Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What's Wrong With Haiti?

Although the story was the front-page right lead in Sunday's New York Times, it's likely that many people missed it, because it was about Haiti. People become accustomed to bad news out of Haiti so they skip each new chapter chronicling the continuing degradation of the already wiped-out country. The story was an investigation into what happened when Haitian police invaded a prison after an abortive effort at a prison break. It's likely that they killed more than 25 prisoners, many of whom they had long wanted to murder, and then buried them in a common pit.

My long-time colleague, Maury Geiger, was in town yesterday and told me more about the story. He is quoted in it--he has personally been trying to improve conditions, especially with respect to justice in Haiti, for many years. It turns out that he was at least part of the inspiration for the coverage by bringing the situation to the attention of the Times reporters.

Last autumn, I spent some time working with him in Port-au-Prince, where I witnessed the conditions at the National Penitentiary, which were sordid. It was some kind of blessing when after the earthquake wrecked the place, everybody took off. Haiti still has a system where people are arrested and there's no bail or pretrial release system so they stay in jail until trial which may follow years later.

The reason this situation persists is that (1) people with connections "arrange" to have relatives who are arrested released at the police station and (2) the people with influence in the society--judges, ministers, successful lawyers, academics--care less about the situation of those less well off, who constitute most of the population, than is true anywhere else I've ever been.

In working on court system improvement, you learn that complex procedures mean that everything takes longer and there is greater opportunity for corruption. We used to have a complicated pleading system in U.S. courts, but simplified it many years ago--by the mid-20th century. Things can still get hung up procedurally here but it's better than it had been.

The long history of attempts to assist Haiti through foreign aid also includes many episodes of corruption. Maury Geiger went on 60 Minutes some years ago with Mike Wallace to spotlight how crooked American contractors were stealing funds intended to improve the Haitian judicial system. But now we are face to face with the real problem: yes, France is always a villain because they managed to make Haiti--poorest country in the hemisphere--pay the French reparations for freedom since 1804. And the U.S. has tried hard but not had much success in improving anything there.

No, the real problem is the Haitian government and underlying it--forget all the dictators and their stooges--is the upper crust of Haitian society, the people who live at the top of the hill above Port-au-Prince. These are the lawyers and judges and ministers whom I heard discuss the problems and explain why nothing can be changed. We have had ugly corporate types in the U.S. both in the 19th century and right now who exploited everyone, especially workers, but would plead ignorance or whatever when confronted. But in Haiti, these makers and movers of the justice system just don't care. And for so long as they are in control, nothing will change.

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