Haiti: A brief overview

Today Haiti is most commonly known for being the poorest country in the western hemisphere and a land wracked by destitution and despair. This picture has only been reinforced by the horrific consequences of the 13 January earthquake, 15kms southwest of Port-au-Prince.

While the media networks are falling over themselves to relay stories of its dreadful consequences - although it is still a distant second to the blanket coverage of the Lillis murder trial - the reporting has been conspicuous by the general absence of any attempt at in-depth analysis as to why the earthquake had such lethal consequences. In this respect the link provided by Donagh on Irish Left Review yesterday to The Real News: Haiti and the Devil’s Curse is well worth a look.


Article originally published in The Irish Left Review

Despite the many human stories of personal tragedies and losses, how (or how not) international relief efforts are assisting the people of Haiti and reports on ‘insecurity’ in the country and the deployment of US forces and EU police to establish order, we are left uninformed as to the context within which this earthquake took place. To understand this it is necessary to look at the history of Haiti. While this piece will only touch very briefly on certain key episodes, there are some books recommended at the end for those who are interested in getting a better understanding of the real reasons for Haiti’s current crisis.

As a starting point it has to be emphasised that the current overwhelming degradation and poverty suffered by the people of Haiti is particularly poignant, given Haiti’s proud inception to nationhood. Haiti has the proud claim of being the first republic led by people of African descent as well as being the second oldest country in the Americas after the US.

Between 1791 and 1804 the Haitian Revolution, predominantly comprised of slaves, fought and successfully overcame the forces of French, British and Spanish colonial empires. This was the first successful slave rebellion ever and was a particularly bitter struggle with little quarter given on either side. However, in the 200 years since then Haiti has sadly seen the abject failure to build on this globally momentous achievement. While the finger has been pointed at Haitians themselves with respect to their ‘willingness’ to accept and submit to dictators, such as the infamous Papa and Baby Docs, the real cause of their unwelcome status as the poorest nation in the ‘western hemisphere’ must assuredly be attributed to the continuous disruption and intrusion in their national affairs by foreign powers.

As Yves Engler writes: "Unfortunately, Haiti’s history also demonstrates how fluidly Europe (and North America) moved from formal colonialism to neo-imperialism. Technically 'independent' for more than two centuries, outsiders have long shaped the country’s affairs. Through isolation, economic asphyxiation, debt dependence, gunboat diplomacy, occupation, foreign supported dictatorships, structural adjustment programs and 'democracy promotion'."

A particular thorn in the side of Haiti’s development revolves around the issue of its international debt obligations. The plague of ‘debt’ dates right back to 1825 when France, backed by its warships, demanded that Haiti compensate the French loss of its slave colony. In order to be recognised by France as a ‘sovereign republic’, Haiti had to pay 150m francs, a sum comparable to France’s annual budget and equivalent to €15bn in current monetary terms. In other words, the newly liberated slaves of Haiti were obliged to somehow scrape this vast sum together in order to assume their rightful place in the international community.

A century ago in 1910, the country’s only commercial bank and national treasury, the Banque National d’Haïti was purchased by the US State Department-National City Bank of New York (Citibank). As a result, Haiti’s national debt now became the US consortium’s debt. This led to President Woodrow Wilson deciding in 1915 to dispatch US troops to occupy Haiti in order to protect its investment.  US soldiers remained in Haiti for just under 20 years up until 1934, during which time 40% of Haiti’s GDP was appropriated and transferred to US bankers. Despite the troop withdrawal from Haiti in 1934, overall control of Haiti’s finances remained with the US until 1947.

Today the very lifeblood of Haiti continues to flow to international banks and creditors. Its current international debt stems largely from the despotic rule of the Duvaliers. In 1957, Doctor François Duvalier triumphed at the polls in a democratic election. However, upon obtaining the reins of power, he had no hesitation in establishing himself as an autocratic ruler, relying on force and terror to remain in power until his death in 1971. In the pursuit of this goal he was firmly supported by the US. Although it should be noted that in the early 1960s, the US tired of Papa Doc and in 1963 even suspended diplomatic relations with Haiti for a period.

During Papa Doc’s reign, some 30,000 Haitians were killed for opposing his rule. The Haitian killing fields were predominantly the work of the ton ton macouts - officially known as the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale or VSN - who were primarily comprised of rural dwellers. By 1962, within five years of his electoral victory, Duvalier’s ton ton macoute were a larger organisation than the military and had also effectively usurped their authority.

Following Papa Doc’s death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) although only 19, took over as ‘ruler for life’. Duvalier was invested with near-absolute power by the constitution. Although Baby Doc did release some political prisoners and soften the regime in certain respects, his administration mainly continued along the same path as his father with an absolute prohibition on opposition. In spite of US reservations regarding Papa Doc, the Duvaliers were generally supported by the ‘West’.

The Duvalier dynasty, which lasted longer than any other regime in Haiti’s history, also saw an explosion in its debt obligations. Over the 30 year period of the Duvalier dictatorship, between 1957 and 1986, foreign debt multiplied by 17.5. When Baby Doc fled the country in 1986, total debt amounted to US$750m. It has been estimated that loans extended during this period amounted to some 40% of Haiti’s total debt obligations.

However, the important thing to bear in mind here is that these funds were fraudulently borrowed by the Duvaliers for their own personal enrichment and to strengthen their position in Haiti. Furthermore, the international financial community and institutions who issued these loans were only too well aware of the corrupt and despotic nature of the borrowers. To all extents and purposes therefore these loans should now be regarded as odious debt and cancelled.

Despite the massive debt burden with which Haiti was faced and the dishonest method by which it had been incurred, Haiti was not considered for debt relief when the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC) was first launched in 1996 as the international process to grant debt relief and cancellation. It was only in 2006 that the World Bank and the Paris Club agreed to accept Haiti into the HIPC. By that stage, Haiti’s foreign debt amounted to well over US$1.337bn. It was agreed that debt of US$1.2bn would be cancelled in order to “make the debt bearable”. However, by the time the initiative was completed and the debt was cancelled in June 2009, Haiti’s total international debt had ballooned out to US$1.884bn. Therefore, even with the reduction of US$1.2bn, Haiti still had a debt of just under US$700m.

Moreover, while it was undoubtedly a positive development for 60% of Haiti’s debt to be cancelled, it is unforgiveable that it took so many years to do so. In the years that had passed while Haiti waited for its debt to be cancelled, it had to adhere to its repayment schedule while interest continued to accrue on its outstanding obligations, including those entered into by the Duvaliers.

Following the ousting of Baby Doc, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected as President on the back of his programme to implement land reforms, provide assistance to peasants, increase wages and establish union rights for sweatshop workers and invest in improved infrastructure. A coup in 1991, which was backed by the US, removed Aristide from power until 1994 when he was returned to power by Clinton. However, as a condition of his reinstatement he had to commit to implementing a neoliberal economic program, known to Haitian’s as the “plan of death”.

Although Aristide refused elements of the US plan, his implementation of other components undermined his own program of reforms. His demand for US$21bn in reparations in his final year and reluctance to toe the US line, led to US imposing severe sanctions on Haiti. These sanctions crippled the Haitian economy and pushed workers and rural peasants even further into poverty.

The end to Aristide’s efforts at reform came in 2004 when he was kidnapped and deported by an unholy alliance of certain sections of Haiti’s ruling class and the US. A puppet government, headed by an ex-UN official Gérard Latortue was installed and promptly proceeded to misappropriate as much as it could of the US$4bn of aid that flowed into Haiti after the departure of Aristide. This new regime also promptly halted the tentative reforms that Aristide had initiated thus speeding up the immiseration and impoverishment of the country’s citizens.

In 2006, René Préval an erstwhile ally of Aristide was voted into power. However, in his second term as President, his first being between 1996 and 2001 when Aristide was in exile, Préval room for manoeuvre has been extremely limited. Indeed, in 2008 his Presidency was rocked by food riots given the soaring cost of food items in Haiti. This shortage could be traced to the pressure put on countries such as Haiti to engage in producing export crops rather than food for domestic consumption and the consequent purchasing and consolidation of large parcels of land by foreign companies to grow food for export.

The rice industry provides an excellent example of this trend. Whereas 25 years ago, Haiti was growing 125,000 tons of rice annually with only some 7,000 tons being imported from the US, the market liberalisation process saw Haiti importing 225,000 tons of rice a mere 20 years later.



Another issue of importance has been the role played by international NGOs and, in particular, those funded by Western governments, particularly in the past few years. Given the relative wealth of these organisations in Haiti and the importance attributed to them by the ‘west’ and donor institutions, they tend to have an influence far in excess of what they should have. Furthermore, they play a crucial role in the maintenance and administration of the country’s social services, which also provides them with crucial leverage. Should they withdraw their support and funds, these services could be irreparably harmed. Observers such as Yves Engler have pointed out that

Haiti now has the highest per capita presence of NGOs in the world. The Préval government has become a political fig leaf, behind which the real decisions are made by the imperial powers, and implemented through their chosen international NGOs.

The powerlessness of the Haitian government is also emphasised by the control the US and the UN-led peacekeepers exercise in Haiti. Indeed, there has been intense criticism of the UN role in Haiti since its deployment as ‘The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti’ (Minustah) in June 2004. Critics have pointed to its ineffectiveness in protecting ordinary Haitians from the death squads and even collusion with right-wing forces terrorising Aristide and his Lavalas Party’s supporters. Furthermore, there have been numerous reports of UN troops having committed atrocities in Haiti, including murder and rape.

Most importantly of all, the international community in Haiti - be it the UN, US and/or NGOs - have completely failed to tackle Haiti’s major economic, social and environmental problems such as poverty, its ramshackle and dilapidated infrastructure, and massive deforestation. This failure has significantly contributed to and greatly aggravated the consequences not only of the recent earthquake but the recent hurricanes in 2004 and 2008.

Now just under a hundred years after US troops occupied Haiti to protect its investment, US troops are pouring in again. Of course, this time their mission is ostensibly a humanitarian one. US troops are being despatched in order to ensure that there is law and order so that a safe and secure space can be created for the distribution of humanitarian aid. However, as Phyllis Bennis of the Transnational Institute and Institute of Policy Studies has pointed out:

"This militarization of the aid effort was based solely on the expectation, not the reality, of large-scale violence. The U.S. decision to send the Marines first, before doctors or water, was based on the anticipation that there would be violence that would prevent the distribution of supplies. In fact, despite widespread anger and looting, especially of food, incidents of real violence (though widely reported) have been relatively few and isolated. The bottom line must be who is in charge. With the Haitian government devastated, any necessary turn-over of authority should go to the United Nations rather than to the U.S. military. The U.S. should put the Pentagon’s massive airlift capacity at the service of Haiti and the United Nations, not the other way around. Militarizing the provision of aid is not going to save the most lives."

The problems of this militarisation of the humanitarian effort can be seen in how on one day, two planeloads of humanitarian supplies from Mexico had to be turned away from Haiti airports as US military planes were given precedence. To give priority to military transports over those containing essential humanitarian aid such as food, water and medicine, may well have resulted in the deaths of Haitians in urgent need of assistance.

Finally, history does not augur well for the future of Haiti once the initial international outpouring of sympathy dies down. The recent historical record with respect to pledges of international assistance in the wake of a large-scale natural disaster is far from promising. Particularly instructive in this respect was the failure for the funds promised in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami - which hit Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka - or the 2004 cyclone Jeanne which resulted in over 2,000 fatalities in Haiti, to materialise.

Furthermore, given the continuing existence of its national debt, a good deal of the funds that may be provided to help Haiti recover, may be diverted to service its obligations in this area. In this respect, a far more positive gesture on the part of the international community would be an immediate total and unconditional cancellation of the remainder of Haiti’s national debt. Most importantly of all, if Haiti is to be given the opportunity to rebuild itself, its national sovereignty must be genuinely respected.


Recommended Further Reading

Robinson, R. (2008) An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. Basic Civitas: New York

Hallward, P. (2007) Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment. Verso: London

James, C. L. R. (1980) The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and The San Domingo Revolution. Penguin: London

Smith, M. J. (2009) Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. University of North Carolina: North Carolina