The earthquake in Haiti has caused the whole world to spin around and look at the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” When we look, we see corpses, crying children, wounded mothers, desperate fathers, and other examples of human tragedy.
What you see when you look at the images of Haiti depends in large part on your perspective and knowledge of the country that shares an island with the Dominican Republic. For this reason, I think it is important to share my own perspective on what I observe when I see pictures of people desperate for a bucket of water or a bowl of rice.
Many people say this is a time to act, not to speak. But, really, what can I do? I am in Santo Domingo, a few hours drive from Port-au-Prince, but I have no on-the-ground skills that would help people in Haiti. I can send supplies in the many caravans that leave Santo Domingo each day. I have done so, and will continue to do so. As a writer, however, I think the best I can do is to think about Haiti, write about Haiti, and tell people why this is happening to Haiti and what it means for the rest of us.
You may critique this effort as opportunism — using the human tragedy for my own political purposes. To that charge, I say, this is the moment when people are interested in Haiti, so this is the time to tell the story of Haiti. This story is not unique to Haiti. The story of pillage and plunder and coups and the CIA is the story of much of the Third World. The story of global inequality is the story of capitalism. Except for, in Haiti, it goes back right to the beginning of capitalism.
Haiti, led by revolutionary Touissant L’Ouverture, defeated France in a war for its independence in 1804 — making it the first non-slave republic in the Americas. After losing the war, the French demanded reparations from Haiti, to the tune of 150 million gold francs. This was eventually reduced to 90 million gold francs — the equivalent of over $20 billion current US dollars. Haiti did not finish paying this crippling debt until 1947. Haiti provided more wealth to France than any of its other colonies prior to Haiti’s independence. After independence, the debt prevented Haiti from gaining a solid economic footing. France, in contrast, has flourished.
Throughout the 19th century, the United States and the rest of the Americas kept a close eye on Haiti, doing what they could to prevent any of the other nations and colonies from experiencing a major slave revolt. The specter of Haiti sent fear through the hearts of plantation owners throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Twentieth century Haitian history is marked by US interventions, occupations, and interference. Haiti was occupied by the United States military from 1915 to 1934. From 1957 to 1951, Haiti was ruled by “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a brutal dictator who was backed by the United States because of his anti-communist stance. When “Papa Doc” passed away, his son, “Baby Doc” became President. He ruled Haiti under the same reign of terror until he was finally overthrown in 1986. In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was democratically elected by the Haitian people — the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Eight months later, he was ousted in an effort orchestrated by the CIA. In a twist of events, US-backed forces restored Aristide to power in 1994, and the US military occupied Haiti from 1994 to 2000. Haiti was occupied again by US and UN forces in 2004. UN forces continue to occupy Haiti to this day.
The constant influence and interventions of the United States and Europe have kept Haiti a poor and tremendously unequal nation. A 7.0 earthquake is a horrible event whenever it strikes on or near a land mass. However, the proportions of the disaster were much greater in Haiti because of its poverty. Over twenty years ago, in 1989, a 7.0 earthquake struck the Bay Area in Northern California. In that quake, 63 people were killed. In Haiti, the Red Cross estimates that as many as 50,000 people have died in Haiti. Already, thousands of people have been buried in mass graves.
Poverty exacerbates natural disasters for many reasons. Some of these reasons are the poor structures people inhabit, overpopulation in urban areas, deforestation of hillsides, and a lack of an adequate infrastructure.
When “Baby Doc” was in power in Haiti, the Haitian business community and the United States developed a plan to implement neoliberal reforms that would take Haitians out of rural poverty and into the modern world. As a “modern” nation, Haiti could take advantage of its location close to the United States and supply cheap consumer goods to its wealthier neighbor.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) developed “aid” programs in Haiti that were designed to transform subsistence farmers into laborers for export-oriented farming. Peasants that could not find jobs as farm laborers could go to urban areas and work in the newly built low-wage sweatshops making T-shirts for Walt Disney Corporation and other US-based companies.
The farming for export idea failed and there were not nearly enough jobs for the working poor in the cities. The “development” plan did not work, and Haitians were left worse off. Of course, the USAID and other initiators of the plan never fixed the disaster they created. Eventually, the “American planners and Haitian elites decided that perhaps their development model didn’t work so well in Haiti, and they abandoned it,” leaving Haiti worse off than before.
Failed development initiatives left Port-au-Prince extraordinarily vulnerable to natural disasters. USAID initiatives in the countryside combined with dumping of US-subsidized agricultural products forced peasants out of subsistence farming and into the cities to seek out survival. Many of these urban migrants live in houses made of cinderblock or other substandard materials that are very susceptible to earthquake damage. The fact that so many people live in inadequate housing structures adds significantly to the destruction.
Poverty and underdevelopment have also led to deforestation. People too poor to afford kerosene or gas for cooking turn to wood for fuel. In addition, European and US companies have been mining Haiti’s natural resources (cement, marble, granite, aggregate, gold and copper) and razing forests for lumber for decades. The extreme deforestation of Haiti makes the country more vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes.
The story of Haiti — a nation that broke the rules from the beginning by standing on its own two feet — is the story of how global capitalism works to keep most people in poverty. When Haiti won its independence from France, France and its allies ensured through military means that Haiti paid its debt — and much more — to France. When investors in the US were looking for a source of cheap labor, they looked to Haiti. Maintaining global inequality though military force and profiting off of cheap labor from poor countries is how global capitalism works — or does not work, according to your perspective.
The earthquake in Haiti is a prime example of how unbridled capitalism kills. For this reason, it is crucial to think and to talk about Haiti, in addition to doing what we can to avoid as many deaths and injuries as possible during the current crisis. Perhaps then we can prevent the same mistakes from being committed in Haiti as they have elsewhere in the aftermath of disasters. Perhaps then we can truly rebuild Haiti, for the Haitians.