If I were a Haitian…

… I no doubt would be desperately worried about family, friends, and neighbors. But there are times when one can do nothing -- if I'm on the scene, the rubble is too heavy to lift, or I'm desperately trying to get there but I'm stuck in an airport, or in a distant country, Spain let's say, and can't get any news by telephone or email of my sister, or my spouse, or my parents. And I know I have to do something to keep from going crazy.

And if I were a certain kind of Haitian, one with some experience of other countries and their history and politics -- like some of the people around President Préval, or active in other groups, or academics in or out of Haiti -- in those moments when I could think beyond survival for the next few hours or days, I would have go back to thinking about the same issue that Haitian intellectuals had been debating for long before this earthquake: What can be done to make that country safer, more stable, prosperous?

For some, the answer may seem to be, "Nothing!" Like Bolívar in his dispirited last days, they'll say, "The only thing to do in América [he meant what we call "Latin" America] is emigrate." But there are and will be some Haitians who have a dream. Aristide was one of them, and whatever we think of the specifics of how he tried to realize that dream, he demonstrated that it is possible to inspire people to great effort to overcome enormous odds.

I am not a Haitian, and cannot presume to answer the question. But I'm pretty sure that Haitian dreamers will be working on it. And that they will be very wary of becoming a protectorate again, whether of the U.S., or of some combination of powers as Sarkozy seems to be urging -- even though the country cannot afford to refuse aid now.

Everything now will have to be rebuilt: buildings and roads and ports, police and fire forces, all forms of economic activity, and maybe even the system of governance. And some Haitians, surely, will see this disaster as an unavoidable opportunity to start things on a better path. Despite the poverty, the country does have resources, especially the energy of its people. Let's watch and listen for those new voices, and be ready to respond when asked -- even if what they ask is that we just stay out of their way.

BBC News - The long history of troubled ties between Haiti and the US

Tomorrow: My scheduled weekly essay on Spain. But today, Haiti was more urgent.

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