Memo to minister: Haiti is poor

Haiti is proving something of a disappointment. I'm not quite at the stage to which it reduced Napoleon, of cursing sugar, coffee and the colonies they rode in on. But even with my low standards for public policy discussion, I'm disappointed at the discussion of this unfortunate Caribbean nation. Our foreign minister just went there, you know. And while Haiti is more sad than geopolitically significant, surely the trip is important. All the do-gooders full of advice on Iraq are actually getting to show us what they can do there first.

I don't imply that reforming Haiti is easy. Its history strongly suggests otherwise. But it's way smaller than Iraq, far closer, presents fewer "clash of civilizations" issues, and is virtually secure against any outside interference except the one we, to the dismay of its neighbours, are eagerly taking part in. So how's it going?

Just before his trip last Friday, one newspaper says, Mr. Graham told reporters, "We wanted to find out what are the real political problems in Haiti. We know that we have to help rebuild the economy and have elections, but we wanted to know ... the political climate, and that we can only know by visiting Haiti."

Only by visiting? Why? All I know is what I read in the papers, but I'm aware that "large parts of the country remain under the rebels' control, and that there has been no systematic effort to disarm them." (The New York Times, April 30).

Mr. Graham went on to say that, "Nobody -- the Americans, the French, ourselves -- has any intention of going down the road we went through in the '90s with the same results."

True, as far as it goes. But worse than useless because it conceals an apparently complete failure to grasp that nobody had any intention of going down that road the first time either and they went down it anyway.

It was then, and is now, paved with good intentions. So I should be intrigued to hear Mr. Graham offer an analysis of what went wrong last time, when the West, and Bill Clinton in particular, backed a socialist liberation theologian with a penchant for gruesome political violence and somehow it turned out badly. But I doubt I will.

For when Mr. Graham returned on Saturday, as The Globe and Mail reports it, he "said that while his visit to Haiti was only hours long, he was able to see conditions firsthand and was taken aback. 'One surprise, in the sense not something that one could ever ascertain by reading reports, is the extraordinarily difficult personal situation in which Haitians are living.' He said that it was sobering 'just to drive around the streets, to see the garbage, to see the conditions, to realize that one has electricity in this city of Port-au-Prince for two hours a day on an average.' "

Yeah, that's worth going down there to discover. Haiti is poor. I mean, who suspected that?

In assessing the fatuity of his trip, I concede that politicians tend to fly around at taxpayers' expense just because they can. Edmonton Journal columnist Lorne Gunter recently gave Ralph Klein's government the old knucklebone shampoo for maintaining, in a capital city with two airports, a fleet of four private aircraft at City Centre Airport when that airport alone has four charter airlines. Asked why, the premier sneered "I'm not going to subject myself to two or three hours out of my day to get a commercial aircraft at the international airport" -- unlike, say, we ordinary schlumps. Then he conceded he hadn't sullied his august person with a commercial flight in seven years.

So why not jaunt to Haiti? It's not like you're paying for it. Besides, if you're rushing from place to place in a special plane, with aides speaking breathlessly into cellphones, people waiting anxiously for you and your brow furrowed with deep, humanitarian concern, you must be achieving something. Never mind that your government has exhausted its credibility with the Americans and the UN you prefer is weak, corrupt and anti-Semitic. You are a moral superpower.

Even so, and making allowance for Mr. Graham's tendency to look like Lloyd Axworthy without the gravitas, I still cringe at his not being embarrassed to say it was worth the tens of thousands of dollars he just cost us all to spend a few hours in Haiti because now he knows Haitians are poor. I seem to have learned more, faster and more cheaply than Mr. Graham just by reading Anthony Daniels' sad piece on Haiti in the March 1 National Post. Perhaps our foreign minister is too sophisticated to read the Post.

Can we agree on one thing, though? People who can't straighten out Haiti can't fix Iraq, solve the Middle East's problems or defuse superpower confrontations. Oh, and one more thing. People who just clued in that Haiti is tragically poor aren't off to a great start there either.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson