Haiti is everybody's cherished tragedy. Long before the great earthquake struck the country like a vengeful god, the outside world, and Americans especially, described, defined, marked Haiti most of all by its suffering. Epithets of misery clatter after its name like a ball and chain: Poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. One of the poorest on earth. For decades Haiti's formidable immiseration has made it among outsiders an object of fascination, wonder and awe. Sometimes the pity that is attached to the land - and we see this increasingly in the news coverage this past week - attains a tone almost sacred, as if Haiti has taken its place as a kind of sacrificial victim among nations, nailed in its bloody suffering to the cross of unending destitution.
And yet there is nothing mystical in Haiti's pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti's harms have been caused by men, not demons. Act of nature that it was, the earthquake last week was able to kill so many because of the corruption and weakness of the Haitian state, a state built for predation and plunder. Recovery can come only with vital, even heroic, outside help; but such help, no matter how inspiring the generosity it embodies, will do little to restore Haiti unless it addresses, as countless prior interventions built on transports of sympathy have not, the man-made causes that lie beneath the Haitian malady.
In 1804 the free Republic of Haiti was declared in almost unimaginable triumph: hard to exaggerate the glory of that birth. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans had labored to make Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known, the richest colony on earth, a vastly productive slave-powered factory producing tons upon tons of sugar cane, the 18th-century's great cash crop. For pre-Revolutionary France, Haiti was an inexhaustible cash cow, floating much of its economy. Generation after generation, the second sons of the great French families took ship for Saint-Domingue to preside over the sugar plantations, enjoy the favors of enslaved African women and make their fortunes.
Even by the standards of the day, conditions in Saint-Domingue's cane fields were grisly and brutal; slaves died young, and in droves; they had few children. As exports of sugar and coffee boomed, imports of fresh Africans boomed with them. So by the time the slaves launched their great revolt in 1791, most of those half-million blacks had been born in Africa, spoke African languages, worshipped African gods.
In an immensely complex decade-long conflict, these African slave-soldiers, commanded by legendary leaders like Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defeated three Western armies, including the unstoppable superpower of the day, Napoleonic France. In an increasingly savage war - "Burn houses! Cut off heads!" was the slogan of Dessalines - the slaves murdered their white masters, or drove them from the land.
On Jan. 1, 1804, when Dessalines created the Haitian flag by tearing the white middle from the French tricolor, he achieved what even Spartacus could not: he had led to triumph the only successful slave revolt in history. Haiti became the world's first independent black republic and the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Alas, the first such republic, the United States, despite its revolutionary creed that "all men are created equal," looked upon these self-freed men with shock, contempt and fear. Indeed, to all the great Western trading powers of the day - much of whose wealth was built on the labor of enslaved Africans - Haiti stood as a frightful example of freedom carried too far. American slaveholders desperately feared that Haiti's fires of revolt would overleap those few hundred miles of sea and inflame their own human chattel.
For this reason, the United States refused for nearly six decades even to recognize Haiti. (Abraham Lincoln finally did so in 1862.) Along with the great colonial powers, America instead rewarded Haiti's triumphant slaves with a suffocating trade embargo - and a demand that in exchange for peace the fledgling country pay enormous reparations to its former colonial overseer. Having won their freedom by force of arms, Haiti's former slaves would be made to purchase it with treasure.
The new nation, its fields burned, its plantation manors pillaged, its towns devastated by apocalyptic war, was crushed by the burden of these astronomical reparations, payments that, in one form or another, strangled its economy for more than a century. It was in this dark aftermath of war, in the shadow of isolation and contempt, that Haiti's peculiar political system took shape, mirroring in distorted form, like a wax model placed too close to the fire, the slave society of colonial times.
At its apex, the white colonists were supplanted by a new ruling class, made up largely of black and mulatto officers. Though these groups soon became bitter political rivals, they were as one in their determination to maintain in independent Haiti the cardinal principle of governance inherited from Saint-Domingue: the brutal predatory extraction of the country's wealth by a chosen powerful few.
The whites on their plantations had done this directly, exploiting the land they owned with the forced labor of their slaves. But the slaves had become soldiers in a victorious revolution, and those who survived demanded as their reward a part of the rich land on which they had labored and suffered. Soon after independence most of the great plantations were broken up, given over to the former slaves, establishing Haiti as a nation of small landowners, one whose isolated countryside remained, in language, religion and culture, largely African.
Unable to replace the whites in their plantation manors, Haiti's new elite moved from owning the land to fighting to control the one institution that could tax its products: the government. While the freed slaves worked their small fields, the powerful drew off the fruits of their labor through taxes. In this disfigured form the colonial philosophy endured: ruling had to do not with building or developing the country but with extracting its wealth. "Pluck the chicken," proclaimed Dessalines - now Emperor Jacques I - "but don't make it scream."
In 1806, two years after independence, the emperor was bayoneted by a mostly mulatto cabal of officers. Haitian history became the immensely complex tale of factional struggles to control the state, with factions often defined by an intricate politics of skin color. There was no method of succession ultimately recognized as legitimate, no tradition of loyal opposition. Politics was murderous, operatic, improvisational. Instability alternated with autocracy. The state was battled over and won; Haiti's wealth, once seized, purchased allegiance - but only for a time. Fragility of rule and uncertainty of tenure multiplied the imperative to plunder. Unseated rulers were sometimes killed, more often exiled, but always their wealth - that part of it not sent out of the country - was pillaged in its turn.
In 1915 the whites returned: the United States Marines disembarked to enforce continued repayment of the original debt and to put an end to an especially violent struggle for power that, in the shadow of World War I and German machinations in the Caribbean, suddenly seemed to threaten American interests. During their nearly two decades of rule, the Americans built roads and bridges, centralized the Haitian state - setting the stage for the vast conurbation of greater Port-au-Prince that we see today in all its devastation - and sent Haitians abroad to be educated as agronomists and doctors in the hope of building a more stable middle class.
Still, by the time they finally left, little in the original system had fundamentally changed. Haitian nationalism, piqued by the reappearance of white masters who had forced Haitians to work in road gangs, produced the noiriste movement that finally brought to power in 1957 François Duvalier, the most brilliant and bloody of Haiti's dictators, who murdered tens of thousands while playing adroitly on cold-war America's fear of communism to win American acceptance.
Duvalier's epoch, which ended with the overthrow of his son Jean-Claude in 1986, ushered in Haiti's latest era of instability, which has seen, in barely a quarter-century, several coups and revolutions, a handful of elections (aborted, rigged and, occasionally, fair), a second American occupation (whose accomplishments were even more ephemeral than the first) and, all told, a dozen Haitian rulers. Less and less money now comes from the land, for Haiti's topsoil has grown enfeebled from overproduction and lack of investment. Aid from foreigners, nations or private organizations, has largely supplanted it: under the Duvaliers Haiti became the great petri dish of foreign aid. A handful of projects have done lasting good; many have been self-serving and even counterproductive. All have helped make it possible, by lifting basic burdens of governance from Haiti's powerful, for the predatory state to endure.
The struggle for power has not ended. Nor has Haiti's historic proclivity for drama and disaster. Undertaken in their wake, the world's interventions - military and civilian, and accompanied as often as not by a grand missionary determination to "rebuild Haiti" - have had as their single unitary principle their failure to alter what is most basic in the country, the reality of a corrupt state and the role, inadvertent or not, of outsiders in collaborating with it.
The sound of Haiti's suffering is deafening now but behind it one can hear already a familiar music begin to play. Haiti must be made new. This kind of suffering so close to American shores cannot be countenanced. The other evening I watched a television correspondent shake his head over what he movingly described as a "stupid death" - a death that, but for the right medical care, could have been prevented. "It doesn't have to happen," he told viewers. "People died today who did not need to die." He did not say what any Haitian could have told him: that the day before, and the day before that, Haiti had seen hundreds of such "stupid deaths," and, over the centuries, thousands more. What has changed, once again, and only for a time, is the light shone on them, and the volume of the voices demanding that a "new Haiti" must now be built so they never happen again.
Whether they can read or not, Haiti's people walk in history, and live in politics. They are independent, proud, fiercely aware of their own singularity. What distinguishes them is a tradition of heroism and a conviction that they are and will remain something distinct, apart - something you can hear in the Creole spoken in the countryside, or the voodoo practiced there, traces of the Africa that the first generation of revolutionaries brought with them on the middle passage.
Haitians have grown up in a certain kind of struggle for individuality and for power, and the country has proved itself able to absorb the ardent attentions of outsiders who, as often as not, remain blissfully unaware of their own contributions to what Haiti is. Like the ruined bridges strewn across the countryside - one of the few traces of the Marines and their occupation nearly a century ago - these attentions tend to begin in evangelical zeal and to leave little lasting behind.
What might, then? America could start by throwing open its markets to Haitian agricultural produce and manufactured goods, broadening and making permanent the provisions of a promising trade bill negotiated in 2008. Such a step would not be glamorous; it would not "remake Haiti." But it would require a lasting commitment by American farmers and manufacturers and, as the country heals, it would actually bring permanent jobs, investment and income to Haiti.
Second, the United States and other donors could make a formal undertaking to ensure that the vast amounts that will soon pour into the country for reconstruction go not to foreigners but to Haitians - and not only to Haitian contractors and builders but to Haitian workers, at reasonable wages. This would put real money in the hands of many Haitians, not just a few, and begin to shift power away from both the rapacious government and the well-meaning and too often ineffectual charities that seek to circumvent it. The world's greatest gift would be to make it possible, and necessary, for Haitians - all Haitians - to rebuild Haiti.
Putting money in people's hands will not make Haiti's predatory state disappear. But in time, with rising incomes and a concomitant decentralization of power, it might evolve. In coming days much grander ambitions are sure to be declared, just as more scenes of disaster and disorder will transfix us, more stunning and colorful images of irresistible calamity. We will see if the present catastrophe, on a scale that dwarfs all that have come before, can do anything truly to alter the reality of Haiti.