Last week, on Nov. 18, Haiti commemorated the Battle of Vertières, the 1803 campaign that proved the turning point of the Haitian Revolution. Supposedly the French were so awed by the former slaves' fearlessness, discipline, and fighting skill that they literally applauded them on the battlefield. After Vertières, the French turned tail and surrendered, marking the Western Hemisphere's only successful slave revolt, and Haiti's military leaders founded the world's first black republic in 1804.
The Haitian Revolution was incredible at the time; 206 years later, it's sometimes hard to believe it ever happened. Today, on the eve of presidential elections, with 1.3 million citizens still living in camps and no apparent plan for their relocation, many Haitians consider their country under occupation. Minustah, the U.N. peacekeeping force that arrived after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 -- the year of Haiti's bicentennial, coincidentally -- is just the most visible face of a diffuse international apparatus that includes development workers, relief agencies, missionary groups, bankers, consultants, contractors, and other blan, or foreigners, all trying to help. By some counts, there were 10,000 NGOs in the country before January's devastating earthquake, and since then, more would-be do-gooders have arrived by the planeload. NGOs have long provided most of Haiti's social services, such as healthcare and education; since the earthquake, they've provided most of the relief as well. But though many Haitians genuinely appreciate the foreigners' goodwill and expertise, they're less certain about the overall benefits of aid.
The latest crisis, of course, is the cholera epidemic that has claimed at least 1,344 people over the past month. (Medical experts believe that number, supplied by the Ministry of Health, understates the breadth of the outbreak.) Cholera is profoundly frightening to Haitians, who, despite intimate acquaintance with many types of diarrheal disease, have never known one that could kill so quickly and grotesquely. Soon after the first cholera cases appeared in the Artibonite Valley, some 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince, reports surfaced that a Nepalese peacekeeping battalion there had improperly dumped waste into the region's eponymous river. There is not yet conclusive proof that Minustah imported cholera into the country; a spokesperson insists that it would be difficult, and maybe impossible, to determine the source. Still, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence -- the strain originated in South Asia, for instance -- and many Haitians already take it as an article of faith that peacekeepers brought cholera to their country.