and that this was a ticket to continual problems. And so what weve seen in the last year is a widespread commitment among major donor countries and the U.N. and the Organization of American States and countries, particularly countries, major countries in South America to a long-term commitment to Haiti. So, you know, thats a cause for, you know, for optimism.

MARTIN: For optimism. Well, that is something you and Mr. Birns seem to agree on this that the international community has been sort of sporadic and inconsistent...

Mr. PERITO: Thats right.

MARTIN: ...in its commitment to the country. Mr. Birns, we have about a minute left. Whats - final thought from you, where would you focus? I mean, you do seem rather pessimistic about sort of a long term pathway to success. But given that something has to be done, what should it be?

Mr. BIRNS: Well, first of all, many of the players today, were players yesterday on this subject. And I think that, well, my colleague may have grounds for seamless optimism, I think that it might be perhaps ahead of himself.

Haitis accomplishments or the accomplishments of the international community, or the staying power of the international community in Haitian projects, thats an achievement that awaits happening. That is for the record, isnt in on that yet. Secondly, one doesnt have to come forward with devils theory to ask certain basic questions and that is our fundamental, for example...

MARTIN: Mr. Birns, I am so sorry, but we are out of time. We will have to leave at there. Thank you for your time.

Mr. BIRNS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Larry Birns is director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. He joined us on the phone. Bob Perito is a senior program officer in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, where he directs the Haiti project. He was here with me in our Washington studio. I thank you both so much.

Mr. PERITO: Thanks so much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, Christian televangelist Pat Robertson blames Haitis woes on a 200-year-old pact with the devil. Whats he talking about? Well ask.

Thats next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

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