January 19, 2010

From Fareed Zakaria's GPS Jan. 17, 2010. This is one of the few segments I've seen from anyone in the mainstream media that even starts to touch on some of the reasons for the extreme poverty in that existed in Haiti well before this terrible tragedy hit their country.

ZAKARIA: We begin today with Haiti. I want to go beyond the terrible images that you've seen in the last days, tragic as they are, and try to help us understand this tragedy and how it came to be this way.

Everybody surely knows by now that Haiti is the poorest country in the entire Western Hemisphere. But that's not the whole story. You see, Haiti has been marked by violence, turmoil and tragedy from the start -- until recently, when things turned up, only to be dashed by this earthquake. And that start informed the tragedies that have befallen this country ever since.

So, a quick history lesson, one that I think is fascinating on its own merits and is essential to understanding Haiti today.

The island that came to be known as Hispaniola was discovered by Europeans when Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492. Two hundred years later, in 1697, the French gained control of the western third of this island. African slaves, growing sugar and coffee and tobacco there, became a veritable gold mine for the French.

But then, in 1791, the slaves revolted. It's been called the Vietnam War of its time, a ragtag band of insurgents defeating one of the greatest militaries of the age. None other than Napoleon Bonaparte sent tens of thousands of his French troops. They all tried to beat back the rebellion, and they all failed.

On New Year's Day, 1804, the last defeated French ship left the island, and the slaves declared victory. And Haiti, the nation that emerged, is the only nation in the entire world that was founded by slaves.

But the elation from emancipation didn't last long. The nation was very poor, made poorer by the French who demanded a large indemnity for losing the war. The plantation system, along with much of the rest of the country, had been ravaged by the war. And the vast majority of the population didn't know how to do anything but farm for a master.

Furthermore, the world was wary of this nation of half-a-million newly freed blacks. The United States, for example, didn't recognize Haiti for the first 58 years of its existence until 1862, a year after the U.S. Civil War began. And that was the official beginning of what continues to this day to be a difficult relationship.

In 1915, the U.S. sent in a landing force to occupy the island nation. The Haitian president had just been assassinated. The country was in a state of chaos. And some say that America simply wanted to protect its investments there.

Whatever the reasons for coming, the Americans stayed for almost 20 years. And it was an often brutal occupation. The Americans under Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew, but essentially of their own volition, in 1934. Haiti remained a troubled and deeply chaotic place.

Sixty years later, the Yanks were back. In 1994, under the Clinton administration, the American military went in again. This time they came to restore democracy. And two years later, Haiti saw for the first time in its then-almost 200-year history, a peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected president to another.

But then, the earthquake. And late Wednesday afternoon, of course, America returned again -- this time, not just with military might, but with aid workers, search and rescue teams, doctors, nurses and much more.

The response from the rest of the world has been strong. But the response from America has been extraordinary. It's a wonderful example of the power of America to do good, and do it fast.

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