Why Countries Like Haiti Matter to the Well-Being of Everyday Americans

Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere.

• It is a country of 8.2 million people. • 6.2 million of them live in poverty. • One out of eight children die before the age of five. • Seventy percent are unemployed. • Life expectancy is 54 years. • It has been deforested and environmentally degraded for years. • 7.2 million Haitians do not have access to reliable energy.

Of course we've heard these kinds of statistics many times before -- about Haiti and the other desperately poor developing countries of the world.

This week an international donors conference meets in Washington, DC that will have an enormous impact on the future of Haiti. But at a time like this, when our own economy itself is a basket case, what's wrong with a little "donor fatigue"? Why shouldn't we wait to focus on countries like Haiti until we've taken care of our own problems?

The reason is simple: because what happens to the people of Haiti affects us in at least four critical ways.

1) Our own long-term economic well-being. The world economy is not a zero sum game. For us to be richer, someone else doesn't have to be poorer. In fact just the opposite is true.

If you think of the earth as a huge space vehicle -- or a ship at sea -- it just doesn't make sense that a big proportion of the crew isn't able to pull its weight because they are undereducated, unproductive and constantly in need of handouts from the rest of us. The Navy wouldn't tolerate it, neither should the world community.

The more skilled, the more educated, the more productive, the more efficient every one of us is, the more successful we will all be in our common mission of forging a better life for future generations.

Every kid in Haiti who grows up to be a surgeon or an engineer instead of a stoop laborer contributes to the common store of our wealth. If a woman is sentenced by the accident of her birth to spend hours each day cleaning clothes in a Haitian stream instead of going to school, all of us miss out on the possibility that she might contribute to finding a cure for cancer. Millions of minds are indeed a terrible thing to waste.

And the effect of this waste plays itself out in the terms of pure economics. Several years into the Great Depression, the New Deal began to close the gap between supply and demand in the American economy. Roosevelt began to use public sector demand to fill the demand gap and move the economy toward full employment. But Emperor Hirohito's attack on Pearl Harbor was necessary to give America the political will to fully utilize the tools of the New Deal - to stop worrying about short term deficits - and create full employment. After all, it was do or die.

There was great concern at the end of World War II that demobilization would result in a precipitous new economic downturn. One of the major factors that prevented that downturn - and fueled world economic growth for the next 20 years -- was the Marshall Plan. America invested massively in rebuilding Europe. In the short term, that created a huge new market for American products. In the longer term it allowed the rebirth of an economically prosperous Europe that contributed to the store of our common productive capacity.

In the same way today, long-term economic growth in the developed world will require a massive investment to jumpstart the economies of countries like Haiti and the entire developing world. And like the Marshall Plan, we will all benefit.

2) Our own national security. The bottom line is that an island of relative prosperity can't exist forever in a sea of poverty. Ask Louis XIV of France how that works out. Kids who grow up in poverty in countries like Haiti don't see the "good life" in American commercials and movies and then resign themselves to suffer quietly. A recent survey showed that 75% of the people in Haiti want to leave the country. Many of them will try -- even if they risk their lives in a leaky wooden boat. Many will try to come illegally to the United States.

People have never left their homes and families to immigrate to foreign lands unless they felt they had no choice. The millions of immigrants at our borders are the waves crashing over the seawalls of our island of relative prosperity. If you want to do something serious about illegal immigration, you need to help create economies in countries like Haiti and Mexico that allow people to believe they have a future there -- everything else is a band-aid.

Without economic development in Haiti, other children will grow up to join criminal gangs that promise them a relative fortune of a few thousand dollars to transport drugs to the United States.

In other parts of the world kids like them will resort to strapping on bombs in the vain hope of giving their lives some meaning. Or they'll hijack ships. Or they will join revolutionary movements to challenge the wealth and power of those who have it.

A recent report made public by our own CIA described world poverty as the greatest single long-term threat to world stability and our own national security. There has never been a time when the old Catholic Worker slogan was more correct: "If you want peace, work for justice."

3) It is our moral responsibility. Well-being is not just a matter of the number of rooms in our houses or the quality of our vacations. People -- especially young people - want meaning in their lives. They want to commit themselves to other people -- not just for the sake of the other people -- but because it fulfills them -- it makes them feel that their lives matter. Our well-being as individuals and as a people is not simply measured by our GDP. It is measured by whether we can be proud of ourselves.

Unfortunately, with a few brief exceptions, the government of the United States has actually prevented the development of Haiti for much of its history. In fact, too often American policy has treated Haiti as one giant sweatshop -- available for exploitation.

Over much of the last 50 years, the U.S. supported two vicious dictators -- "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, "Baby Doc." These regimes, and the tiny group of elites that constituted their political base, systematically exploited and terrorized the island's population.

Much of their power was exercised through the Army -- which was created during the U.S. occupation of the country in the early 1900s. In its history, the Haitian Army never fought a foreign foe. It was used exclusively to enforce domestic social control.

In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a progressive priest and hero to the country's poor, was elected President by 70% of the vote. Within seven months he had been ousted by a military coup backed by his country's elite and their foreign backers. Aristide was returned to power in 1994 after President Clinton threatened to send American troops to re-establish democracy in Haiti, which is only 600 miles from Florida.

After Aristide returned, he abolished the Haitian army, but economic progress was slow and difficult. Over its history, Haiti has been almost entirely deforested. The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola, is a stark line. On one side there are forests. On the other side there are none.

Aristide became the first president in Haiti's history to peacefully hand over power to another elected civilian, René Préval, in 1996.

Four years later, Aristide was re-elected. Unfortunately for Haiti, so was George W. Bush. The Neocons hated Aristide. They used purported election irregularities in the election for the Haitian Senate (and not for the Presidency) as the premise for an aid embargo to the fragile government, including $500 million in aid from the International Development Bank.

In 2004, The Boston Globe reported that the aid cutoff ravaged the economy of the nation, already twice as poor as any other in the Western Hemisphere:

The cutoff, intended to pressure the government to adopt political reforms, left Haiti struggling to meet even basic needs and weakened the authority of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.... Today, Haiti's government, which serves 8 million people, has an annual budget of about $300 million -- less than that of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city of 100,000... Many of Aristide's supporters, in Haiti and abroad, angrily countered that the international community, particularly the United States, abandoned the fledgling democracy when it needed aid. Many believe that Aristide himself was the target of the de facto economic sanctions just as Haiti was beginning to put its finances back in order.

In fact, the U.S. may have done even more to undermine Aristide. In early 2004, a small group of well-equipped personnel from the former Haitian Army entered the country and marched on the capital. The exact role of the U.S. is unclear. But the International Republican Institute (IRI) spent $1.2 million of the U.S. taxpayer's money funding Aristide opposition.

We have a moral obligation to help Haiti be successful. Luckily, that now seems increasingly possible.

4) Success is possible. This is a turning point time for Haiti. A relatively small amount of money could make a huge difference in finally jumpstarting serious development. The UN mission there, and new government, have begun to give the country some stability and security.

The international community, the election of Barack Obama, and the volatile Haitian political scene may have finally aligned to allow for real progress.

Haiti needs $3 billion to execute the development plan that has been designed by the government and international community. That is the equivalent of the price of about ten F-22 fighters.

In a world where hundreds of billions of dollars are spent to bail out big banks, $3 billion from the international community to recreate the future of 8.2 million people would be a quite a bargain -- for them, and for us.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategis,t and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.