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.


Spanish contradictions

Out of curiosity and to practice my French, I picked up a copy of Le Monde on Tuesday (29 December) to read on the flight from Almería to Madrid, and I was surpised to find a very good wrap-up of some of the current problems of Spain. In his "Lettre d'Espagne", Jean-Jacques Bozonnet picks a day "at random," 15 December, to observe "the puzzle of a country politically cut in two between right and left, then chopped up finer into seventeen unequal portions which are the autonomous communities."

He could have added that the 17 comunidades autónomas are further divided into 50 provinces, and so on down to the municipalities, which play on conflicts at the upper levels (between province and community or community and central government) to avoid acting on laws or judicial decisions that inconvenience them -- e.g., to protect the environment from land speculators.

But back to the headlines on the one typical day that Bozonnet uses. Item 1: in the Basque Country (one of the 17 comunidades autónomas, comprising three provinces), 85 of the 110 priests in San Sebastián signed a statement of "disapproval" of the Church's choice of a new bishop -- because the man chosen (a notorious conservative even within the very conservative Spanish Catholic Church) is not Basque and is not at all friendly to "nationalism", meaning in this case the pro-independence demands of a sizable minority of the Basque Country population. Item 2: The education chief of the Valencia comunidad (also three provinces) refuses to distribute laptop computers provided by the central government to schoolchildren because, he claims, the small screens will cause myopia. No reputable scientist agrees with him, but no matter, anything provided by the Socialists in power in Madrid must be bad for people (because Valencia is currently governed by the Right).

Bozonnet lists other conflicts, over illegalizing bullfighting in Catalonia and whether a nationalist, pro-ETA party in the Basque Country should be permitted to participate in elections, the resurgence of a nutty conspiracy theory that the Socialist Party was somehow complicit in the 2001 bombing of the central Madrid railroad station, and the huge embarrassment of the head of the association of Spain's corporate chiefs, because his own biggest corporation, Air Comet, is in such default that a British judge embargoed the planes, leaving thousands stranded on the eve of the holidays, and because his other corporations are also in trouble and because he has just been discovered to have defrauded the big savings bank Caja Madrid, of which he is a board member -- but he still won't quit, and the employers association continues to back him.

But back to the problem of political fragmentation. Spain is neither a unitary, centralized state nor a federation, but a mess of jurisdictions competing and conflicting with one another. Centralization has been the goal of Spanish conservatives at least since the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel I (we know her as "Isabella") of Castile and Fernando ("Ferdinand") of Aragon back in the 15th century. Meanwhile, regional autonomy (freedom from the center) has been the goal of almost everybody else, especially in those regions with different languages and customs. The dispute has provoked repeated civil wars, most recently 1936-39. The victory of Francisco Franco seemed to settle the issue in favor of a tightly controlled, expremely centralized state, with no tolerance of minority languages or other deviances. But the victory was only temporary, and the central state began falling apart almost immediately upon the death of Franco in 1975. The 1978 Constitution is a compromise document full of ambiguities, in an attempt to placate such fiercely oposing forces as the franquista military hierarchy and the Catholic Church (both strongly centralist), the Catalonian, Basque and Galician nationalists (strongly "autonomist"), and the Communist and Socialist Parties (each of which was capable of mobilizing masses of workers, even despite the years of repression). The Constitution thus establishes central institutions (national parliament, a complicated combination of higher courts, etc.) alongside "autonomous regional" governments, without clarifying the exact boundaries of authority. Who determines education policy, including whether religious instruction is obligatory (as it was under Franco) and the language of instruction? And who is control of natural resources, including rivers that run through more than one autonomous region, such as the Ebro?

Beginning this year, a disunited Spain presides over the disunited European Union. But the main issues for Spain are internal, and of these, the most pressing is how much autonomy the "Spanish" (Castilian)-speaking parts are willing to grant to the two richest and most industrialized autonomous regions, the Basque Country and Catalonia. Will the nationalists in Madrid (who want all of Spain to be a monolingual "nation") permit the nationalists in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia to even call themselves a "nation"? And will the Basque nationalists succeed in separating themselves from ETA terrorism, which has made it impossible for them to use Spain's democratic mechanisms to advance their cause?

(To be continued: tune in next week.)

Constitución española de 1978 - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Cataluña - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Idioma español - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Historia de Cataluña - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre