Posts Tagged ‘Haiti’

Haiti’s problems mostly originate outside Haiti

January 18, 2018

Haiti is poor largely because outside powers keep it poor.   Not that Haiti doesn’t have its own home-grown crooks and tyrants, but the Haitian people would be better able to deal with them if the crooks and tyrants weren’t backed by the U.S. government.

President Trump’s recent vulgar comment about immigrants from Haiti and other majority-black was offensive.  But offensive language isn’t the main problem.  The problem is the centuries-long history of the United States and other powerful countries holding Haiti down, of which Trump is just the latest example.


One of the most repeated facts about Haiti is a lie by M.R. O’Connor for VICE News.


Starbucks opens a conversation

April 2, 2015


Background: What ‘Race Together’ Means for Starbucks Partners and Customers.

Haiti: the unlucky nation

May 21, 2013

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.


Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels

January 30, 2010

Blogging about Haiti reminded me of one of my lifetime favorite novels, Kenneth Roberts’ Lydia BaileyThe first half  is set against the background of the Haitian Revolution and the second half against the background of the U.S. war with the Barbary Pirates.  The dominant character in the novel is neither the narrator, Albion Hamlin, nor his ladylove Lydia Bailey, but the giant black Sudanese adventurer known as King Dick.

Lydia Bailey was published in 1947 and has long been out of print.  There is a copy at the Rochester Public Library and, I expect, at most large public libraries.

Roberts was fully the equal of Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, both as a storyteller and in terms of historical research. His novels were best-sellers in the 1930s and 1940s and stand up well today. Roberts was a quirky contrarian, and part of his purpose in writing was to set the record straight and to show that historical events were different from what you thought they were.

Arundel and Rabble in Arms are about Revolutionary War soldiers led by the able and charismatic commander Benedict Arnold (before his treason). Oliver Wiswell depicts the Revolutionary War from the point of view of a brave Loyalist.  I liked them all, as I did Captain Caution and The Lively Lady, about American sea captains in the War of 1812.

But my favorite, aside from Lydia Bailey, is Northwest Passage, which is set against the background of the French and Indian War and the doomed search for a northwest sea passage from Europe to the Orient.  Such as passage is actually opening up today, with the melting of the Arctic ice.

Haitian Riddles

January 29, 2010

1. They serve it food, it stands on four feet, but it cannot eat.

2. I enter white, I leave mulatto

3. Three large men stand under a tiny umbrella, yet none of them is wet. Why?

4. When I sit, I’m taller than when I stand.

5. How many coconuts can you put in an empty sack?


Why is Haiti so poor?

January 29, 2010

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.