The relationship was poisoned from the start when the United States repaid the soon-to-be-liberated people by fastening an embargo on the island in an attempt to appease Napoleon Bonaparte, who relinquished his dream of a French New World and agreed to the $15 million Vente de la Louisiane, or “Sale of Louisiana.” Were it not for the early abuse of Haiti, the continental expansion of the United States may have never happened.
The US-Haiti relationship receives new scrutiny in the road trip across the Caribbean island described in Allison Coffelt’s ambitious new book, Maps Are Lines We Draw. She returns from her trip with what will prove to be her most valuable guide: how to think about Haiti.
Coffelt’s story traces the journey from her initial interest in Haiti, which began with a copy of Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, to the end of her 18-day exploration of the island. Throughout the process, she introduces us to Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, or “Gardy,” founder of the public health organization OSAPO, who transports her from the southern city of Les Cayes to his clinic, north of Port-au-Prince.
As Coffelt assists physicians in birthing homes and clinics in several towns, she realizes that her mission “to learn how much she didn’t know” about the island may prove to be a lifelong endeavor. Both Haiti’s past and future seem threatened by socioeconomic and political ghosts that Coffelt cannot always successfully identify, but that nonetheless grip her heart and mind in a profound way, manifesting in the observations and meditations that make Maps Are Lines We Draw a compelling read for anyone who has traveled, or wishes to travel, to a foreign country.
Coffelt gleans information and historical anecdotes along the way, which she shares as naturally as her host shares green oranges with her — without hesitation and in small chunks. But her primary focus is not names and dates. It is the warm breath and beating pulse of Haiti, one she could only find through experience.
As the title suggests, Maps Are Lines We Draw is a contemplation of place. By turning maps into lines, the difference between concrete and abstract is blurred, and the discussion of “place” changes from a geographical position to something that is simply “here” and “there”: two points fixed on a plane, defined only by their relationship. Coffelt challenges such lines, crossing them when she decides to swap her “here” in Missouri for her “there” in Haiti. While travel narratives tend to exalt adventure and escapism, this is a more analytical work in line with Yi-Fu Tuan’s classic Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience and Suzy Hansen’s Notes from a Foreign Country. What gets scrutinized the most are the flawed demands of Americans.
Coffelt keeps returning to the interlinkage between rice and deforestation. When the United States ships cheap rice to Haiti, local farmers soon find themselves with a worthless crop. Who will pay for something that they can receive for free? This practice, while meant to do good, “undercuts the local market” and forces the rice farmers into the tough decision of selling their farms and chopping down trees for fuel. As Coffelt explains, “The land erodes more quickly. Stripped land makes it harder to farm, income keeps plummeting, and now people need cheap fire more than ever.” Haiti now has less than 1.5 percent of its original canopy.
Another example of good intentions gone sour involves the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. In what has the potential to be a hotly contested position in her book, Coffelt describes situations in which the MSF enters countries and establishes smooth-running hospitals that provide exceptional health care for free. The problem? Salaries. The health care providers set up shop and stay for long periods, paying their employees salaries far above what the state could afford.
This only creates fiscal expectations that the state could never sustain. The alternative, proposed by Kirsty, a Canadian whom we meet about halfway in the book, an “expat who has flipped her here with her there,” requires a slower process of providing stellar health care by allowing the public health system to connect infrastructure at a rate that the state can support.
Building a reliable public health infrastructure requires time. The practical relationship between time lost and people’s lives is not one that doctors are willing to overlook. What physician would willingly wait years for the state to establish a system that works before he or she can administer the best care possible? Whether it arrives through MSF, another NGO, or the state, physicians will climb aboard and join the first vehicle moving toward excellent patient care.
This leads us to another problem. How does a foreigner know how to help? Or, as Coffelt asks, “How do you set the standard?” Haiti needs both excellent hospitals and an economy that can afford to compensate health care providers. If Haiti is ever to have both, then it will arrive at the intersection between “not enough” and “too much.”
The complexities of foreign aid may have found no better nesting place than Haiti. Fortunately, with Maps Are Lines We Draw, we have a guide to inform us in the diverse troubles that surround the island like the Caribbean itself. Trump’s profanities will only further dampen the willingness of Americans to rethink the basics of their financial, medical, or humanitarian support of a neighboring country. While the United States has offered resources — mainly in the name of its own national interest of keeping a friendly government in power — we have not thought through the consequences of what happens when our goods cross from “here” to “there.”
Claiming to have answers to the “controversy of enough” in Haiti would prove unhelpful. Coffelt is clever enough not to give the reader another list of solutions from an American. Instead, she unpacks the construct of place into a “here” and “there,” and in the process, proves that we are indeed, not as separate from others as certain lines would make us believe.
Whether it is cartography or the ghosts of a previous century connecting the United States and Haiti, Maps Are Lines We Draw demonstrates that the actions and purchases we make “here” are always felt “there.”
Ajay Orona writes about travel, automobiles, and literature. He lives in Claremont, California.