After some hope that billions of dollars of support from the international community would help Haiti rebuild from the devastating earthquake in January things have taken a turn for the worse in recent months. An outbreak of cholera, a flawed election in November and an inability of the US and Europe to meet their aid pledges has put Haiti’s reconstruction in peril. Haiti needs help from its Latino neighbors who have something unique to offer: shared experiences.
Reconstruction efforts and aid have normally been the responsibility of the larger world powers and if something happens in the western hemisphere it is the US who is usually called upon to sort things out. However, US, Canadian and European aid for Haiti has often fallen short. In many cases Latin American leaders are in a better position than others to offer the support that Haiti needs.
But why should Latin American countries who are facing their own problems (such as the floods in Colombia) and do not have the economic resources of the greater powers help Haiti? Firstly, the situation is dire. Even before the earthquake Haiti was a broken country. It is trapped in a cycle of poverty that is made worse by frequent natural disasters and very weak governing institutions. Instead of elaborate aid projects and traditional relief support favored by developed nation donors, Haiti needs assistance building the foundations of government and the economy. Haiti needs to develop health, education and judicial systems that can create a foundation of stability from which the country can develop. The US and Europe formed these systems in the 19th century (or earlier) but Latin American countries have taken on these challenges more recently and their experiences are more relevant to Haiti’s situation.
After the January earthquake, Latin American leaders came out strongly in support of Haiti and for the first time many were in a position to offer help. Countries such as Brazil, Chile and Colombia are still in the process of development and can more easily identify with some of Haiti’s problems. Brazilian troops have already been able to use their experience of battling gangs in the favelas of Rio and Sao Paolo to help the UN forces clean up violent areas in Port-au-Prince. Chile is in its own much more successful earthquake reconstruction process (without relying on NGOs) and can offer valuable advice and expertise. Colombia’s dramatic economic, social and security improvements over the past decade can show Haiti’s political and business leaders that change is possible. It is true that Latin America does not have the financial resources of the US and Europe but Colombia and others can and should share their experiences and give advice on the steps needed to improve governance, security and confidence.
In many ways Haiti’s reconstruction is a test of Latin American solidarity. Normally considered a regional outsider, with its unique culture and language, Haiti is historically important. It was the first place Colombus landed in the new world and the first independent nation in Latin America. Without the vital support of Haitian president Alexandre Petion in 1817 Simon Bolivar’s campaign for independence may have ended in failure. Latin America has the chance to succeed in Haiti where others have failed, mainly because of shared experiences. But given the many challenges they still face at home, can Latin American leaders step up to the challenge in Haiti? The success of Haiti’s reconstruction may depend on it.