Steve Chapman

How to lift Haitians out of misery is an enduring puzzle. U.S. intervention, undertaken periodically for nearly a century, hasn’t worked. Foreign aid, of which Haiti has gotten billions over the past 20 years, has failed. Left-wing despots haven’t led the way to salvation, and neither have right-wingers.

One of the poorest countries on Earth -- far poorer than even its communist neighbor, Cuba -- most of its people live on less than $2 a day. Two years ago, the Associated Press reported that in the slums, some people were often reduced to an unusual local staple: cookies made of salt, vegetable shortening and … dirt. They sold for a nickel apiece.

Haiti is also one of the worst-governed nations, with laws that are generally ineffectual and most power wielded by a few wealthy families, paramilitary groups, drug lords and other criminals. Barely a country, it is no more governable than, well, an earthquake.

A 2006 report by the National Academy of Public Administration noted, “The international donor community classifies Haiti as a fragile state -- the government cannot or will not deliver core functions to the majority of its people… Others have variously characterized Haiti as a nightmare, predator, collapsed, failed, failing, parasitic, kleptocratic, phantom, virtual or pariah state.” In short, it is a plague that dwarfs the worst natural disaster, even while it magnifies the destructive power of such events.

This bleak condition should not really be blamed on the people who happen to have been born Haitian. They inherited a world they didn’t make and have only minimal capacity to change. That’s their misfortune. We did the same, with far happier results.

As Americans, our virtues are important, particularly in the long run. Haiti could benefit from cultivating them. But before we congratulate ourselves, we should remember that we owe our greatest debt to our immense good luck.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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