Some Historical Perspectives on the Haiti Crisis
Some Notes on Haiti.
Writing at the moment from Washington D.C., I thought it was time that I put down a few notes about the situation in Haiti, which continues to hold its place in the headlines. It is very interesting to look at Haiti in a long-term perspective, and how historical developments have led to the current situation. The high death-toll in Haiti comes directly from the poor living conditions and poor construction standards that result from poverty. Haiti’s poverty comes from a long history of colonial rule and neo-colonial exploitation. While nations now rush to send aid to the people of Haiti to deal with a natural disaster, they have been ineffective at giving Haiti help over the last century to end their on-going social and economic misfortune.
When we hear that in “1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the oceans blue”, it was upon the island of Hispaniola (now made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that he landed. The island was at the time populated by indigenous Arawak Indians, a population of hundreds of thousands that was reduced to near extinction within only a few decades through introduced disease and a genocidal slave regime. The ancestors of the current population, predominantly of African descent, were brought to the island through the operations of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to work on colonial plantations.
By the late 1600s the French West India Company established their own colony on the western end of Hispaniola, which they called Saint-Domingue, and began to build slave plantations for goods like cotton and tobacco. Later the French colony began to grow coffee, tea and sugar, and in the 1700s it emerged as the most valuable colony in the French Empire, worked by a slave workforce of almost 800,000 Africans. Tens of thousands of new slaves were imported every year, both to expand production and replace the slaves who died under the harsh working conditions.
Since then the two sections of Hispaniola have developed very differently, and the reasons lie partly in their different geographies, and partly in their different colonial histories. Environmentally, Hispaniola’s rains come from the east. This means that the Dominican Republic has a higher rainfall than Haiti. Haiti also has less flat land that is ripe for agriculture, and has thinner soils that are more easily exhausted. And yet, because of the higher intensity of French colonisation, Haiti developed a far broader agricultural system, which led to a greater exhaustion of Haitian resources, including widespread deforestation. The mass slave importations by France also led to the colony of Saint-Domingue’s population growing to seven times the population of the Spanish section of the island, even though it was half the size. So we can see here the starting point of environmental and demographic disaster while the population is still under colonial rule.
Following the French Revolution in 1789, revolutionary slave uprisings also began in Saint-Domingue, eventually leading to the creation of an independent Haiti in 1804, led by the African-slave General Toussaint L’Ouverture. This created the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. And notably, because of Napoleon’s loss in Haiti, he was led to make the deal with the United States called the Louisiana Purchase, selling land to America of more than 2 million square kilometres that includes all or part of 14 current U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. So in this way, the Haitian Revolution is a very important part of the United States’ expansion into its current borders.
Following the Revolution the plantation system dissolved as slaves became freemen. Haitian agriculture thus transitioned from an export plantation economy into a subsistence farming economy in which every family farmed to feed themselves. At the same time, the Haitian government had to go into debt so they could pay France on-going compensation payments for the confiscation of French property! This new era of financial neo-colonialism helped to keep Haiti in grinding poverty. A cycle of poverty and environmental exploitation became engrained in the republic, though by the late 1800s locals managed to rebuild a sugar and rum export industry. But by the 20th Century American banks had come to dominate the Haitian economy, and American troops eventually occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934 in order to protect their interests from social instability. Under the US-backed dictatorship, forced-labour gangs conscripted from the locals returned a form of slavery to Haiti more than a century after their revolution.
The US maintained control over Haiti’s economy until 1947, and after that the new dictator Dr. François (Papa Doc) Duvalier ruled with American aid for more than a decade before President Kennedy suspended the aid in 1961. Then when ‘Papa Doc’ died in 1971, and dictatorial power was passed to his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, US aid was restored. After years of continued economic and social chaos, in 1990 the radical-populist leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power with communistic policies and unsurprisingly his government was overthrown in a violent coup within a year, which he claims was back by the US government. The UN has been present in Haiti for most of the period since, and Aristide and his opposition have traded power and run corrupt and violent regimes.
So what we see in Haiti is a poor nation, whose population and economy were formed through French colonialism, and whose soils and forests have been exhausted first through intentional exploitation and then local desperation. The nation was saddled with huge international debts from the time of its independence and has been dominated by foreign financial institutions. For decades during the 20th Century Haiti was militarily-occupied by US troops, and for decades longer its dictators gained aid from various US Presidents. In recent years radical reform has been stifled by internationally-backed coups and corrupt regimes, and as recently as 2008 there were widespread riots in the slums demanding cheaper food supplies. Meanwhile, years of UN occupation have failed to ease the economic desperation and build new infrastructure. Prior to the earthquake 75% of Haitians still existed on less than $2 a day.
The Haitian crisis is not merely the consequence of the quake on the Enriquillo-PlantainGarden geological fault-line; it emerges from more than 400 years of exploitation – from the Arawak Indians, to the African slaves, to the free Haitian peasants caught in the tides of international finance and politics. Haiti today needs long-term global assistance in developing a sustainable economy and political culture, without the self-interested influence of western governments continuing to determine its future. And this assistance is not charity, it is reparation – for the historical legacy left to this poor yet spirited nation.