By JOHN C. BERSIA
When nature raises its voice -- as it did with Hurricane Katrina in recent days, the freak monsoon floods that struck India earlier in the summer and a tsunami of epic proportions late last year -- one cannot help but listen. Such disasters, which suggest evidence of a planetary protest, typically send people scurrying to the assistance of the afflicted.
In more peaceful times, though, when no compelling threat -- natural or human-made -- looms, public concern often diminishes or disappears altogether. I am reminded of Haiti, which seems to find itself not only in a perpetual crisis but invariably marginalized. The rest of the world tends to pay attention and react only when Haiti's woes spill into the Caribbean and make their way to other shores, including those of the United States.
I would like to see that benign neglect end and encourage a chance for Haitians to enjoy stable, productive lives. To begin, the international community should take a more aggressive stance in helping Haiti separate itself from a dysfunctional past of oppressive rule, poverty and environmental devastation. In addition, a tighter bond should be established between Haiti and its neighbor on Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic.
The ideal opportunity to resolve the Haitian conundrum came in early 2004, with the departure of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Despite apparently good intentions, Aristide accelerated Haiti's plummet toward failed-state status. The international community dutifully expressed alarm and dispatched troops, but unfortunately its quick-fix technique has not succeeded in creating an environment that will allow free, fair and safe elections later this year. Even a recent decision to boost the size of the United Nations stabilization force in Haiti falls short of the challenge.
The size and scope of Haiti's problems demand at least 20 years of hands-on assistance by the global community. Now, I suspect that such a proposal will resonate poorly among Americans who already clamor for the United States to withdraw from other nation-building enterprises, notably in Iraq. But if they desire long-term security for nations bordering the Caribbean, they would be unwise to handle Haiti hastily and fade away. That approach merely would guarantee a repeat of past failures.
The most promising solution lies in the temporary suspension of Haiti's sovereignty and in the imposition of a comprehensive plan that would remove the influence of past regimes, bolster the society, revamp education and training, and build a constituency for democracy and free markets.
At the same time, it would help for Haiti and the Dominican Republic to work more assiduously to reduce the historical tensions that plague them. They have a common interest in dealing with just about every issue, from hurricanes to economic development. Expanding critical discussions at the national leadership level would make a difference.
Beyond that, the two countries would stand to gain from establishing a permanent institute devoted to research on Dominican-Haitian affairs. I am not talking about a make-work, one-person office that would generate insipid trivia about the two countries. Rather, I envision a serious, public-private partnership that would produce ongoing, substantive assessments for the use of policy-makers and other interested parties.
In the panorama of worthwhile issues, fixing Haiti and narrowing the gap between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo deserve a closer look and a proactive sense of urgency.
X John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.