Why you should care

Because America can’t solve her problems by pointing fingers.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

Pooja Bhatia is OZY’s former deputy editor, and her column, The Long Arc, weaves together the threads of politics, culture and history.

In a storied address to the 1893 World’s Fair, Frederick Douglass pleaded the case of Haiti, “the one country to which we turn the cold shoulder.” Douglass, who had served as minister to Haiti, had a devastating theory as to why the United States was so hostile to its neighbor republic: “Haiti is Black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being Black or forgiven the Almighty for making her Black.” He urged the United States to make nice.

Every era gets the Haiti envoy it deserves, and ours, apparently, is Conan O’Brien. The comedian, who calls his fan base Team Coco, flew to Haiti last week to film a special episode of his TV show. It’ll air tomorrow, but in the meantime, I’d like to raise a few important questions:

  • Was O’Brien really intending to apologize for Donald’s Trump’s “shithole” comment — or was he just angling for a Caribbean work-cation?
  • Is there enough sunscreen in all the Western hemisphere?
  • Has anyone told Team Coco that “koko” is Creole slang for women’s genitalia?

The footage I’ve seen is charming, and mostly involves O’Brien cavorting around the streets and schools of the capital, Port-au-Prince, making fun of himself. In one clip, he puts Haitians on the camera to respond to Trump reportedly referring to their country as a “shithole.” “For years, we had heartless dictators, and then we finally turned to democracy,” says one person in Creole, seemingly from a script. “You in the United States — you’ve done the exact opposite!”

If only it were just a laugh line. American democracy finds itself teetering, as our legislatures can’t keep it together long enough to pass laws supported by vast majorities of their constituents, while gerrymandering and voter ID laws tilt the playing field. The results: a tax bill skewed to the rich that will widen and deepen inequality; poor children’s health insurance and 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as kids used as pawns in a sick tactical game.

So what is our excuse for our … shit?

The man in the Oval Office hastens this democratic decline. Much like Haiti’s strongest strongman, in fact, Trump assails the press, maligns electoral results with no evidence, disregards the truth. And his power grows when we are pitted against one another — browns and Blacks against whites, coastal elites versus Midwestern workers, us against them, Democrats versus Republicans, Norwegian immigrants versus Haitian immigrants, the pussy-hatted versus the pussy-grabbing.

On the divide between whether or not Haiti and African countries should be considered shitholes, I consider myself something of an expert: I lived and reported from Haiti for four years, and I’ve also lived and reported in India, Iowa, Alabama, New York City and California. I can say, without hesitation, that Trump’s mouth is by far the foulest thing I have ever encountered.

Yes, it turns out that lots of Haitians don’t have access to a flushing toilet or a working sewage system, and this is a terrible and tragic problem. Terrible because waterborne diseases can kill — e.g., the deaths of more than 10,000 people from a strain of cholera brought to Haiti by gross U.N. negligence — and tragic because the diseases are preventable with proper resources. Haiti, as you may have heard, is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Eight years ago this month, a devastating earthquake killed tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Haitian people. Its state was already very weak — weakened in part by centuries of that American “cold shoulder,” as well as meddling, punitive tariffs, support for dictators, outright theft and oh, hey, support for coups d’etat!

The United States is, of course, by far the richest and most powerful country in the Western hemisphere and a standard bearer, rightly or not, for democratic stability. So what is our excuse for our … shit?

I mean it literally. Consider: The U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found last month “cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or nonexistent septic systems” in Alabama — and a state that had no idea or any intention to address it. Hello, hookworm!

Almost exactly 125 years ago, Douglass told the crowd that every other nation opened its arms toward Haitians, welcoming them and treating them with respect. “Vastly different is the case with him when he ventures within the border of the United States,” he said. Indeed, the Jim Crow backlash to slavery’s abolition was just kicking into high gear.

Sometimes history’s rhymes are downright cruel. A couple months before Conan’s Haiti trip, Trump put some 60,000 Haitian earthquake refugees on notice: Soon they will no longer be welcome here, either.

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