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12 million desperate neighbors

We can’t just turn our backs on Haiti, regardless of who is to blame for the country’s crisis

Men run for cover as riot police launch tear gas in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on April 2. Associated Press/Photo by Odelyn Joseph

12 million desperate neighbors
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On March 17, a plane carrying refugees from Haiti landed in South Florida. These were American citizens, evacuated by the State Department, but it may not be long before other Haitian refugees show up on U.S. soil—only arriving by boat and in far more desperate straits. As one of America’s closest neighbors spirals into outright anarchy and starvation, it is tempting to simply avert our eyes from the horrifying spectacle, the latest episode in what seems an unending saga of woe.

In just the past generation, Haiti has seen multiple civil wars, international interventions, and one of the worst natural disasters in history—a period of poverty, instability, and misery so unrelenting that the three-decade dictatorship of the Duvaliers (1957-1986) seems almost pleasant by comparison. And further back, the picture gets no brighter: Poverty, corruption, civil wars, assassinations seem to make up most of Haiti’s history since the brutally violent slave uprising and revolution that gave birth to the country in the 1790s. Is Haiti simply condemned to perpetual wretchedness, or is there something we should do to help?

In the face of such misery, we are tempted to render the suffering comprehensible by providing a simplified narrative, one with clear good guys and bad guys. Thus, some have blamed all of Haiti’s troubles on the exploitation of foreign creditors—and not without good reason. In 1825, the French sent a fleet to demand at gunpoint that Haiti pay a massive indemnity to its former slave owners, an indemnity financed by French banks.

This set off a chain of ruinous foreign debt, first to France and then to the United States. Haiti did not finish paying it off until 1947, crippling the country’s economic development—to the tune of $21 billion, according to The New York Times, which published an extensive exposé in 2022. The Times further alleges that Wall Street bankers were behind the United States’s 1915 occupation of Haiti, and that former Haitian President Aristide was ousted by France and the United States in a 2004 for daring to suggest that his country was owed reparations.

Haiti is an unpleasant reminder of just how bad things can get in a fallen world, and just how hard it can be to set them right again.

But of course, the story is more complicated. Haiti might have found it easier to pay down its debt if so much money hadn’t been sequestered by corrupt public officials or spent on military invasions of its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. And since 1947, the flow of funds has largely reversed, as the United States and many other countries have poured aid money and humanitarian resources into the country, with little to show for it but more corruption and unrest. It is easy to tell a tale of foreign interventions into Haiti as brutal wealth extractions, or to spin an equally plausible narrative of well-intentioned humanitarian efforts to stop violence and provide stability in a nation that seems unable to govern itself. Both tales would probably have some truth in them.

As America today eyes the spectacle of 12 million desperate neighbors facing disease and starvation, some will probably make the case for again sending in troops to restore order, while others will be sure to denounce any such action as just another imperialist depredation serving big business interests. And even the best-intentioned intervention seems almost sure to go awry, if past experience is any guide. Haiti is an unpleasant reminder of just how bad things can get in a fallen world, and just how hard it can be to set them right again.

It is probably impossible to answer in the abstract whether America should again put boots on the ground in Haiti. It can be argued that we do bear some moral responsibility for the country’s current state of affairs, and if there is a way to set our suffering neighbors on a path to stable self-government and prosperity, we should offer whatever resources we can to help.

Whatever we do, however, we must resist the temptation to simply turn away and close our hearts to the suffering. In a world where we are inundated by images of suffering around the globe every day, we are apt to feel that if we cannot do anything about a problem, we would rather ignore it. As Christians, however, there is always at least one thing we can do, trite as it may sound: pray. Even as policymakers wrestle with how to respond, we should lift up our suffering neighbors to the Lord and pray that He will provide them a path to peace.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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