It is the last day of my trip which has been divided between the two countries of the island of La Hispaniola (the morning was in Port au Prince, the afternoon in Santo Domingo). Flying over the barren hills that form the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic made me think about the ups and downs in their shared and yet different history. There was a time, some 40 years ago, when Haiti was the more prosperous of the two neighbours. Is it possible now, with all the attention and the support from the world, for Haiti to catch up?
I searched for an answer in my meetings in the two countries. In Port au Prince, with the presidential palace in ruins from the earthquake, the Haitian government has fixed its headquarters in a simple police station. This was where I joined Catherine Ashton for a meeting with President Préval and Prime Minister Bellerive. They both know what needs to be done to build a new Haiti, but their ability to act is very limited. The earthquake flattened most of the government buildings and killed many hundreds of officials. For a country which only ever had a limited ability to govern this has been a devastating blow to future development. For the moment Haiti relies very much on help from us – the outsiders. And at the same time we need to respect the government’s right and obligation to lead its own people.
A bridge between the outsiders and Haitians can be found on the eastern side of the island. Before the earthquake, relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic were not the best – but on January 12 everything changed.
The Dominican Republic was the first to send help after the earthquake struck and has been a tremendous help to Haiti ever since. From President Fernandez, down to the ordinary people, there is a sense of solidarity that can transform the uneasy relations between the two neighbours and bring real benefits from business development, trade and social interactions.
I had a chance to meet with Minister Montas – who is in charge of reviving and expanding cooperation with Haiti – as well as with representatives of the UN and humanitarian organizations. I was very pleased to be able to thank them for all that the Dominican Republic has done for Haiti, and especially for their help in channelling European support. But I also got a very clear message back – that any lasting solution can only be effective if the eastern neighbour of Haiti is fully on board. This is now possible and there is now a great chance for the island to come together as one.
I write this final note on the plane back to Brussels. I search for the most memorable image – and what comes up in my mind is a view of Leogane from the air. It was completely flattened by the earthquake and reminded me of a European city bombed during the Second World War. Once in ruins, Europe is now rebuilt and prosperous. The Second World War was the worst tragedy Europe has ever experienced. But afterwards we came together in the European Union and we are far better off now than ever before.
It will take many years but I would hope that one day I will be able to fly over Leogane and see a reconstructed and prosperous town in a new and better Haiti. This would be the best possible memorial for the people who died.