by Charles Lemos, Thu Jan 14, 2010 at 04:07:57 AM EST
Bay kou bliye pote mak sonje .
He who strikes the blow forgets, he who bears the bruises remembers.
— Haitian Proverb
The libertarian economist Tyler Cowen who blogs at Marginal Revolution asks why is Haiti so poor and posits a few hypotheses:
1. Haiti cut its colonial ties too early, rebelling against the French in the early 19th century and achieving complete independence. Guadaloupe and Martinique are still riding the gravy train and French aid is a huge chunk of their gdps.
2. Haiti was a French colony in the first place and French colonies do less well.
3. Sugar cane gave Haiti some early characteristics of "the resource curse," dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
4. Haiti was doing OK until the Duvaliers destroyed civil society, thus putting the country on a path toward destruction. It is a more or less random one-time event which wrecked the place.
5. Hegel was correct that the "voodoo religion," with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well. (Isn't that a startling insight for a guy who didn't travel the broader world much?)
6. For reasons peculiar to the history of the slave trade, Haitian slaves came from many different parts of Africa and thus Haitian internal culture has long had lower levels of cohesion and cooperation. (The former point about the mix is true, but the cultural point is speculation.)
7. Haiti has higher than average levels of polygamy (but is this cause or effect?)
8. In the early to mid twentieth century, Haiti was poorly situated to attract Chines e and other immigrants, unlike say Jamaica or Trinidad. It is interesting that many of the wealthiest families in Haiti are Lebanese, such as the Naders.
Leaving aside the absurd suggestion that Haiti is somehow to blame for casting off slavery too early, some of these hypotheses are plausible if incomplete explanations for the enduring poverty of Haiti. Still and not surprisingly Dr. Cowen leaves out one of the more recent ones - the failure of free markets - and a more traditional one - an enduring racism that has pervaded the world's relationship with the world's first black republic. Dr. Cowen can blame voodoo culture but voodoo economics is the greater problem.
I hope world attention on Haiti will bring a renewed focus on a failed and abandoned state. Haiti is rather unique among failed states in that it has not caused wider repercussions to its neighbors. The US and the Dominican Republic have been impacted in terms of Haitian immigration but that’s pretty much it. Haiti remains much as it has been for two centuries - a land forgotten and ignored.
The thing is that Haiti is a solvable problem (unlike Afghanistan or Yemen). Not to minimize the problems that confront Haiti because seventy-six percent of its population lives below the poverty line and 54 percent in abject poverty (defined as $2 dollar a day or less). There is of course a deep societal cleavage in Haiti with a few families controlling the vast majority of wealth. The GINI is .65 which is one of the worst in the world. But here’s the thing in 1988, only 65 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. So Haiti is going backwards and it’s a country that can’t afford to go backwards. Nor is that 1988 date insignificant because it was then that Washington imposed conditions on Port au Prince for continued aid and the results speak for themselves. Haiti continues to go backwards.
Haiti is not just a failed state but it is a collapsing society. And that’s really more the issue. I’m hard pressed to think of a country that confronts as great an ecological challenge as Haiti perhaps parts of Kazakhstan, Russia, China are worse but that parts. The whole of Haiti is an ecological disaster. Maybe North Korea is worse or as bad but we don’t have the clarity (at least I don’t) that we have with Haiti. One can see Haiti’s problem from the air.
The border between the Dominican Republic (the DR) and Haiti is visible from the air. It’s the only world border that is so visible that is not a river or mountain range. That’s because the DR is forested and Haiti is not. The DR is green and Haiti a mauve brown. No country on Earth has been as rapidly deforested as Haiti has been over the past 80 years. Sixty percent of the country was forested in the late 1920s. Today only 1.5 percent of Haiti is forested. So when all those hurricanes passed over Hispaniola, the DR was scarcely touched while Haiti was ravaged.
So why is Haiti so deforested? Well, ultimately it does come down to governance and free markets. The DR had somewhat enlightened if despotic rulers (Joaquín Balaguer had a fondness for parks and he managed to save the DR’s watershed) while Haiti suffered the Duvaliers and perhaps worse a series of inept corrupt kleptocratic governments. But that’s just the overlay.
Here’s the nut of the problem. There is no infrastructure in Haiti. The electrical grid serves perhaps a quarter of the population. Haitians have no fuel with which to cook their meals and thus they took to cutting down their forests to make charcoal. It's the result of the libertarianism that men like Tyler Cowen worship. Haiti is 9 million individuals left to their own devices and the barbarism of free markets and free trade.
From a Slave Society to a Black Republic
The sugar slave society in Santo Domingue was particulary brutal compared to other slave societies. There were higher rates of mortality compared to other slave plantation societies and society developed along highly stratified lines. The average life expectancy for an African slave born in Santo Domingue at the close of the 18th century was just 21 years of age.
The Haitian revolt was also a 13 year struggle begun in 1791. The struggle for independence was particularly bloody. Les blans, the small class of mostly French plantation owners, either fled or were massacred over the course of a very violent war that also destroyed the economic base of the country. Haiti's slave population was also hit hard. About of fifth of the population of half a million black slaves died during the course of the revolt. The Haitian revolt, the only successful slave revolt in world history, wasn't just a political revolution but a social one. Its success threatened to upset established social orders across the breadth of the world.
The American and Latin American revolutions were far different in character and less far-reaching in consequences. Take suffrage, in the US even by 1830 male suffrage still differed from state to state and was far from universal. In Latin America only Colombia and Uruguay broadened their suffrage measurably in the 19th century. In Haiti, in part due to the influence of the French Revolution, Haiti adopted universal suffrage though in the post independence period the country descended into civil war. By 1807, the country had split in two. Haiti was born in blood and that character remained well into the post-independent period. A mostly dark-skinned north and a mostly mulatto south. That pattern still exists today.
A Sabine Rape of a Land and a People
Haiti after independence was isolated. No one wanted to recognize a black republic whose freedom was the product of a slave revolt. In the 1820s, South Carolina Senator Robert V. Hayne made the US position absolutely clear when he stated: "Our policy with regard to Haiti is plain. We never can acknowledge her independence." The United States finally recognized Haiti in 1862 when the South no longer held sway of the direction of US foreign policy.
France recognized Haiti in 1825 but only after Haiti agreed to pay reparations of some 150 million francs. Like many deals in the 19th century, it was negotiated at the barrel of a gun. Haiti was forced into an an arrangement that bankrupted the country though in 1838 the annuity was reduced. Still Haiti would spend the next 109 years paying off that indemnity spending as much as 80 percent of its annual budget to pay off heirs of colonial slaveholders. The last installment was finally paid in 1947. All told Haiti spent 122 years paying off a debt for its freedom from slavery. The promised trade was negligible. France had other colonies from which to import sugar, coffee, cotton and bananas - the main Haitian exports. The country was effectively cut off from world trade well into the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson barred Haitian ships by law from calling on American ports. Racism cannot be discounted as a cause of the treatment that Haiti received upon independence. Haiti as the first black republic and the product of a slave revolt was ignored by the United States and raped by France.
Haiti's problems began almost immediately. The first President General Dessalines declared himself Emperor in 1807. The army played a determinant role in politics. The Constitution existed only on paper. Of the 22 heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one served out his prescribed term of office. Three were killed in palace revolts, a rarity in Latin America. Coups elsewhere were generally the bloodless kind. In 1915, President Wilson invaded the country and the US would effectively rule the country until 1934. The mulatto class took economic power running the country as if it were an estate. The political power for the mulatto class came once the US left. The Duvaliers, pere et fils, ruled the country with US backing from 1957 until 1986. Internal rule was enforced through use of militias, again a Latin American rarity.
How brutal was the US-backed Duvalier regime? Historian Alex von Tunzelman provides a glimpse of a second Sabine rape:
The country’s problems were only exacerbated when, in 1957, François Duvalier became president. Exploiting Haitian beliefs in the traditions of voodoo (most Haitians still practise it today), he established a personal militia, the Tonton Macoutes, rumoured to be zombies he had raised from the dead, who soon gained a chilling reputation for rape and torture.
Papa Doc himself affected the style of Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead, appearing in a black top hat and pinstriped suit. Reports from Haiti brought forth disgust from the developed world, but the protests did not turn into action. Instead of moving to condemn and remove these dictators, the world’s richest countries opened their chequebooks. In 1967, American-owned plantations in the Dominican Republic paid Papa Doc directly for rounding up 20,000 Haitians to work on their lands. In 1972, his son and heir, Baby Doc’s minister of the interior, was exposed for literally selling Haitian blood to private American hospitals: $3 a litre, no questions asked. During the Duvaliers’ combined 28 years in power, up to 60,000 Haitians were “disappeared” by the regime. The Duvaliers swindled international creditors and aid agencies for enormous sums. The American government, via various agencies and banks, lent millions to both dictators.
Though there was anger in Washington about the Duvaliers and their 80% rate of aid embezzlement, no action was taken to remove them until 1986. The Duvaliers were always happy to sign up to new loans, and to give lucrative contracts to American corporations. Most of the projects went nowhere. Haiti is littered with half-built and abandoned schools, hospitals, bridges and roads.
Most of the money lent to the Duvaliers found its way into private bank accounts. When Baby Doc fled, he took millions with him: estimates go as high as $900m. The debts incurred by the Duvaliers make up 45% of Haiti’s total current debt. None of the creditors finds the fact of their complicity a compelling argument for cancellation. Those creditors include the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF and the governments of the US and France.
Polygamy & Culture
Haiti isn't really polygamous like say the Mormons or Africans back in the Sahel. Few Haitian males can afford one wife let alone multiple ones. Common law marriages is the main cultural practice in the countryside. But Haitian cultural practices in the countryside did have polygamous aspects. There is a strong preference for male children. If a woman only bore girls, the male would sire with other women to produce a male. While polygamy has faded in practice over time, the preference for male children has not. This has led to a population explosion. The country is now the most densely populated in the Americas having overtaken El Salvador in the last decade. The population density in 2002 was 254 people per square km (659 per square mile).
Haiti and the Dominican Republic are almost identical in size population wise (the DR has 9.5 while Haiti has 9.0 million) but Haiti has been growing faster. Thirty-eight percent of Haitians are under the age 14 compared to just thirty percent of Dominicans.
To tackle overpopulation, the solution remains female empowerment.
Another big culprit of Haiti's poor performance in the 20th century is the poor governance that has plagued the country. Both the DR and Haiti have had brutal dictatorships. But Haiti's Duvaliers were kleptocracy while Balaguer in the DR was more enlightened. No where did policy make a difference more than in the approach to the environment. Balaguer created national parks and preserved the watershed. So today, the DR is forested while Haiti is an ecological disaster. In 1925, sixty percent of Haiti was covered by forest, today only 1.5 percent is.
While the DR developed a rural infrastructure (roads and electricity), Haiti did not. Electricity in Haiti is basically found in Port au Prince. At least 75 percent of the population is dependent on charcoal for cooking. That has spelled disaster ecologically. In the post Duvalier era, the corruption from the drug trade has played an increasing role in Haiti's political life. Corruption is not amendable to progress.
Size and Composition of Elites
Very small in Haiti compared to the rest of Latin America. And very racially stratified. The light-skinned mulattos and the small immigrant population, largely Lebanese, have controlled both politics and the economy.
Free Trade & Neoliberalism
Haiti's local agriculture has been destroyed by an American-imposed free trade liberalization regime. Haitian farmers simply cannot compete with American produced agricultural products. Haiti would be better served to protect its domestic agricultural market and restrict foreign imports. If you want to talk about free market failure, Haiti is a case in point.
Haitian rice which is most likely of West African origin has been cultivated in Haiti for over 200 years. Rice is the staple food of Haiti and up until the 1980s Haiti was self-sufficient in its production. In the mid-1980s Haiti's domestic rice production decreased rapidly. By the1990s rice imports outpaced domestic rice production. This displaced many Haitian farmers, traders, and millers whose employment opportunities are extremely limited. Two factors are identified as being the most significant causes for the decline in Haitian rice production: the adoption of trade liberalization policies and environmental degradation.The trade liberalization policies at their center have involved the lowering Haiti's lowest tariffs on rice imports. Currently the rice import tariff is 3%, which is much lower than rice import tariffs of all other nations in the Caribbean Community. The Haitian market is now flooded with US rice imports ("Miami rice") and some have accused the US of dumping its rice in Haiti. The impact of the decline of rice production in Haiti has been devastating to its rural population which is already desperately poor.
In 1994 pushed by the Clinton Administration, the Haitian government entered into a new agreement with the IMF that contained a "medium-term structural adjustment strategy" which "included sweeping trade liberalization measures." In 1995 when this agreement went into affect, Haiti's tariffs on rice imports were cut dramatically from 35 percent to the current level of 3 percent. Haiti today has the most liberalized trade regime in the Caribbean and it has paid the price. The country that was 20 years self-sufficient in its basic goods is now dependent on foreign aid for survival. Such trade policies have devastated the rural sector in the country.
That Haitian proverb I quoted at the start of this post is all too fitting. Haiti remembers all too vividly every blow laid upon it by France, the United States and a world built on racism and free trade. Haiti's problems are vast but to pin them exclusively on Haiti is to willfully ignore the historical record.