By Livingston Smith, PhD
Professor, Department of the Social Sciences
University College of the Cayman Islands
The January 12, 2010, 7. 0 earthquake in Haiti was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. It is recorded by the Disaster Emergency Committee of the UK to have affected some 3, 500, 000 Haitians, and led to the death of some 25% of civil servants in Port au Prince among other tragic details. It notes that after the earthquake of 2010, ‘there were 19 million meters of rubble and debris in Port au Prince- enough to fill a line of shipping containers stretching end to end from London to Beirut.’ Pat Robinson, a well-know Christian evangelist, gave a rather interesting explanation for what happened. In the 18th century, he said, the Haitians had made a pact with the devil to be freed from their French colonizers. Even though this explanation for Haitian poverty is rather bizarre and laughable, many explanations have been given for this situation. This article seeks to highlight these.
Regarded then as the pearl of the West Indies and the Eden of the Western world, during the hey days of slavery, St. Dominique, as it was known then, produced nearly one-half of all the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the America’s and was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean. The revolution that ended the vile system of slavery was one of the most glorious in human history. Readers of this column would do well to read the classic account of this event, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by C. L. R. James, the great Trinidadian historian, journalist, and Marxist theoretician.
In 1804, Dessalines declared St. Dominique independent and bestowed upon this country its original Amerindian name, Haiti. The Haitian revolution had immediately earned for the people of Haiti, racial equality, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and nationhood. Amidst slavery all over the Americas, Haiti stood as a beacon of light and the basis for further debate on ideas of race, slavery, and the future of the Caribbean. Its contribution to the ending of slavery in the Americas is monumental.
So, what went wrong after such a glorious start? In his article, ‘Haiti: ‘The Hate and the Quake’ published in the Barbados Advocate in January of 2010, Sir Hilary Beckles, prominent Caribbean historian, and Pro-Vice Chancellor of UWI, sought to account for the death of the Haitian project after the revolution. It was published just days after the January 12 earthquake.
From his perspective, from a fundamental historical level, it is not Haitian mismanagement, ineptitude or corruption that is the root cause of the Haitian situation. Having achieved independence through a revolution and proclaiming itself a sovereign country, Beckles argues, the former slave masters and colonizers of this country, in alliance with the other slave holding countries, had no intention of seeing it succeed. Neither France, England of the United States recognized its sovereignty salivating as they were with their own desires for Haiti. At its birth as an independent country, Haiti needed access to world trade, finance, and institutional development. This was patently denied and thus from its very formation, this country was economically and politically stifled at the time when it needed to be inserted into the world economy and global institutions.
The French, in their callous disregard for Haiti’s survival, exerted a hard price for this country to be recognized. It exacted reparations at the sum of 150 million gold francs (currently valued at US $21 billion) with payments to begin immediately. These payments only ended in 1922 and during the time of doing so, amounted to some 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. ‘In the years when the coffee crops failed, or the sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French market at double the going interest rate in order to pay the French government. When the Americans invaded the country in the early 20th century, one of the reasons offered, was to assist the French in collecting its reparations’, Beckles notes. Beckles argues that with these onerous financial beginnings, Haiti had little chance of success. It had no opportunity to build the institutions and infrastructure as the groundwork and foundation upon which to ensure success. Instead, at the end of the payment to the French, Haiti was destitute and debt-redden.
For Beckles, the early collapse of Haiti was due to the calculated design of France and America, which ‘betrayed, failed and destroyed the dream that was Haiti.’ Having been the cause of the initial wreck of the Haitian economy, many calls have been made to France to repay these moneys. Off-course, this is most unlikely to happen.
Having identified the root cause of the Haitian situation, one must add the fact that it has suffered from the US nearly twenty-year occupation, from revolts, coups, and dictatorships. The worst of the latter was the 1957 Duvalier regimes, a twenty-eight-year nightmare for the Haitian people. In addition to the repression and killings, some accounts have the Duvaliers embezzling up to 80% of international aid to that country.
This very brief discussion of the causes of the current Haitian situation has not even mentioned levels of deforestation and its unfortunate geographical location at the edge of the slowly shifting Caribbean tectonic plate, among many others. What is clear is that whereas historical reasons lie at the root, it is not only its history of exploitation from forces outside of Haiti, that must be blamed. Much of the blame must also be placed with the leaders it has had among others.
In the next article we begin to examine what the possible UN interventions might mean for Haiti.