When an earthquake of 7.0 on the Moment scale struck the country of Haiti recently, this led to a total collapse of the government, economy and social institutions of this already plagued country. Some 200.000 people are estimated to have died, on a total population of about 9 million – the proportional equivalent of some 7 million Americans dying at once. It killed also the opposition leader, the Archbishop, and most of the staff of the United Nations mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH. There has subsequently been an outpouring of foreign aid and medical support from many countries around the world. And yet the question about this long-suffering country remains: how come it was so poor and so unprepared? Haiti is not far from the United States, one of the world’s richest countries, and yet it is itself one of the world’s poorest, and has been so for a long time.
To understand Haiti’s history, we must go back to the days of Columbus. It was he who by purpose and disease eradicated the original population of the island, the Taino. The island now dubbed Hispaniola became a source of gold production, in which the population that had not died of smallpox was worked to death. With the labor force subsequently diminished to nothing, it became necessary to find new labor. This meant the importation of black slaves from Africa, who involuntarily repopulated the region and produced sugar, coffee and indigo on the newly founded plantations. This reached a height under French rule, when they supplanted the Spanish on the western half. Sugar in those days was one of the most valuable products, and the West Indies were considered more important as colonies than any North American one, which explains the laxity of the British in defending their possessions in the late 18th Century. Around the time of the French Revolution “Sainte Domingue” produced two-thirds of all tropical products of Europe; of the newly imported slaves, some one-third died every year.(1) Under Napoleon, inspired by the French Revolution, the slaves revolted with the support of poor mulattos, and succesfully expelled the French forces from the area. As a result, Haiti became the first independent nation in South & Central America, and the first majority black republic, although the French by treachery imprisoned the revolutionary leader, Toussaint de l’Ouverture.
The French were obviously disinclined to give up this so valuable source of exploitation, and under threat of renewed invasion forced Haiti in 1825 to sign a treaty which fixed an enormous sum of compensation for the owner of every slave freed by the rebellion. In this manner, the Haitians were made to pay for the privilege of asserting their freedom against their owners, who were ‘compensated’ for the loss of opportunities for exploitation. The sum total would immediately bankrupt Haiti, and as a result the country fell into destitution. Although the Haitian rulers had supported Bolivar in turn, for example, no country supported the free blacks of Haiti against the French imperial rulers, and the debts destroyed their real independence as surely as their revolution had made it certain. The subsequent deterioration of Haiti’s position led to a succession of ineffective arbitrary governments and its reduction to the status of an American vassal. The United States as well as other powers repeatedly invaded the country to steal its remaining resources, and between 1915 and 1934 the US occupied the country, reintroducing forced labor on behalf of the Haitian-American Sugar Company. During the Cold War, the United States supported first the tyranny of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, who organized an ‘anti-Haitian campaign’ that killed thousands of Haitians, and then the brutal dictatorship of the Duvaliers in Haiti itself, whose armed bands (Tonton Macoute) terrorized the population. When the Duvaliers were finally overthrown in a series of coups, the first free elections brought the ‘liberation theologist’ Bertrand Aristide to power. He was promptly himself overthrown, but the United States under Clinton intervened to restore him, and he sat out his term, during which he finally abolished Haiti’s expensive and unnecessary military in order to prevent further arbitrary government by generals. After a term by his supporter René Préval, he was re-elected in 2000, but groups of gangs and militias opposed his rule. Since any semblance of central government is difficult in a country as poor and gang-ruled as Haiti, Aristide himself unwisely decided to rely on a loyal militia to combat them, which gave the United States and other nations a pretext for ‘evacuating’ him out of the country. The US had already blocked the Inter-American Development Bank from giving development support to Haiti after Aristide’s election, and moreover, Haiti was again forced to pay from no means its odious debt, this time built up by the extravagant corruption of the Duvalier regime.(2) A United Nations mission, MINUSTAH, was flown in only after the gang insurgents had taken over much of the country; it is this mission together with Préval who ruled the country when the earthquake disaster struck.
What lesson to learn from this? It is a telling fact that it was Aristide who proposed to ‘play fair’ by submitting a bill to France worth roughly $21 billion, for the forced payments plus interest. France of course has been able to ignore this entirely, even when Haiti is extorted to every last penny for debts incurred under prior governments or by invalid means. Haiti no longer has any resources to reconstruct the country easily. Decades of mismanagement and extortion by exploiters foreign and domestic have deforested almost the entire country, and the population lives on constant brink of famine. 76% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, which is even by global standards appallingly poor.(3) When food prices rose significantly two years ago, many Haitians had to resort to eating mud out of pure want.(4) Yet there has been no lack of foreign investment. Indeed, there was much resentment internationally about Aristide’s persistent attempts to raise the minimum wage for the many garment workers working in foreign-owned ‘sweatshops’; the current minimum wage is 72 gourdes a day, which before the earthquake was about $1.50.(5) Yet after the devastation, which ruined what little infrastructure and development Haiti had, the masters of global finance have just one recommendation for Haiti’s restructuring: more sweatshops. Paul Collier, a well-known development economist and a critic of foreign aid, has proposed a brilliant plan of more ‘garment industry’ (which is not so much industry as extremely simple craft production unlikely to lead to much capital investment). This plan is now supported by such luminaries as Bill Clinton and Ban Ki-Moon. And little surprise indeed: the profit margins for the mostly American and Chinese companies running the sweatshops are up to 22%, thanks to low wages. The Préval administration has managed to raise wages in the ‘outsourcing’ sector to 125 gourdes per day, but the company managers have subsequently lowered the piece-work pay, so that there is little improvement for the workers. Yet according to Collier, the death of 200.000 people is a golden opportunity for capitalist development: “”The earthquake could usher in such a boom in Haiti.”(6) Or, as a famous political economist put it more accurately long ago: “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore with blood and dirt”.(7)
1), 2), 5) Paul Farmer, “Who removed Aristide?”. London Review of Books Vol. 26, No. 8 (April 15, 2004).
3) Robin Blackburn, “Diary”. London Review of Books Vol. 31, No. 19 (October 8, 2009).
4) “Haiti’s poor resort to eating mud as prices rise”. MSNBC/AP (Jan. 29, 2008).
6) Jonathan Katz, “Can low-paying garment industry save Haiti?”. Associated Press (Feb. 21, 2010).
7) Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I ([London 1887], Ch. 31. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm.