Commentary: Should the United States Annex Haiti?
The devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti threw the country into the international spotlight, and simultaneously highlighted its desperate need for help, even before the disaster. In the weeks and months after the quake, some have begun to question whether the event opens new opportunities for restructuring of Haiti's government and economy, literally from the ground up.
But what sort of role should the US or other international organizations play in Haiti? Among the spectrum of international responses—from indirect aid and development programs to a Puerto Rico-style annexation—the best answer is bound to lie somewhere in between.
Paul S. Adams, Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, sees a big opportunity to reshape Haiti's political system after the earthquake. "This is the chance for Haiti to rewrite the rules of its government," he says, "it really wasn't working before the quake, and with most basic services provided by the UN... the Haitian government didn't exist in most ways."
The case for something as radical as annexation lies in the economic situation of the people, as well as the potential to avert this sort of disaster in the future. Haiti's pre-earthquake GDP is estimated to have been approximately $6.9 billion, with 80% of its people below the poverty line and 54 percent in "abject poverty," according to government sources.
Puerto Rico, by comparison, has GDP of just over $86.2 billion, which is over twelve-times the size of Haiti's, with about 1/4 the land mass, and 1/2 the population. The major difference being that the island maintains strong economic ties with the United States, and is among the best in the Caribbean as far as standard of living.
Could large-scale, direct investment from the US government be the answer to Haiti's economic woes? With US supervision, New Deal-style job creation and infrastructure building, Haiti's population could stand to be relatively enriched, while annexation may also provide a return-on-investment for the US—annexation would allow the American government to generate tax revenue from new economic activity that could grow over time.
The humanitarian case for infrastructure building is also apparent after the earthquake in Chile —estimated to have as much as 500 times the strength of Haiti's quake—as modern building practices are credited with drastically reducing the loss of life in heavily populated areas.
But is annexation actually a viable answer? In practice, almost certainly not.
Carolle Charles, Associate Professor of Sociology at Baruch College, who is Haitian herself, believes the people of Haiti would "definitely" be interested in US annexation, but only as a knee-jerk reaction due to their current dire situation. Instead, she says, this type of wishful thinking would be trumped by Haiti's strong sense of pride and independence, which is "hard to cut and undermine."
In addition, the allocation of government funds would be virtually impossible for Americans to accept, especially in today's economic and political landscape that has the government's overspending practices facing strong criticism, while cash-strapped US states cut costs and compete for federal funds.
Professor Charles believes that any realistic reconstruction must tap into Haiti's human capital —both from Haitians expatriates and the country's strong women's movement—both which have been shining spots in the country's domestic development.
The best hope for the country, she says, likely lies in fresh thinking and new faces from these groups. She also points out that the situation with NGOs in the country undermines the ability of aid and resources to get to the appropriate places and causes capital to flow out of the country, suggesting that this is another system that must be rethought in order for Haitians to prosper economically.
What would a restructured Haiti look like? Professor Adams sees an optimal situation in a dual executive parliamentary model, with a focus on a decentralized government yielding much of its power and resources to local government bodies. The current national government is a "system built on political apathy," he says, citing a social disconnect with its people, along with an underwhelming 10% turnout in the country's most recent election.
A grass-roots style rebuilding of the economy has the most promise, he says, with investments taking the form of micro-loans that take advantage of the population's entrepreneurial spirit. Large-scale investment handled by the government has a hard time reaching the people, he explains, with corruption within many government posts enriching these individuals, instead of putting the capital to work for the greater good.
"Actual annexation is not a real possibility," Adams says, but a "multinational, multilateral solution, potentially led by the UN, Brazil or Mexico" provides a more viable—and palatable—international approach.