A better way to handle the Haitian problem

By , Robert I. Rotberg, professor of political science and history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of ''Haiti: the Politics of Squalor.''

Does the United States really want to be known by the misalliances that it makes in the third world? In Africa, in Latin America, and now in the Caribbean the US has deliberately chosen partners at best of questionable virtue. Certainly, the cosseting of Haiti, the newest of its friends, demonstrates how determinedly President Reagan's administration ignores the caution and humanistic guidelines of its four predecessors.

The Coast Guard cutter USS Hamilton, now on patrol off the northern coast of Haiti, is more than a symbol. It provides graphic evidence of US willingness to cooperate with one of the least democratic and least caring regimes in the Western Hemisphere.

The presence of the Hamilton is intended to help the Haitian government keep its people at home. For decades hungry, illiterate Haitians have pledged their savings to the captains of rickety skiffs and set sail across the comparatively calm waters separating Haiti from Florida. Unlike middle class, literate, economically ambitious Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's harsh Marxist government, the Haitians are poor, untutored except in the local Creole, and without skills. They are fleeing a government every bit as neglectful and corrupt as Cuba's may be doctrinaire.

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Yet illegal immigration is a problem for the United States. Poor blacks are conceivably harder to assimilate, especially in Florida, than Latinos. They also lack political sophistication, making it difficult if not impossible for them to claim the status of political refugees.

Turning back the Haitians at sea, and the visible presence of the Hamilton, will doubtless act as a deterrent. Haitians will seek their fortunes elsewhere, in the neighboring Dominican Republic (where they were massacred 40 years ago) or in Jamaica. But they can hope for little at home.

Haiti is the least well-endowed country in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly every indicator places poor Haiti at the bottom of the per capita scale: In income ($265 per head), consumption of electricity, road miles, drinkable water supplies, hospital beds, schools, and so on, Haiti's rank is last. Literacy in French (Creole is essentially unwritten) is about 5 percent. Arable land is limited to an acre per family on average. The rural areas are intensely crowded, so much of the country's 10,000 square miles (the size of Maryland) being hopelessly eroded, irredeemably arid, or ruggedly mountainous that farmers must scratch a bare living from only a third of the country.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti's baby-faced president for life, is now a married man of 29. His government is less predatory than that of Francois Duvalier, his father, the Papa Doc of ''The Comedians'' who appointed Jean-Claude as his successor a few months before his death in 1971.

But to say that Haiti is less predatory now is to contrast the total terror of the 1960s with the steady cruelties of the present Haitian government. A constant, linking the regimes of father and son, is the Haitian government's refusal or inability to supply essential social services to its people. Other constants are omnipresent corruption, intimidation, and the absence of any kind of general participation in the governing process. Haiti is a model of grinding squalor, a state of existence which Haitian rulers perpetuate in their own interest.

It is no wonder that Haitians seek opportunity in North America. Many, legally and illegally, have found employment and hope in Boston, New York, Montreal, and Miami. The new wave of would-be immigrants is conceivably even more needy. Certainly the Hamilton can keep them away. The Coast Guard can board the little boats and tow them back to Haiti. Then, like the Vietnamese, the Haitians may try again, another way. Or they may be - nothing is certain in Haiti - further victimized by their own government or its friends.

Surely there is a better way to handle this particular immigration problem. The US can help the Haitians improve conditions at home. Admittedly, it has tried to do so before, and most assistance was then purloined or squandered by Haitian officials. But if the US patrols the Haitian coasts with Haitian sanction, surely it should insist upon being permitted to meddle effectively in at least the northern part of the country.

By undertaking and controlling agricultural and village improvement schemes, helping the Haitians to upgrade and market their coffee, and building and maintaining a modest rural infrastructure over a few years, the US could contribute to the uplifting of its poorest neighbors, and at the same time to a dampening of the desire to migrate.

Simply to block emigration and to plunge the poor back into the hopelessness that they have known is not in the US self-interest. Nor can it make America proud.

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