But its geographic location makes Haiti uniquely prone to cataclysms such as tropical storms and hurricanes, while what is known in geological terms as the "Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system," a ragged edge that runs along the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, has triggered a string of earthquakes over the centuries.
Still, perhaps owing to the island's difficult past, it remains one of the most hopeful places imaginable. Most of the people living there have historically had very little in the way of resources, and have been ruled and controlled by a small wealthy few, which means any good that comes non-wealthy Haitians' way tends to be celebrated.
By 1804, due to several slave uprisings, the poor natives overthrew French rule and became the first free nation in Latin America. Like other new democratic successes of the Atlantic World, the Haitians discovered self-determination. They also discovered debt, saddled with a French demand for 150 million francs (more than $20 billion in today's terms) to compensate the colonial power for its lost territory.
Haiti created home-grown problems, too: despots, self-interested rulers and military coups. Eventually people with names like Duvalier and Aristide and Cedras would become world famous for a power-lust and greed that has defined Haitian leadership. On three occasions in the last century, the US military intervened, including the 20,000 US troops deployed in 2010.
And along with political upheaval came regular hurricanes, mudslides and earthquakes, with international aid often "pledged" but few Haitians ever really seeing it. This exploitation by mercantile forces of seemingly beneficent empires combined with the squandering of aid amid a culture of corruption is the very history of the country, and the contemporary reality in which Haiti finds itself.
In the year following the 2010 earthquake, things were no different. In fact, of the $1.14 billion allocated to Haitian Rebuilding and Relief in 2010 by the US Congress, according to the US Government Accountability Office (or GAO), only $184 million had been actually "obligated to projects" at the end of 2010. Today as the guys with the green eyeshades get more deeply involved, it becomes clear that in the wake of the Haitian earthquake of 2010 the US government began to pay itself back for its humanitarian graciousness as much as it actually helped the people of Haiti.
Of the original $1.4 billion allocated by Congress, according to a most recent GAO report, $655 million in funds was reimbursed to the Department of Defense (which, admirably, spent its own money to put ships offshore, drop food and medical aid to those who needed it, bring in troops to secure the airport at Port-au-Prince and provide emergency medical services).
Another $220 million went to repay the US Department of Health and Human Services (which gave goods, food and grants to Haitian evacuees for food and shelter); $350 million went to disaster assistance (an umbrella term that includes everything from medical care to sanitation); $150 million to the US Department of Agriculture (for emergency food and forward-thinking agricultural programs in Haiti); and $15 million to the Department of Homeland Security for Immigration fees and aircraft fares for the lucky few Haitian refugees brought to the United States.
Expanding the picture doesn't change it. The UN Special Envoy for Haiti reported that of the overall $2.4 billion pledged by the UN for humanitarian efforts in Haiti, 34 percent (or $864 million) of those funds were given back to donor civil and military organizations, 28 percent (or $672 million) was laid out to UN and non-governmental humanitarian projects such as housing and health-care, 26 percent (or $624 million) was given to contractors for things like road-building and infrastructure, and 5 percent ($120 million) was given to various international Red Cross/Red Crescent societies.
Not that the people of Haiti didn't benefit from all this money and assistance. But, really, over the last two years, the effort to assist post-earthquake Haiti has mostly benefited - or at least subsidized - the aid and relief institutions and private corporations that nominated themselves to help Haiti in its 2010-based time of need.
"In the end," says Robert Fatton Jr., professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and a son of and authority on contemporary Haiti, "if you read the reports - the UN Report and so on - you'll see that actual Haitians got less than 1 percent of all the American money pledged."
In other words, Fatton explained, "99 percent of [the US money spent] went back to the US military, the State Department, NGOs and contractors. The money was clearly intended for Haiti, but it ended up returning to the same place it came from."
Land Cruiser nation
In a land sometimes referred to as "The Republic of NGOs," the money that does stay in Haiti often fuels the NGO crowd's expensive taste for the aesthetic of international aid.
And if you really want to see the face of humanitarian spending post-earthquake in Haiti - the financial clout of the NGOs - there's only one place to go: the Toyota dealership in Port-au-Prince.
As with any cataclysm or war zone, a white Toyota Land Cruiser is perhaps the ultimate symbol of international interventional power. And in and around Port-au-Prince, the vehicles are omnipresent. At the dealership, a modern and well-tended building on the city's airport road (with mirrored-glass windows from floor to ceiling and a perfectly buffed showroom floor).
Inside the dealership, we finally run into nice woman in some sort of managerial position, (don't use my name, she asks). We ask her how sales have been.
"Oh," she says. "We buy a lot of Land Cruisers for sale to the NGOs. But, you know what? A lot come from Gibraltar, too. Loaded off cargo ships that the NGOs bring for themselves. You can tell those, they say Gibraltar on the back, sort of near the license plate. I'd say - here?- the numbers are probably 50 percent from us and 50 percent from Gibraltar."
But business is good?
The woman is leaning against a desk in the sales office. "I'd say that, for us, 95 percent go to the NGOs, some go to rental agencies, which then rents them to the NGOs and others. But, you know, for all of the Land Cruisers in Haiti now, we also do the maintenance and repairs, if they get in accidents we fix them."
How much does one cost?
"Each one, with taxes, is $61,100," she says. "If you have tax-free status, you can get them for less, but then you have to take them with you or give them away here. If you pay the taxes, you can just sell the car."
And how many do you sell a year?
The woman holds up her hand, right index finger pointed to the ceiling. "One second," she says.
She disappears into an outlying office, then returns a minute later. Smiling. "This year, we sold 250 of this model. But, you know, right after the earthquake, for several months, we were probably selling that many Land Cruisers every month. Maybe twice that many."
I start doing the math in my head. Let's see: 250 Land Cruisers at $61,000 each is, like, upward of $15 million dollars. So even if they sold only a few more Land Cruisers in 2010 after the first few months (and you have to assume they did) plus the 2011 sales numbers so far (it is December as we're reporting this), well, conservatively speaking that's a gross cash influx in the neighborhood of $100 million in the last two years (though of course, some will have to go to taxes). Add to that the repair and maintenance fees, and you're looking at maybe $110 million. Maybe $150 million. And that's a conservative estimate.
The woman sees me starting to do the math. She knows this was probably not the right thing to say. After all, if the NGOs figure out that she's being disloyal, they might not use the dealership anymore. And as the only dealership in the country, maybe all the Land Cruisers would begin to come from Gibraltar. In the world of post-earthquake Haiti, it's the equivalent of killing a goose laying golden eggs.
She doesn't want to talk anymore. In so many gentle ways, she suggests our time together is over. As I leave the dealership, I can't help thinking about all the rice being off-loaded from the Sarine and the money behind it, getting there to help the people of Haiti. Some does appear to get spilled, a little bit, and some of it goes into the bellies (and lives) of the Haitians that need it so badly. But at least, after a week on the ground in this beautiful, star-crossed, and hopeful island nation, now we know a little better where all that money went - or never got to at all.