Greece and Haiti

Greece and Haiti are worlds apart but both were on the world’s front pages this past week: one for the terrible earthquake and the other because of the threat that its economy poses to itself and to the eurozone. Greece is a member of the world’s richest group of countries, while Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere; out of 182 countries,Greece is in 18th place on the UN’s Human Development Report and Haiti is 149th. The Greeks’ per capita income in 2008 was $32,000, the Haitians’ $790. There are, however, many similarities between the two countries as well as a moving footnote in their history which Prime Minister George Papandreou referred to at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday: Haiti was the first country to recognize the independence of the Greeks early in their war of liberation, in 1822. As the first independent nation born of a successful slave revolt in 1804, Haiti played an important role in the liberation of other peoples in Central America and elsewhere. Greece and Haiti, however, are not linked only by their wars of liberation but also by the poverty and autocratic regimes that forced many of their people to emigrate in search of a better life. Haitians began their mass migration after the dictator François «Papa Doc» Duvalier came to power in 1957. Poverty, fear and misery drove more than a million of them abroad. Many did very well, including Canada’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean, singer Wyclef Jean and many others. The diaspora, then, is common to both Greeks and Haitians, a sign of each country’s troubled history and a symbol of hope for them both to solve the problems that they face today. However different their cases look, the destruction of Haiti and the dead end of the Greek economy stem from a similar problem: Some issues are just too big for a nation state to deal with using just the resources that are within its borders. Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, speculated on his blog Marginal Revolution that «the country of Haiti, as we knew it, probably does not exist anymore.» It’s not long ago that a hurricane devastated the country which shares the island of Hispaniola with the much richer Dominican Republic. But last Tuesday’s earthquake was something else: It was the strongest in 200 years and its epicenter was precisely in the nation’s heart – the capital, Port-au-Prince, where 2 million of the country’s 10 million live. Apart from the dead, whose numbers can still not be estimated, houses, public buildings, infrastructure and institutions were destroyed. It will take a long time for the country to begin healing its wounds, which raises the question: How will such a poor country be able to develop now, after the catastrophe, when it was unable to do so before? The answer will have to depend on three things: generous aid from abroad, the intensive contribution of the diaspora and an increase of emigration from Haiti. In Greece, we have realized that we would be in a terrible state had we not become part of the European Union. But the political security and the prosperity that this provided us seduced us into borrowing far more than we could pay. Our most important problem, though, is the social security system, which, even if we were to patch up the rest of our economy, will blow up in our faces in a few years’ time. There are simply not enough people and not enough funds in this country to keep the system viable. That is why, as in the case of Haiti, Greece needs the assistance not only of its partners but also a change in mentality and immigrants who will give new life to an exhausted economic and political system.

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