Haiti: the unlucky nation

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.

usassugarpThe 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.

Haiti_Haiti-poverty_4149The United States Marine Corps occupied and controlled Haiti from 1915 until 1934, in order to force the Haitians to pay up and to protect the interests of American-owned businesses, such as the Haitian-American Sugar Corporation and the Banque Nationale d’Haiti, which was controlled by National City Bank of New York.

Now it is true that some of the worst enemies of the Haitian people have been other Haitians.   Haiti was ruled from 1957 to 1986 by the cruel and corrupt dictators Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.  They were undeniably products of Haitian culture.   It also is true that the Duvaliers were aided and abetted by Americans and other foreigners to their profit.

Papa Doc’s regime is widely seen as one of the most corrupt and ­repressive in modern history.  He ­exploited Haiti’s traditional belief in voodoo to establish a personal militia, the feared and hated Tonton Macoutes, said to be zombies that he had raised from the dead.

During the 28 years in power of Papa Doc and his playboy son and heir, Jean-Claude Duvalier, or Baby Doc, the Tonton Macoutes and their henchmen killed between 30,00 and 60,000 ­Haitians, and raped, beat and tortured countless more.  Until Baby Doc’s ­eventual flight into exile in 1986, Duvalier père and fils also made themselves very rich indeed.   Aid agencies and ­international creditors donated and lent millions for projects that were often abandoned before completion, or never even started.  Generous multi­national corporations earned lucrative contracts. 

According to Von Tunzelmann, the Duvaliers were at times embezzling up to 80 percent of Haiti’s international aid, while the debts they signed up to ­accounted for 45 percent of what the country owed [in 2009] … . And when Baby Doc ­finally fled, estimates of what he took with him run as high as $900 million.

22haiti-600Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, led a pro-democracy movement in opposition to the Duvaliers.  He won Haiti’s first honest election, held in 1990, with two-thirds of the vote.  He immediately sought to bring the military under control, put Tonton Macoutes and drug traffickers on trial, banned emigration of rich Haitians until their bank accounts were examined.  He was ousted from power in a military coup in 1991 soon after being sworn in.

The United Nations voted economic sanctions against the military dictators, but the Clinton administration gave American companies in Haiti waivers from complying with the sanctions.  President Bill Clinton negotiated an agreement which allowed Aristide to return to power in 1994 on condition he give up his economic reform program.

Aristide’s term ended in 1996 and under Haiti’s Constitution, he was not allowed to serve consecutive terms.  But he ran for office successfully again in 2000 and took office in 2001.   His administration taxed rich people, expanded public schools and public health and raised the legal minimum wage.  He was ousted in another coup in 2004.  This time the U.S. government merely helped him get out of the country arive.

Then came the 2010 earthquake, and the massive influx of foreign aid in the aftermath.   Unfortunately the Haitians themselves were not consulted as to what kind of aid they needed.   The London Review of Books reported:

Of the $2.43 billion in aid disbursed in 2010, 6 per cent couldn’t be accounted for. One percent, $24 million, went to the Haitian government.  The rest went to agencies and organisations based in donor countries and to the United Nations.  Nearly half a billion went to the US Department of Defense, which spent a million dollars a day maintaining a nuclear supercarrier in the bay of Port-au-Prince; $3.6 million of it was spent on repairs to Navy helicopters and the rest on many assorted, bizarre sundries: $194,000 for audiovisual equipment from a store in Manhattan, $18,000 on a jungle gym that cost less than $6000 online and thousands on kitchen implements. 

via LRB.

I think the best way the United Nations or foreign governments could help Haiti would be to buy up all the debt dating from the Duvalier era.  Ordinary Haitians did not decide to borrow the money.  Why should the poor people of Haiti have to bear this burden?

If foreigners want to do more, they should consult the people of Haiti on what kind of help they want.

Click on Haiti: a long descent into hell for a review of Haitian history in The Guardian of London.

Click on Haiti: the Compromising Reality and  What’s Next, Locusts? for critiques of the Haitian earthquake aid effort.

Click on Haiti Statistics for basic facts and figures about Haitian poverty.

haiti-earthquakeAlthough I criticize fellow Americans for disparaging the Haitian people, I don’t claim any moral high ground.  I haven’t done anything in pargticular myself to help the Haitians.  But if I did, I would follow the example of the Spiritus Christi congregation here in Rochester, N.Y., which has established a sister-church relationship with a Catholic church in Haiti, and works closely with that congregation on a basis of mutual respect.

Click on Spiritus Haiti Outreach for more about Spiritus Christi.

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One Response to “Haiti: the unlucky nation”

  1. Haitian Republic, and a Founders’ love triangle | άναρχη αμετροέπεια Says:

    […] (1791-1804), and notably the reign of emperor Desalines and his attrocities, not irrelevant to its current state of affairs. It’s because the material for savagery lies deep in our soul, and surfaces […]


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