After Haiti was rocked Jan. 12 by an earthquake that left 200,000 people dead and the country in ruins, the enormity of human suffering horrified the world. The death and devastation rekindled memories of the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The tragedy in Haiti touched me personally, because after two decades working as president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Washington, D.C., I have many Haitian friends and colleagues. Fortunately, I have confirmed that they are safe, but most have lost their homes and many have lost family members in the earthquake. It was sobering to see the collapsed Hotel Montana, where I always stayed in Port-au-Prince.
My experience with Haiti began with efforts to help the Haitians conduct their first-ever free and fair elections, in 1990. Since then I have been involved with most national elections there. Over the years, I have come to know many of the leading Haitian political figures, such as President René Préval, former president Jean Bertrand Aristide and former president Boniface Alexandre. During my tenure in Washington, I regularly advised officials in the State Department, the National Security Council and Congress on democracy in Haiti.
In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte sent an army to occupy the Louisiana Territory in North America. On the way, that army attempted to suppress a slave rebellion in Haiti, but the French troops were annihilated by a slave army led by Toussaint L'Overture. Haiti gained independence in 1804.
The earthquake is one of many disasters to have befallen Haitians since then. The country has been plagued by poor leadership, crushing poverty and environmental degradation. Since 1986, Haitians have experienced the overthrow of Baby Doc Duvalier, two failed presidencies by Aristide and inept military juntas. In 2006, the situation began to improve when Préval was elected president and focused on rebuilding the country. However, the awesome force of nature on Jan. 12 has left Haiti in a desperate state.
The worldwide support for Haiti is impressive. Despite the painfully slow and seemingly uncoordinated initial relief efforts, medical assistance, food and water are reaching survivors. Valiant rescue teams from across the globe have risked their own lives to save Haitians trapped in collapsed buildings.
Some $300 million has been donated through charitable organizations and efforts such as the Hope for Haiti Now Telethon. Many locally based organizations are also working hard to alleviate suffering in Haiti. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are leading the U.S. effort to raise funds. Support is pouring in from countries such as China, Congo, France and Senegal.
While the disaster has been the lead news story for two weeks, news crews are now leaving Haiti. It is important for the international community to keep relief support flowing. Survivors' immediate needs for medical attention, food and water will continue for the foreseeable future.
The silver lining is the opportunity to direct some newfound resources to longer-term efforts to improve the economy, education and overall quality of life for Haitians. The international community and the people and government of Haiti need to develop and implement a 10-year master plan. This effort needs the cooperation of the United Nations and foreign-aid agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development. Such a strategy also requires the expertise of private aid organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children.
To succeed, this effort demands the political will of all Haitians to set aside past differences and work together. All sectors of Haitian society need to participate and support development efforts. The international community must engage Préval to lead the effort to build a new Haiti.
Legislative and presidential elections are scheduled for 2010. Haitians must demand more of elected officials and support candidates committed to better future. Unfortunately, Préval is barred by the constitution from seeking another five-year term. Because Préval is credited with spurring economic growth and providing stability, some Haitians desire a constitutional amendment allowing Préval to run again.
If Préval cannot run, many are seeking the office. For Haiti's future, the next president must be committed to building a new Haiti. Unfortunately, Aristide is hinting at a comeback despite his two failed terms. Aristide's return to Haitian politics would be a disaster for the country. His many political allies in the U.S. and abroad would best serve Haiti's interests by encouraging Aristide to permanently step aside from politics.
The international community should enlist Préval to lead the effort to develop and launch a plan to rebuild Haiti. The plan must contain an effective anti-corruption oversight component.
Haitians have endured tremendous suffering in the wake of the earthquake and throughout their troubled history. However, Haitians are wonderfully resilient.
Now is the time to channel some of the resources for earthquake relief to help build a new Haiti with a brighter future.
Richard W. Soudriette has worked in 60 countries. He is president of the Center for Diplomacy and Democracy. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2007, he served as president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Washington, D.C., for 20 years.