Outside editorial: Tragedy strikes Haiti ... again

Posted: Friday, January 15, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

Tragedy never seems to release Haiti from its iron grip. Since the 1980s, the hemisphere's poorest country has suffered brutal dictators, economic upheaval, civil strife, a deadly transition to democratic rule, an AIDS epidemic, direct hits by major hurricanes and, now, a devastating earthquake.

As President Barack Obama observed yesterday, for a country so heavily immersed in hardship and suffering, "this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible."

Obviously, priority one is transporting rescue teams and getting urgent humanitarian aid to Haiti as quickly as possible. Obama correctly noted that "in disasters such as this, the first hours and days are absolutely critical in saving lives and avoiding greater tragedy." The massive aid infrastructure that has kept Haitians alive throughout previous years of strife also appears to be among the victims of Tuesday's quake, with major hospitals among the thousands of buildings now reduced to rubble.

Haitians have proven in past turmoil and disasters that they are tough-minded survivors who never seem to lose their indomitable spirit. The aftermath of Tuesday's 7.0 earthquake will challenge their mettle like never before, forcing millions who already lived a hand-to-mouth existence to stifle their hunger pangs and put off thoughts of their own well-being while joining in the search for the tens of thousands believed to be buried under rubble of hillside shantytowns and coastal slums.

Among those still unaccounted for are up to 45,000 Americans, including aid workers and missionaries.

Humanitarian aid already is pouring into Haiti as international rescue missions gear up. It's part of a pattern we've seen countless times before on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola: images of abject human suffering that evoke a generous flood of donations. The problem is that the outside world has also demonstrated time and again how short its attention span can be.

Recall, for example, the Clinton administration's determination in 1994 to turn Haiti around and end its perennial status as the sick man of the Americas. President Bill Clinton dispatched Marines to restore security and dismantle a dictatorial junta that was blocking a democratically elected president from taking power. Clinton reinvigorated the U.N. aid mission there and promised a top-to-bottom makeover of the police and judicial system.

Much of that was prompted not by compassion for Haiti's poor and oppressed but by television scenes of more than 40,000 Haitians fleeing by boat to U.S. shores. And when the boat-people crisis ceased, so did much of America's and the world's attention. That remains one of Haiti's biggest problems today.

Urgent aid undoubtedly will pour in and be welcomed by Haiti's desperate and dispossessed. But once the rubble is swept aside and "normality" returns, Haiti will need a long-term recovery plan. For Haiti to establish a viable economy and stronger democracy, the focus must eventually turn from short-term aid to long-term investment and jobs.

That's when the generosity and support of the international community - especially the United States - will truly be put to the test.

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