The brutal earthquake that struck Haiti this week has unmasked the silent crisis of desperation and poverty that already enveloped the vast majority of the country's population.
Indeed, Haiti represents one of the most complex and deeply rooted challenges facing U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere: a failing state on the doorstep of the world's most powerful nation.
By nearly any measure, Haiti ranks among the most difficult places to live on earth. Its social indicators rival the war-torn countries of sub-Saharan Africa. More than 20 years since Haiti's first democratic election in 1990 raised the hopes for positive change, Haiti remains plagued by ongoing political conflict, pervasive insecurity and deteriorating institutions.
The impact of the recent earthquake has been multiplied by the country's other deeply rooted problems – the loss of arable land from rapid deforestation, population growth and a growing food crisis.
Because of the lack of access to modern energy, such as electricity or natural gas, about three-quarters of Haitians are dependent on charcoal as their primary source of heat for cooking. As a result, the country's forests began to disappear at a rate of 15 million to 20 million trees annually starting in the 1990s, and Haiti's forested land has shrunk from about 75 percent during the colonial era to less than 1 percent today. Some environmental experts have begun to describe the country as a "Caribbean desert" with areas now beyond rehabilitation.
The damage runs far beyond loss of trees and accompanying wildlife, as the deforestation has led to the erosion of the rich topsoil needed for agriculture. The United Nations estimates that Haiti loses 36 million tons of topsoil each year as rains and floods wash the nutrient-rich dirt into the Caribbean Sea, and the runoff has damaged Haitian fisheries. So national food production is on the decline.
At the same time, Haiti's population is rapidly expanding. It grew by 3 million since the collapse the Duvalier regime in 1986 to today's 9 million, and it's expected to climb another 3 million over the next 25 years. By 2030, Haiti's population will potentially eclipse both Cuba and the Dominican Republic to make it the most populous country in the Caribbean.
The juxtaposition of an expanding population and dwindling resources has already resulted in a food crisis of significant proportions. In summer 2003, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization called Haiti a "silent crisis" where 3.8 million people are unable to secure minimum food requirements, with the rural areas being particularly hard hit. Acute malnutrition is at 4.5 percent and poised to rise.
Simply put, Haiti's expanding population is on a collision course with declining food production and rapid deforestation. At some point, these three lines have to cross.
The U.S. cannot solve all of Haiti's problems, but there is a need for smart steady, and sustained involvement focused on a nation-building strategy that can develop functional government ministries, a workable legal and judicial system, and some form of democratic politics.
Unfortunately, such a project appears to lie beyond the political and technical capacity of the United States, and Haiti's fragile institutional fabric has not been able to sustain the gains made in earlier periods of deeper engagement.
And during the Clinton and Bush years, the U.S. approach to Haiti vacillated between aggressive engagement that eventually fell prey to disappointing results and partial withdrawal that allowed the country's woes to multiply until heightened involvement again became necessary.
But if the U.S. has long been in a quandary about where exactly to place Haiti in its overall foreign policy in the Americas, there is little question that the country has now emerged as a front-burner issue on Obama's foreign policy agenda.
This earthquake, humbling in its magnitude and impact, demonstrates that Haiti's vast unmet needs will pose a continuing challenge to the Obama administration long after the recovery and relief efforts have ended.
The Politics Of Disaster Relief
After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, the aftershock reached China in ways that few anticipated.The earthquake forced Chinese leaders to navigate the tricky politics of disaster relief.
Protecting Latin America’s Poor During Economic Crises
History tells us that economic crises cause large increases in poverty. The most recent economic crisis will cause Latin America’s GDP to contract around 2 percent in 2009.
Haiti’s Faint Signs of Progress Take a Vicious Blow
Since achieving independence in 1804 to become the world’s first free black state, Haiti has been beset by turbulent, often violent, politics and a gradual but seemingly unstoppable slide from austerity to poverty to misery.