The First Lady Visits Haiti - Can Diplomatic Visits Dispel Myths?

  • Posted on: 15 March 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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The First Lady recently visited Haiti (read: Port au Prince), visting the well known GHESKIO (Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi's Sarcoma and Other Opportunisting Infections) Center as well as a school, education being one of her personal priorities.  The last visit by a first lady to Haiti was by Hillary Clinton in 1998.  Politics aside, this is a sign of progress.  You can more about the visit in the New York Times. 


I do not mean to suggest that there will be any tangible benefits to this visit.  This was mostly symbolic.   But if a Haitian rennaisance is to take place, it would benefit from diplomatic engagement, trade, and partnership with all of its Caribbean, Latin American, and North American neighbors.  


Some of this is taking place already.  Cubans are providing doctors and training Haitian health care providers.  High level Canadian officials have visited and pledged to increase their support for Haiti's development, making it a top priority.  Brazil has sent scientists to discuss Haiti's biodiesel options.  One gets the impression that engagement with Venezuela has been more trouble for the Haitiani government than it is worth.  The United States remains an important donor. 



There are other possibilities. Presidential visits to Santo Domingo and vice versa illustrates the importance of partnership.  The DR wants a stable Haiti and it, like it or not, Haiti needs the help of its closest neighbor.  The Dominicans could start by selling electricity to Haiti at a favorable rate.


How about other Latin American countries such as Argentina and Chile?  Many MINUSTAH peacekeepers are Argentinian.  The economies of both these countries are much larger than Haiti's.   There could be opportunities that would benefit both sides.  


Haiti has been an ardent supporter of Taiwan, so a visit from Chinese officials is probably out of the question.  But if one looks to Africa, most countries that have supported Taiwan have switched alleigances.  The assistance China can provide (albeit with strings) dwarfs that of Taiwan.  I suspect that we will eventually see the same happen with Haiti. 



When these diplomatic visits take place, the media follows.   My hope is that diplomacy can be a tool for dispelling myths about Haiti.  Some of these myths are below:


Myth:  Haiti is a violent country.

Reality:  Haiti is for the most part a safe country.  Violent crime is lower in Haiti than in many other Caribbean countries and many American cities as well.  The rural parts of Hait (most of the country is rural) remains calm.  Haiti is home to some of the kindest, friendliest people in the Caribbean. 


Myth:  HIV came from Haiti and the prevalence rate is very high.

Reality:  We have tried to show again and again that it is extemely unlikely that HIV entered the United States via Haiti.  Far more likely is the scenario that sex tourists brought it to Haiti via Miami.  To blame Haitians is to add insult to injurt.  Further, Haiti is one of only a small number of countries that has succeeded in halting and reversing the epidemic.  It remains high in certain populations such as commercial sex workers but nationwide has been reduced greatly.  Haitians are to be commended for this - programs successful in Haiti have been replicated throughout Africa.  



Myth:  There is no money to be made in Haiti, so why try?

Reality:  Haiti needs trade more than it needs aid. Even the internal economy has great potential.  Internet access has spread like wildfire since 2000.  Digicel has made the largest investment in Haiti that the country has ever seen.   The private sector could have a role in helping Haitians find fuel alternatives to wood charcoal.  The roads are getting better - more opportunities for travel.   The government has to do its part - cleaning up customs, streamlining the process for starting a business, and protecting those that do - Haiti could yet become a business friendly country.


Myth:  Haiti would not be a fun place to visit, so why fly?

Reality:  For the open minded and adventurous traveller, Haiti can be a fascinating destination.  Haiti is rich in art, culture, music, and historical sites.  Haiti's history, its vibrancy, and resiliency draws us in.  Special events such as the Jacmel Film Festival, the Haitian Jazz Festival, Carnival and many others fetes are excellent.   Getting around is still harder than it should be.  There are still are not enough mid range hotels.  Those that are decent are too expensive.   It is not for everyone, but with a sense of humor and some patience, it can be a lot of fun.



Myth:  Haiti is poor because of Vodoun.

Reality:  No, Haiti is poor because of environmental degradation, generations of dictators supported by other countries, political instability, embargos, stigma placed on it by the international community for the disease du jour, underinvestment in health and social services, aid programs that unwittingly (sometimes wittingly)  encouraged corruption, and a challenging business environment.   Some practice voodoo, some don't.  The reality is that for many, voodoo is a lifeline to Africa.   It is neither a cause nor a result of poverty.



Myth:  Nothing works in Haiti.

Reality:  Anyone who has lived in the Haitian countryside,  knows there is a lot that is right about Haiti.  People are warm, kind, and supportive of each other.  Life takes place on the street and being a friend or a neighbor carries responsibilities.  This is perhaps what I miss most about Haiti.  Here in Washington, I have lived on the same street for five years and know precisely one neighbor. The Haitian government is making changes, sure not as fast as all of us would like, but it is happening.  There are community based organizations throughout Haiti making a real difference - we've written about many of them.   Everyone can play a part.


Have I missed a myth?  If so, let's discuss.



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