Quake tests world's will to break Haiti's 'curse'

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* History of frustrated attempts at development

* Obama, Sarkozy, others call for donor conference

* Haiti had made progress before the quake

By Patrick Markey

MIAMI, Jan 15 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama tells Haitians they will not be forsaken, France has called for a summit to rebuild the earthquake-struck country and world leaders are promising a flood of aid and assistance.

The huge quake that wrecked Haiti's capital on Tuesday will be the biggest test yet of decades of international promises to help develop the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

But the catastrophe, which killed tens of thousands, could end up burying in deeper poverty and instability a country already blighted by disasters, past turmoil and corruption.

"From this catastrophe, which follows so many others, we should make sure that it is a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

Before the quake toppled buildings from hill shanty homes to the presidential palace in the capital Port-au-Prince, Haiti had been edging toward progress after years of being buffeted as much by hurricanes as by mismanagement and political chaos.

The magnitude of the death and destruction prompted Obama and others to call for an international conference with donors on rebuilding Haiti. Governments, celebrities and companies have offered billions in donations.

France has called on the Paris Club of sovereign creditors to finalize a debt relief deal for Haiti.

"I believe if we recover the living, bury the dead, take care of the wounded, and clean the streets, we can start again," former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a special U.N. envoy for Haiti, told CNN.

But beyond immediate relief efforts, experts say Haiti's recent history is filled with stymied promises to tackle the long-term problems that make the former French colony one of the world's most troubled and impoverished countries.

Since its era of dictatorship ended in 1990, Haiti has struggled with rebellions and coups as well as floods and hurricanes, most recently in 2004 and 2008, that killed thousands.

"Haiti has been promised many things before," said Robert Rotberg of Harvard University. "This earthquake has only magnified the problems Haiti will face, not only in the next few months, but over the next decade."


Rebuilding the country would require a multibillion-dollar, multinational force involving Haitian leaders and donors and may end up putting the Caribbean country under a type of international wardship, some analysts said.

The United States has twice taken over running Haiti, most recently in 1994. Around 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers have been based in Haiti to provide security after a 2004 uprising ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled the country.

Before the quake, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank canceled $1.2 billion in Haitian debt, bringing more available cash for roads and social programs.

But Haiti, independent since 1804, has remained a largely rural society with an overbuilt and overpopulated capital and little in the way of health and education infrastructure.

Eighty percent of its people live in poverty and Haiti has been stripped of trees, which are cut down for charcoal. Less than 2 percent of the forest cover remains, leaving subsistence farmers vulnerable to erosion, floods and mudslides.

"Historically there has been a temptation to try to use periods of crisis as opportunities to build a better country and this has never panned out," said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"All previous efforts have been undone by a combination of frustration with Haiti and disappointment, and the episodic attention of the international community."

In 2004, a hurricane devastated the coastal city of Gonaives, killing hundreds and prompting calls for long-term reconstruction and better urban planning to protect residents. But many residents had simply moved back into the same area by the time the city was hit again by storms in 2008.

Even with international willingness, Haiti must overcome a long history of political infighting and corruption that have marred previous attempts to rebuild the country.

"The bottom line is whether Haitians can get their governance act together," said Timothy Carney, a former U.S. ambassador in Haiti. "It is not something the international community can fix. The Haitians are going to have to do it."

Haiti ranks near the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

"The people who should be helping us, our government officials, say they are worse off than us," said quake victim Andres Rosario. "But even if aid arrives our officials are corrupt and greedy and nothing ever reaches the poor in Haiti. We have no hope." (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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