Sometimes the simple juxtaposition of events is enough to suggest alternatives. That thousands of mostly Haitian refugees are living under a bridge in Texas just days after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is an example.
What if instead of trying to remake a country on the other side of the world, the United States had devoted a couple trillion dollars to helping more immediate neighbors?
This is not to suggest that the United States is to blame for the Haitians’ misfortune. This country certainly bears some responsibility for Haiti’s troubles, but only some. The list of countries that have invaded, fought over or mismanaged that nation includes the United States, but also every major European power – and a couple of lesser ones.
Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, and the level of despair can be seen from space. Satellite photos in effect show the border, with lush vegetation on the Dominican side and wasteland on the other.
Haiti was at the epicenter of the slave trade in the New World and experienced some of the most horrifying examples of its brutality. Under 18th-century French rule, conditions were so egregious that slaves died at a greater rate than they reproduced. To maintain their slave labor pool, French sugar growers had to constantly import more kidnapped Africans. That legacy of trauma is reflected in Haiti’s ongoing domestic unrest and its continuing inability to effectively govern itself.
It was a French colony long enough for that language to become Haitians’ native tongue. That was reflected in what was perhaps the most embarrassing example of U.S. involvement in Haiti. In the early years of the 20th century, William Jennings Bryan – a three-time Democratic presidential nominee – was secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a notorious racist and Bryan reinforced that when, visiting Haiti, he used a racial epithet to express his astonishment that Black people could speak French.
That kind of ignorance has too often been a part of U.S. policy toward the Third World. Moreover, the idea that such thinking reflects the truth about America is too often reinforced by images such as those this week of men on horseback brandishing what appear to be whips against unarmed refugees.
The United States has invaded Haiti more than once. In the early 20th century, it occupied the country for 15 years. But American power has been employed there primarily for oblique ends or to end an immediate state of chaos – not to improve the lives of the Haitian people.
What to do about those people under the bridge is unclear. There is probably no perfect or elegant solution. But the long-term answer is clear: We should devote the kind of time and resources deployed in Afghanistan to improving the lot of our friends in this hemisphere.
That Haiti has been troubled for a couple of centuries is beside the point. It is our neighbor, and its problems are literally at our border.
We can do better. We must.