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What's Next For Haiti?

How do you rebuild a country that was in rough shape even before a massive earthquake? And what role should the U.S. play?

By Patricia Smith

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Alain Villard, one of Haiti's more successful businessmen, lost his T-shirt factory and his hotel in January's earthquake. Both were reduced to rubble, with at least 500 workers, and perhaps as many as 1,000, crushed to death at the factory.

But now Villard is determined to move forward. "The first effort was to try to save human lives, and we did save a few at the hotel—my wife and some employees, by hand, dug out three survivors," he says. "But that part is over. Now, you know, we need to move on and rebuild."

But how? The 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed as many as several hundred thousand people, injured even more, and left millions homeless. It leveled most of the capital of Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million, and overwhelmed the government.

"The country was fairly dysfunctional before this," says former Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis. "The institutions were weak. People were left largely on their own. But this has wiped out everything."

Redevelopment experts say that might be the silver lining in Haiti's devastation: It presents a chance to "build back better."

"There is a profound opportunity here to leave Haiti a better place than it was before the earthquake," says Beth Cole of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. "It's really not reconstruction because you don't want to rebuild the kind of infrastructure that was there."

700 Miles from Miami

The United States is poised to play a leading role in Haiti's reconstruction, for humanitarian reasons and because it's in America's best interests.

"There's a lot of risk to the United States in not helping the Haitians," Cole says.

Haiti is just 700 miles from Miami, and there are 800,000 Haitians living in the U.S., many of them in Miami, New York, and Boston. There's also concern about a wave of illegal immigrants from Haiti to the U.S., as people try to flee.

The Obama administration has pledged $100 million toward Haiti's reconstruction and sent troops to distribute aid and maintain order. But the sight of American troops patrolling the streets of Port-au-Prince makes some Haitians uneasy, given the complicated history of U.S.-Haiti relations.

"It is not ideal to have a foreign army here, but look at the situation," says Énide Edoword, 24, a waitress.

Haiti gained its independence in 1804 after a slave rebellion ousted the French. But while it's the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the U.S.), it's also the poorest, and it's been badly governed for much of its history.

The U.S. did not recognize Haiti's independence until 1862, during the Civil War. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent Marines to Haiti to restore public order and protect U.S. interests after a series of coups; the occupation lasted until 1934. Sixty years later, in 1994, President Bill Clinton sent in troops to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, after he was ousted in a military coup.

"The classic U.S. role in the whole hemisphere is either complete neglect, or we come in and run the show," says Sarah Stephens of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas. But with Haiti's reconstruction, "there is a great opportunity for the United States to do this in a new way."

Haiti's government and economy were actually beginning to make modest progress before the quake, and businessmen like Villard are trying to hold on to the optimism they felt before this disaster.

"Until the earthquake hit us, we felt a new hope," Villard says, "and we cannot let it go."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 1, 2010)