Can Haiti be a blueprint for America?

15 01 2010

While our thoughts and prayers go out to the survivors of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, it might be time to take a more in-depth look at the Western hemisphere’s poorest country.

Haiti has been much too like its African cousins — a former colony of a European power that suffered both from its colonial experience and its own corruption.

Like many African nations, its colonial ruler — in this case, France — set up a system whereby a minority ruled over a majority.  Even when Haiti rose up and threw off the shackles of French rule, it kept many of the government policies, whereby power rested in the palms of a few.  Colonial powers tended to put their limited trust into the hands of a few natives and exploited divisions within the population to hold down the chance of revolt.

Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, but an aerial tour of both would show something akin to night and day.  The DR is much more prosperous and appears lush and green.  Haiti is desperately poor and its landscape looks like the Moon thanks to heavy deforestation by people seeking wood for cooking and heating.

Its governments from the beginning of its independence from France have been violent and highly corrupt.  Wealth was squandered.  Dissent was put down brutally, especially during the regimes of the Duvaliers — Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

Even when democracy loomed, such as with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it didn’t last long.  He was soon tainted by the smell of corruption and ousted in a 2004 coup by his own soldiers.  Since that time, the island has fallen further into despair, administered by the United Nations and protected by peacekeepers who have fought running battles with gangs and thugs.

And, if that weren’t enough, the island has been ravaged by Mother Nature.  Four storms in 2008 alone pounded the island, along with the rest of the Caribbean.  But, the Dominican Republic recovered and rebuilt, as did even the aging Castro regime in Cuba.  Haiti, lacking heavy equipment and suffering from a horribly maintained infrastructure, did not.

Now, a 7.0 earthquake has turned the nation into a mild version of Dante’s Inferno.  While a 7.0 seismic event would reek havoc on even an American city, Haiti does not possess the means to recover from it.

Take New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The Bush Administration was rightly criticized for its appallingly slow response and, yet, such a response would have been infinitely welcome in Haiti.  While help was, indeed, slow to arrive, it did arrive en masse.   Coast Guard and Navy ships and helicopters rescued thousands.  Hundreds of National Guard vehicles and thousands of troops made their way over whatever roads and streets they could find.

Even better, tens of thousands of people were able to evacuate before the storm because of a well-maintained infrastructure of roads.  For the survivors in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, thousands were sent to other American cities by bus, plane and train.  Had it been necessary, they could have been sent away by ship.  It might have looked like something out of a Godzilla movie, but it would have been highly effective.

Not so in Haiti.  The roads are badly maintained and the main road to the Dominican Republic (one of just a few roads to the DR, mind you) is narrow and often clogged with traffic.  The main port of Port-au-Prince is wrecked, though its piers were not in good shape before the quake.  Most of the city’s buildings were not just poorly kept up, they were poorly built as no buildings codes either exist or were followed during construction.  When you’re poor, nothing seems to go right or be done right.

Think of someone who is desperately poor.  Faced with a choice of buying food for his family or fixing the roof of his house, which choice is he likely to make?  As more time passes, his house will be in terrible shape.  So will his car or truck, even though he might need it terribly to get back and forth to work or to look for work.

Because of the huge economic downturn, cities and counties have been forced to cut back on services, such as road repair.  Roads now have huge potholes.  Bridges are becoming dangerous.  There are fewer police and fire to help people.  Hospitals close and people must go farther out for medical assistance.

Well, all that has been happening for decades in Haiti.  Because of it, a strong criminal element has sprung up.  Gangs vie for power, often recruiting children into their ranks.  With no government in place, citizens cannot hope for police protection and, so, they despair and live with it.

But, might all of this suffering be a blessing in disguise?

It is all well and good for America, Europe and China to send rescue teams, first-aid, food, medical equipment and $100 million in aid, but it would all be wasted if nothing changes in Haiti.

What might be needed is an automatic do-over.  Since most of the buildings on the island have fallen down, it makes more sense to bulldoze them all and start over.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, member countries could lend Haiti heavy equipment and expertise.  They could hire thousands of locals to tear down their own country and build it back up.

They could send in temporary housing, like all those trailers rusting away outside of New Orleans or use old ships or tent cities.  Mobile hospitals would come next, along with eating facilities and warehouses for aid.  They would then concentrate on building cheap, but affordable housing and let people move out of the temp facilities.

Stores, schools and shops would follow, along with buildings for emergency services and hospitals.  America alone could send in hundreds, if not thousands of people knowledgeable in construction.  They could ascertain the state of repairs needed and plan on how to rebuild the island.

In other words, we could do to  Haiti what we’ve vainly been trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Only, aside from some thugs and gangbangers, we wouldn’t have active violent opposition.

It sounds cruel, but we can use Haiti as a test case for rebuilding America.  That’s because we have this strange mindset that says that nation building is for some far-off place like Baghdad or Kabul.  It can’t be in our own backyard.  Yet, it was in our own backyard in New Orleans and most of the Gulf Coast in 2005 with Katrina and Rita.  And, sadly, we’re still bungling it.  Heck, we’ve bungled the site of the World Trade Center.

That might be a deterrent to trying to rebuild Haiti, but it shouldn’t be.  A successful effort in rebuilding Haiti could create a functioning democracy.  It would deal a blow to thugs like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the Castros in Cuba who like to tell their people that America only wants to keep the Caribbean under its boot.

It would create opportunities for Americans to work and it would show us how to fix our own infrastructure.

But, most of it, it would get us all to work together again, not be at each other’s throats as red state-blue state.

As I recall, the name of this country is the United States of America.

It’s high time we acted like that again, for our own sakes.

There’s a reason why vanilla is still the favorite

12 01 2010

I wasn’t going to weigh in on the whole NBC late night mess, but I had to after reading a few blogs today, especially from Mindy Monez of TWoP.  She said one good thing about having Leno back in late night would be so we could all go back to ignoring him again.

Years ago, when I wrote sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I got grief from my fellow writers for liking Leno’s jokes better than Letterman’s monologue.

While I had to agree that Leno wasn’t nearly as edgy and hip as Letterman, I had numbers on my side.  Leno regularly killed Letterman in the ratings.  Why?  Because he gave middle America what it wanted — steady humor, good interviews and great guests.

And while I almost always stayed up to catch Conan O’Brien (and, by extension, Triumph and “In the Year 2000”), I felt that COB was in his proper slot.  His humor was edgier, but directed at a more precise audience.  Leno’s viewers, many of whom grew up watching Johnny Carson, liked broader, cleaner humor.

I’d like to remind everybody that this is America — home of the brave, land of the free.  There is room for everybody.

Mindy Monez might not care for Leno, but a lot of people do.  She can’t assume that everyone thinks like she does.  A rather large portion of America seems to be getting fed up with all the stuff being put out on Facebook and Twitter and with all the reality shows like “Jersey Shore.”  I think they want something mild and entertaining as a counterweight.

Sure, “South Park” and “Family Guy” are edgy, but many people still watch “The Simpsons.”

“CSI: Miami” and “NCIS” are tops in the ratings, but a large percentage of the viewing public still enjoys the “Law & Order” franchise.  They want good drama, but maybe they don’t want all the violence and gratuitous sex and immorality shown on “Saving Grace” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

Those shows have loyal followings.  They co-exist with L&O.  There’s no need to can L&O to put more shows like “SoA” and “Saving Grace” on the air.

To sum up, a trip to Bruster’s or Braum’s will show people buying chunky chocolate and pistachio and white chocolate truffle, but it’s no accident that the best-selling flavor of ice cream year after year is vanilla.  With all the new “edgy” and “hip” flavors coming and going, it’s nice to know there’s an old standby just waiting for everyone.

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