Where Democracy Is Greener



The Haitians at Del Rio

Over one weekend, some 15,000 people, mainly Haitians, suddenly appeared at the Mexican border of the US, wanting to come in.  They fled Haiti because Haiti is broken down.  Its resources are meager and mismanaged.  Its political culture is corrupt; its government, dysfunctional.  Its last democratically elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was mysteriously assassinated, possibly by a clique of private outside adventurers.  He left Haitian government in a precarious position, for he had been hollowing out and disabling its already puny civic institutions.  Haiti is a Somalia in the making, where utter lawlessness could follow a decline in stable control.

Extreme weather plagues Haiti.  A colossal earthquake recently shook the country, which has long been the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.  Nothing relieves the people there, despite perennial international efforts, including the infusion of massive amounts of cash, food, and other forms of humanitarian aid.  Haiti is a nation state that doesn’t deliver what its people need.  To an alarming extent, Haiti’s problems are representative of many of the world’s nations, where poor governance, corruption, chronic violence, and extreme weather threaten the safety and survival of citizenry.

In olden times, misery made Haiti a pressure cooker of change.  Its history is as heartbreaking as any country’s.  In the 17th century, the French colonized Haiti.  French masters sent enslaved Africans to work sugar plantations there under pestilential conditions, knowing that the majority would have brief lives.  The terrifying violence and brutality of the slaves’ captivity is poignantly captured in their spiritual art.  Eventually, their misery bore fruit, for, in 1804, the slaves revolted and became self-governing.  They fomented a remarkable revolution, rebuking France and casting off oppression for the sake of personal freedom and political autonomy.  Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s 11.26 million inhabitants today descend from those once-captive slaves.

Now, however, the Haitians can flee rather than remake the oppression and misery besetting them again.  Modern communications and the ease of movement have led to swelling migration around the globe.  It’s hard to create a healthy democracy and the rule of law where they’ve ceased to exist, harder still to build a prosperous economy where the necessary cultural capital has always been wanting.  So, though Haitians already live in a democracy, some are flooding toward where its blessings are in fuller flower, leaving Haiti itself even more hopeless than before.  Because, why flee overland to the US?  Failing as citizens, Haitians want to live in a polity where the living is good.

So they have undertaken a harrowing, roundabout journey across Mexico, over water and mountains, leaving everything familiar to huddle together under the Del Rio International Bridge, which normally admits travelers into the US via south Texas.  Given the abnormal flood of migrants, most of whom have no hope of legal entry, the border crossing at Del Rio has been completely closed.  Journalists report that the Haitians will be flown back to their country at US government expense.

I feel for the Haitians who made this journey.  If I were in their place, I might consider leaving Haiti, too.  The fact that they are from a democratic country, though, and that people all over the world are now fleeing pseudo-democracies where repression, exploitation, and corruption are flourishing, gives me pause.  The tendency of many journalists to depict these hapless citizens as childlike and powerless victims is dangerously patronizing and retrograde.  When should the people of Haiti be regarded as accountable for the terribly low outcomes from their country’s “democratic experiment?”  When will the US get its act together, put aside its vanity, and restore order at the border by promulgating a set of new, Congressionally approved immigration laws?

To be in a reactive position with respect to immigration and border control exposes the “both ways” dithering that is impairing the prestige of the democratic form.  Common sense and realism must temper compassion in crafting a rationale for augmenting the current population mix of the US.  Global instability is increasing, requiring the US to temper boundlessness with a regard for its own political vulnerability.

Human migration is destined to swell, particularly as extreme weather events make barely habitable places like Haiti even more uninhabitable.  The US must meet the new forces driving human migration with something more than ad hoc executive orders, fuzzy feelings, vice-presidential sound-bites, and so-called media “campaigns.”  The circumstances under which non-citizens may enter the US and the procedures they must follow should be clear, universally broadcast, and incontrovertible.  Paradoxically, the firmness with which such boundaries are drawn may redound to the long-term health of other democracies.

Image: A Port-au-Prince neighborhood,
courtesy Alsandro via Wikimedia 
Commons.

 


w-c-osborn

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A Working Holiday

Map of US Territorial Acquisitions (Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons)

New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen.  More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.

1. SCOUTING THE WEST

New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries.  The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades.  Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.

So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey.   Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.

A map from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Courtesy of Yale University Library via Wikimedia Commons).

The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes.  Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.

2. FREEING THE SLAVE

Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day.  Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall.  Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.

Watch meeting in Massachusetts

The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.  Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times.  Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT

Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island.  It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1905 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens.  At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still.  Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.

May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.