Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and by far the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. More than three-quarters of the population has income of less than $2 a day. More than half have income of less than $1 a day.
Why is that? I have friends—middle-class white Americans like myself—who tell me the Haitians are poor because of their bad habits. They have too many children, causing the population to more than triple in the past-half century. They have cut down the trees of Haiti for firewood, leading to floods and soil erosion. Their politicians are corrupt and their indigenous religion, Voodoo, is wicked and corrupt.
I say that the Haitian people are just plain unlucky. They are unlucky in their geography and they are unlucky in their history. Arguably they are the unluckiest nation in the world.
Haiti is right in the middle of the principal hurricane track for its region, and it is right on the major fault line between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. Their further misfortune is that conditions on Haiti are perfect for growing sugar and that their part of the island of Hispaniola was colonized by the French, not the Spanish.
The need for labor on sugar plantations meant the importation of African slaves, who worked under exceptionally harsh conditions. The French called Haiti the Pearl of the Antilles, because it was the largest sugar-producing area in the world, but Haiti’s riches were not shared by the slaves who produced them. One reason for the harsh conditions was that sugar was the principal source of wealth for the French colonies, while the Spanish gave lower priority to sugar because their principal source of wealth was gold mines.
Slavery in British North America and the southern United States was bad enough, but the French sugar plantations were comparable to the Nazi labor camps. Jon Henly, writing in The Guardian, quoted a former slave.
“Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? … … Have they not forced them to eat excrement? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss?”
via The Guardian.
The Haitians revolted, defeated the armies of Napoleon and won their independence in 1804. They become the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, and the first black nation to win its independence from a European colonial power.
The success of the Haitian Revolution convinced Napoleon that it was futile to try to maintain a French colonial empire in the Americas. As a result, he sold the vast Louisiana territory to President Jefferson for a bargain price. If not for the success of the Haitian Revolution, the westward expansion of the United States would not have proceeded how and when it did. But because the Haitian example was seen as a threat to slavery in the United States, the U.S. government did not grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti until 1862. That was only one of the new republic’s troubles. As Henley reported in his Guardian article:
In exchange for diplomatic recognition from France, the new republic was forced to pay enormous reparations: some 150 million francs, in gold. It was an immense sum, and even reduced by more than half in 1830, far more than Haiti could afford.
“The long and the short of it is that Haiti was paying reparations to France from 1825 until 1947,” says [historian Alex] Von Tunzelmann. “To come up with the money, it took out huge loans from American, German and French banks, at exorbitant rates of interest. By 1900, Haiti was spending about 80 percent of its national budget on loan repayments. It completely wrecked their economy. By the time the original reparations and interest were paid off, the place was basically destitute and trapped in a spiral of debt. Plus, a succession of leaders had more or less given up on trying to resolve Haiti’s problems, and started looting it instead.”
via The Guardian.