I met Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled Haiti the other day, in the spring of 2001. I was in Port-au-Prince for several days on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, profiling Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist whose obsession with spreading property rights to the poor of the Third World is rightly ranked among the most powerful ideas of our time.

Aristide had asked De Soto to help Haiti. When I interviewed Aristide at the presidential palace, I was struck by how small and soft-spoken he was. It was hard to imagine that this quiet little man was either as charismatic – or as abusive to the fledgling democracy he was leading — as one heard. Aristide told me De Soto’s "scientific" approach to economic development fit well with the human dimension he stressed in his own writings. "I know the political will I have," he added. "We can make it happen."

So much for Aristide's career as a pundit. He’s got bigger problems now, and so does poor Haiti.

Haiti represents poverty on a scale hard to grasp here. 80 percent of Haiti's eight million citizens live on less than a dollar a day. 85 percent are illiterate. Most children suffer from malnutrition. Life expectancy is under 50.

On my visit I saw naked men in the street peeing. Water doesn't run to Haitians' cement homes or tin shanties; they fill their buckets at a community tap, store what they can in unsanitized underground tanks, and boil the water before drinking or cooking. Streets in Port au Prince were jammed with ragtag vendors hawking old tires, clothes, shoes and motor oil. Gas stations and funeral homes were the only decent structures on view.

To reach one section of town we took roads so pitted my tape recorder flew from my hand as we drove and bounced. No wonder street vendors were big on spare parts here, I thought. A thin grayish stream ran down the side of the street carrying effluent from people’s washing. Homes stole electricity off the main line through improvised wiring. Flies were everywhere.

Here's how economic life works for ordinary Haitians. A teacher we met explained how he bought his home for $7,000. The seller didn't have any documents. "How did he know he was buying the right house on the right land?" De Soto asked through a translator.

The teacher knew the area, we were told. He sounded out the neighbors. Then he made up a sales agreement of sorts and had it witnessed by a few respected people on the block – people who essentially said, "yes, we recognize this to be so-and-so's house, and now it will be yours.'" In a court, of course, this had no value. In the neighborhood it did.

The locals had recently formed a cooperative that lent money at 2 percent a month. If you needed more than $1,000, though, it was back to the loan sharks – and 25 percent a month. "One doesn't want to have to live this way," one man, who dreamed of opening a small food market, told me.

I asked a group of Haitians how they would react if the government said it was launching a big new program to formalize all these property rights. Would you trust them to do it right? "They never finish what they start," one man answered, "The people who work for the government are just out for themselves."

Brian Dean Curran, the U.S. ambassador at the time, understood. "The state here is viewed as an agent of exploitation," he told me. "It's not by chance that so much is in the informal sector – the formal sector is the enemy. You do it on the sly, you stay away from the authorities, work only with your family – that's how you get around in this country. How do you bridge that cultural gap? The advantages [of De Soto's economic program] are profoundly clear – but how do you stack that up against 200 years of history?"

Three years later that's one of the many questions still haunting Haiti. I don't pretend to know the answers, but it's hard not think this latest crisis represents another deep failure of Haiti's elites, and of our own.

A decade after we reinstalled Aristide to "save Haitian democracy," we've now eased his exit, and the suffering there continues. And the Marines, confused as before about exactly what their mission is, are back in Port-au-Prince.

Matthew Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Matt Miller

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