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Lessons from Haiti and Cuba

Haitians would like to protest as the Cubans do, but they have no one to complain to. The lack of a state can be as devastating as its excess

Several people run from a shooting near the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, on March 21.
Several people run from a shooting near the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, on March 21.Ralph Tedy Erol (REUTERS)
Moisés Naím

In 1974, when two idealistic young Americans decided to spend their honeymoon in Haiti, they could hardly have imagined what would become of this small Caribbean country. Bill and Hillary Clinton always had a soft spot for Haiti. Like them, dozens of humanitarian organizations, international development agencies, and multilateral institutions have set up in Port-au-Prince, making Haiti one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world.

Billions of dollars have been spent to help the country, to make up for the shortcomings of a state that has gradually been fading away. The result has been a nation plunging deeper into misery, under a failed state that has left the streets in the hands of armed gangs meting out blind violence to maintain their control over a terrified population.

Cuba is some 400 miles from Haiti. In sharp contrast with Haiti, the island has a government so overbearing that it has taken everything from its people, including the most basic things: food, electricity, transportation. Haiti suffers from too little government, leading to chaos, and Cuba suffers from too much government, which suffocates it.

Haiti exhibits many of the malignant trends that are shaping today’s world. Climate change, perpetually on the international backburner, has hit this nation with force. Its effects result in more frequent and devastating hurricanes and in soil erosion that exacerbates food insecurity.

Drug trafficking provides criminal cartels with plenty of money, which they use to buy state-of-the art weapons for the gangs that terrorize the population. Without a minimum of personal safety, there is little or nothing that civil society can achieve. The international community, through the huge number of non-governmental organizations operating on its soil, has turned Haiti into a paradox: it is a world leader in humanitarian assistance that continues to sink into ever greater misery.

Migration, driven by poverty and lack of opportunities, has become a palpable symptom of people’s despair. The illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people only entangles Haiti in a web of transnational crime that impedes economic development. Today, Haiti has a GDP per capita that barely exceeds $1,700 and a scandalously low score on the Human Development Index: a country trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and inequality.

Cuba’s problems have different causes, but are just as deep. The Castro regime wields exhaustive control over all aspects of life, stifling economic and personal freedom. The scarcity of basic necessities such as food and electricity has brought Cubans to a state of palpable despair. Recently, spontaneous protests erupted in Santiago de Cuba and other cities. While the protests have been ferociously censored by the government, the popular discontent and the urgent demand for change is palpable. The regime’s response has been, predictably, repression.

In Haiti, the absence of a functional state leaves its citizens clamoring for an order that the international community does not know how to impose. In Cuba, it’s the opposite: an omnipresent state suffocates any glimpse of social or economic dynamism. In both places, migration emerges as the preferred escape valve for those who can manage it, leaving behind an increasingly dispossessed population.

In both cases, the seismic fault that divides society is between those who have relatives abroad able to send them remittances and those who do not. As always, those who leave the country are young people at the peak of their working lives. Those left behind are children, the disabled, and the elderly. These two are also demographically disfigured societies. Inequality in both countries lies not only in the distribution of resources but in access to opportunities, freedoms, and even hope.

Haitians would like to protest as the Cubans do, but they have no one to complain to. In the place where there should be a state, a swarm of killers has entrenched itself, seizing more territory every day in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

The collapse of these two nations leaves many lessons. None, however, is more important than tragically demonstrating that the lack of a state can be as devastating as its excess.

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