Nepali Times
Here And There
Loving to hate Haiti


PORT AU PRINCE-So far from God. So close to the United States.

That phrase was coined more than a century ago to describe the plight of Latin America, more particularly Mexico, which had just lost a disastrous war to Washington.

Haiti today is in a similar situation. This is a country that is proud of its beginnings but embarrassed about its present, frightened of a bleak future. France was the colonial power here. Woe betide any of the lands that fell under the sway of Paris, but Haitians managed all on their own to see off their French overlords in 1804. Haiti became the world's first black republic.

From the beginning, Washington and Paris collaborated to make Haiti pay for its audacity. The US refused to recognise the newly independent state. Nor did France allow any maritime trade with its own West Indian colonies or mainland business hosues. Shamefully, both countries believed that Haiti's slaves-men and women that fought successfuly for their freedom against overwhelming odds-were stray possessions of some white businessman somewhere, some slave trader. And as such, they were rogue assets. They hadn't bought their freedom, so they were stolen goods. Thus the depravity of slavery, which helped found and stabilize many modern western economies, and has never been apologised or compensated for.

In Haiti, a mixed-race elite speaks disparaging of the "slave" mentality of the black majority. This is a mentality that the elite helped cultivate carefully over generations to maintain their economic and behind-the-scenes political power. This was done with the active cooperation of Washington, Paris and many other foreign capitals who wanted only stability in Haiti. They cared not a whit about social or economic justice.

In truth, this is a place that matters little to big foreign powers. America's main concern is that boatloads of Haitian refugees don't start washing up on the beach in south Florida. That is why US Marines are patrolling the streets in Port au Prince and American diplomats are taking a lead role in trying to arrange a political solution to the current chaos.

It wasn't always so. American troops have invaded this island four times. They occupied Haiti from 1915 until the 1930s. Much of the current inequitable mess here can be traced back to policies forced on the Haitians in those days. Now a rabidly right wing Bush adminisration pursues an obsessive hatred of a left wing leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, and even helps force him from office in what's little better than a coup.

France-a nation where pride and hubris often seem indistinguishable-still feels that Haiti is part of La Patranomie, the worldwide band of French speaking countries that look to Paris for cultural guidance. It's not. But the French do love to play the colonial master, even today. So French troops are here as well, squinting at local women through clouds of cigarette smoke, and looking sharp in their newly pressed fatigues and flash sunglasses.

A few small regional players, Canada, Chile and others, are helping out too. They like to build their own self-image of helpful, caring, cuddly countries. But really, no one cares about Haiti. Everyone hopes it will disappear from the radar screen, sink beneath the waves of the Caribbean Sea, just go away. It's a sinkhole of despair with a unique culture that cares mostly about itself, thinks it is the centre of the universe.

Sound familiar? Nepal should keep an eye on attitudes in foreign capitals. Sometimes if they don't care about you, it's worse.

Local ambassadors with bees in their bonnet, and we've had a few in Kathmandu, get to make policies in a vacuum. National interests on either side are ignored. It's best to keep your donors, neighbours and the big powers engaged.

Perhaps we need to convince some Nepalis to take to the seas and head for south Florida. Or to try to get closer to some version of God.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)