As you know, Haiti was recently struck by a tremendous earthquake. While any place would be devastated by an earthquake over 7.0 on the Richter scale, it was particularly destructive of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, which had become a vast shanty-town during the latter half of the twentieth century. The earthquake was severe, but it was Haiti’s extraordinary poverty that made the natural disaster so horrible. But why is Haiti so poor, after all this time? And what can be done to cure such poverty?
After the earthquake in Haiti, a lot of people in the media had a lot to say about Haiti’s so-called “progress-resistant culture” that supposedly causes its poverty. Pat Robertson offered this gem:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil…. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor…. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.
How did we get to this point in our culture, that some person can actually think this and decide to speak out loud where everybody can hear it? Other “responsible” pundits in the news media offered answers just as magical, blaming the problem on something mysterious in Haitian society. I propose instead that we actually look at Haitian history to see why Haiti has remained so poor.
History has been hard on the little half-island nation of Haiti. By reviewing the history of Haiti, we can perhaps see what the instruments of the Devil have been.
The History of Foreign Intervention in Haiti
1492: Columbus arrives in America. Soon, he is made the governor of Hispaniola, the island on which Haiti now sits. The Spanish count the native Taino at about eight million, Bartolome de las Casas» at three million; contemporary historians judge the number to have been 250,000. By 1517, there were 15,000 Taino left on the island. Some of this death was the result of exposure to smallpox and other European diseases, but there was also the enslavement of the Taino and all the tortures that come with it. The invaders would murder and maim for fun, would ride on the backs of Taino for transport, and, if Taino slaves returned without gold, they would have their hands cut off. Columbus and his compatriots arrived in Hispaniola to find what he himself described as a heaven, and deliberately transformed it into a hell. After this undeniable genocide, the Spanish began importing African slaves, until they became the largest population on the island.
1697: The Treaty of Ryswick transferred the third of the island now known as Haiti to the French. Under the French, the colony of “Saint-Domingue” became the wealthiest territory in the Western Hemisphere, all due to the cultivation and export of sugar by African slaves. The French planters seemed to have been competing with their Spanish predecessors in the mistreatment of slaves. According to the Baron de Vastey, who had actually been a 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 shit? And, after having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup?
1790 – 1804: The Haitian Revolution frees the island, the only nation born of a slave rebellion known to history. The slaves began the revolution with a Voodoo ceremony; evil persons might claim this as making a deal with the Devil. Freed first from white planter domination by Toussaint L’Ouverture (pictured above), and then declared an independent nation by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the slave armies, with the help of yellow fever, defeated British, Spanish, and French forces, including Napoleon’s armada of forty thousand Europeans. That’s Napoleon the First, to contradict Pat Robertson. Dessalines’ laws forbid the ownership of land by foreigners, and declare all Haitians to be Black» regardless of skin color.
1825: The King of France demands payment from Haiti for the loss of property of French planters, for 150 million francs, or, in today’s money, $21 billion. From 1827, gunboats from France and Great Britain would frequently enter Haitian waters with the intention of intimidation.
1862: The United States finally recognizes Haiti, after fifty-eight years of hostility, as the Union was free of the slave states that refused to consider the Haitian Republic as anything other than a land of “rebel slaves.”
1872: German gunboats enter Haitian waters and stone-cold mug the Haitian government of fifteen thousand dollars. The Germans literally defecate on the Haitian flag.
1883: European empires and the United States had by this year drained a total of eighty million francs from the Haitian government by the threat of force.
1888: The United States backs a coup against the Haitian government. In 1891, Frederick Douglass resigns as US consul to Haiti over its hostile behavior towards Haiti.
1897: German warships again enter Haitian waters to demand payment, this time as indemnity for arresting a Haitian with a German father, for assault. The Germans demanded twenty thousand dollars, an apology to the German emperor, and a twenty-cannon salute.
1902: Since 1879, the Haitian government had lost 2.5 million dollars to the robbery of the European powers and the United States. Eighty percent of the national budget was given over to the repayment of “debts.”
1915 – 1934: The United States invades and occupies Haiti, and forces the government to sign a treaty making the nation a protectorate. In 1918, the US forces the Haitian people to approve a constitution drafted by FD Roosevelt; the constitution includes the repeal of Dessalines’ ban against foreigners owning land. Once this restriction is lifted, Haiti is rapidly deforested by the foreign buyers, and its forests (revered in Voodoo) were replaced with foreign-owned rubber plantations. Rebellion against the US occupation in 1918 is suppressed with the murder of at least two thousand, perhaps as many as fifteen thousand, Haitians. Now that foreigners can own land, US investment enters Haiti to restructure the economy from the dignity of self-sufficient peasants with few exports to the desperation of a dispossessed proletariat working in desperate conditions. The US succeeded in retiring Haiti’s debt to the French, but also made it deeply indebted to the US. The US develops Haitian infrastructure – for exporting raw materials, not the use of its people – with forced labor. Forced labor includes reintroduction of the corvee, the feudal system of forced road-building, to build roads for the movement of US military forces. Haitians are used as cheap labor for other US Caribbean territories. FDR ends the occupation in 1934, but the United States maintains control of the nation’s customs houses until 1947. Said US General Smedley Butler of his long and distinguished military service, “I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.”
1937: Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, reclaims territory ceded to Haiti under US arms, and massacres between eighteen thousand and thirty-five thousand Haitian peasants in a three-day period.
1957: The Haitian army ensures the election of Dr. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier as president, ousting the popular reformer, Daniel Fignole. Duvalier forms the “Volunteers for National Security,” known to history as the “tontons macoutes,” named for an evil creature of voodoo myth. Duvalier is a client of the United States: US Marines would help suppress violence, USAID trucks would be used to shanghai peasants to Duvalier’s rallies, and the government gives Duvalier forty million dollars in his first four years, though he was briefly cut off during the Kennedy Administration. Duvalier also had the support of the Vatican, which gave him the power to appoint his own Catholic clergy. Duvalier’s macoutes kill unknown tens of thousands Haitians during his rule. Papa Doc was succeeded by his fat, fat son, “Baby Doc,” on arrangement with President Nixon, in 1971. The nineteen year-old dictator hired a US public relations firm to help him with his image. During the Duvalier period, US capital begins using Haiti as a seat of cheap “assembly industry,” sending parts to Haiti to be assembled into finished goods. The US had negotiated measures with Duvalier to ensure that the Haitian people would remain disciplined labor, i.e. poor, including a nearly non-existent minimum wage, the violent suppression of labor unions, and the absence of taxes, making sure that foreign companies could suck Haiti dry by repatriating profits to the home countries of those businesses.
1963: Haitians begin to leave Haiti for the first time. The United States denies the “boat people” landing on American shores political asylum, denying that they are politically persecuted.
1986: The Haitians finally overthrow the younger Duvalier. Celebrations included destroying a statue of Christopher Columbus, and renaming its plaza after Charlemagne Peralte, the leader of rebels against the US occupation. The Haitians had no trouble in identifying the forms of the Devil. However, the Council of National Government was full of Duvalierists, and state violence reappeared in a new form.
1990 – 2004: The popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide» was elected president. Aristide had worked in the democratic movement and had suffered numerous attacks on his life by the previous government. The New York Times denounced him as “strident,” their favorite word for anyone to the left of Dick Cheney, and would continue to run stories repeating the verifiably false claims of Haitian rightists. Aristide refused his ten thousand dollar salary, initiated a mass literacy program, distributed land to peasants, and confronted organized crime and political corruption. So of course he had to go. But in this case, the military regime proved unable to govern, and in 1994, Aristide returned, and wisely disbanded the military, depriving the ruling class and the United States the primary tool by which to overthrow Haiti’s democratic remnants. This is why the United States had to directly kidnap the Aristide family in 2004 after his recent election to a second term as president. The nation has been governed by UN Peacekeepers since then, composed of US, French, and Brazilian forces.
2010: An earthquake destroys the vast shanty-town that the Haitian capital has been reduced to as a result of two centuries of foreign plundering of the wealth of Haiti. Millions of Americans generously donate large sums of money. The US government sends thousands of soldiers to stem imaginary violence while preventing the arrival of aid to the island.
How You Can Help Haiti
Every new disaster in Haiti has led to another round of racist fantasies about why Haiti is the way it is, and new calls for “intrusive paternalism,” in another of David Brooks’ phrases. We see by this short history that Haiti has had more than enough intrusive “paternalism” as it is, to the benefit of its “parents,” and has exacerbated and deepened the social conflicts that the Haitian people themselves might have solved long ago. Haiti, like much of the Third World, is a poor nation because it has been made poor by the outright thievery of the powerful.
Other public intellectuals recognize this fact of history and offer concrete solutions to the problem of poverty in Third World nations like Haiti. The economist Jeffrey Sachs, for example, proposes significant foreign aid programs for the provision of people’s basic needs and the development of infrastructure. But haven’t we been giving charity to Third World nations for decades now, and they’re in worse situations than ever? The problem with foreign aid is that it does not stay in the countries receiving the aid, and that it does not necessarily go to providing for people’s basic needs. For example, foreign aid from the United States, will be spent by the Haitian state contracting with US corporations. Those US corporations might hire Haitian workers, and might make minor investments in Haiti, but the profits from such a venture will flow back to the corporations’ non-Haitian owners. And they aren’t going to reinvest those profits in Haiti. It also doesn’t help that the aid from wealthy nations is used for political purposes. Recall above that the US Agency for International Development used its resources to help Papa Doc, not the Haitian people.
Haitians and other poor nations do not need charity, they need justice, they need freedom. Poor nations are poor because rich nations won’t let them do what they did to become rich. The wealthy nations force the poor nations to open their markets to their cheap imports, with the result that poor nations cease to make anything for themselves. This is especially evident with food markets, as the poor nations are prevented from subsidizing their farmers while allowing subsidized agricultural products from the US and Europe to freely enter the poor nations’ markets. Likewise, corporations from the wealthy nations demand exemption from local taxation, meaning that the poor nations cannot capture public revenues for public goods and services from private foreign investment. The United States would never have been so wealthy if it followed the orders it now gives to others. Finally, in the case of Haiti, there is the glaring case of the missing $21 billion dollars that France forced Haiti to pay from 1825 until 1947. France appointed its own commission to determine whether the French government owed the Haitians anything, and somehow found that it did not. Even though Haiti, like most poor nations, is a debtor state, it is actually owed much.
Such prescriptions are the province of nations, and requires the concerted action of organized citizenry in the West to apply. For the individual, we can only give to “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs), like Oxfam, it would seem. Haiti is filled with foreign aid-providing NGOs, and has been for some time. The Haitian middle class is comprised almost entirely of people working for NGO or another. This presents the same problem as the entrance of foreign corporations, draining ownership and wealth from the country back to their country of origin. With NGOs, the scale is smaller, because they do not acquire profit; but they do need to cover the costs of their administration, which reside outside of Haiti. Haitians become dependent on NGOs, and the country does not develop as they siphon money despite their urge to help. Yet Haitians still need help now, so they still need the aid organizations. Fortunately, some NGOs are better than others. The medical organization Partners in Health worked with grassroots community organizations in Haiti to develop the social and material resources the Haitians need to help themselves. Plus, Partners in Health has been there in force, with an astounding five thousand doctors, well before the earthquake. If you want to help Haiti, Partners in Health seems like the organization to support.
*Photograph courtesy of CNN