Why is Haiti so poor?

Rene Preval, the president of Haiti, said Wednesday that nearly 170,000 people have died as the result of the Haitian earthquake. In contrast, only 63 people died as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. This was because of a whole lot of things, ranging from differences between Haitian and Californian building construction to the ability of government to respond, but what it boiled down to was that a poor society is a lot more vulnerable to disaster than a rich one.

Why is Haiti so poor? Columnist David Brooks said it is because of Haiti’s dysfunctional culture. He said somebody needs to take them in hand and straighten them out. Many other commentators say the same thing; the implications is that the Haitians have brought their troubles on themselves.

I’ve never been to Haiti myself (and would welcome comments from anybody who has), but I’ve read enough to know that the answers are not so simple. The geographer Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, has a chapter contrasting the geography and history of Haiti with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

Haiti is a former French colony which occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic (aka Santo Domingo) is a former Spanish colony which occupies the eastern two-thirds. Hispaniola’s rains come mainly from the east; the Dominican Republic gets more rain. Much of its land consists of broad valleys, plains and plateaus, while Haiti is more mountainous. The Dominican side has more fertile soil.

Yet in colonial times, it was Haiti that was the more developed of the two. French investment in sugar plantations, worked by slave labor, made Haiti the most valuable of their overseas possessions in the 1600s and 1700s. The Spanish neglected their part of Hispaniola; they were more interested in exploiting the silver mines of Mexico and Peru. By 1785, according to Diamond, there were 700,000 slaves in the French part of Hispaniola and only 30,000 in the Spanish part. That is to say, Haiti, when it became independent, had more people on less and worse land than its neighbor.

The Haitian slaves rose up against the French in 1791, and defeated some of Napoleon’s best regiments in 1801. Napoleon originally had in mind to use Hispaniola as a base to expand France’s North American empire. He then changed his mind and sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1804. If it had not been for the Haitian revolution, American history might have taken a different course.

The new Haitian republic got off to a bad start. The Haitian slaves were understandably full of rage at the French slaveowners, who were capable of fiendish cruelty; one punishment for rebellious slaves was to bury them up to the neck, and then plaster the face with honey to attract ants. They destroyed the physical infrastructure of the plantation sugar economy and, fearing the slaveowners would come back, adopted a constitution forbidding foreigners to own land or to control production through investments.

The infant republic meanwhile faced economic sanctions imposed by the major powers – Britain, France, Spain and, yes, the United States – who feared the example of slave liberation would spread. Haiti was forced to pay reparations to the former slaveowners. This saddled the country with a crushing debt that wasn’t paid off until 1922.

In the Dominican Republic, in contrast, it was the Spanish settlers who declared independence. They started out with a smaller population on a larger amount of good land. They encouraged immigration and foreign investment, and developed more of an export economy than the Haitians did. Both countries have been governed by corrupt dictators and wealthy elites indifferent to the common people.  The United States has occupied both countries, Haiti from 1915 to 1935 and the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, not for the benefit of their peoples, but to make sure banks that lent money to their governments were paid off.

One big problem in Haiti is deforestation. Only 1 percent of the land is forested, a lack which causes massive soil erosion; in contrast, 28 percent of the Dominican Republican is wooded. Many of Haiti’s trees have been cut down by poor farmers who need fuel, but some of it is by timber companies invited in to provide revenue to Haiti’s government.

I don’t claim to know what’s best for Haiti.  I fear the kind of misguided reaction that followed the Hurricane Katrina disaster, when a lot of white people spread reports about looting  and animal-like behavior among the black people of New Orleans, which turned out to be mostly lies and exaggerations but which are believed to this day. I remember reports of troops going into flooded New Orleans being told that this was hostile territory, like Mogadishu; this turned out to be completely false.

I do believe that what’s going on in Haiti is going to have a bigger effect on the United States than what’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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