The greatest tragedy of the earthquake of 12 January 2010 in Haiti was that the devastation was caused more by human failure than the natural disaster. The earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was about as strong, causing the Bay Bridge to break, but killed only 63 people.
Before the Spanish came, the island of Hispaniola had been divided into chiefdoms, and the two western ones, Jaragua and Marien, became Haiti. Haiti’s first tragedy began with the arrival of the Spanish, who sickened, enslaved and killed off the native Taino Indians.
The second tragedy of Haiti was the importation of African slaves by the Spanish. French pirates and colonists cam to Haiti, The Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 split Hispaniola between Spain and France. Many more French settlers arrived and established plantations producing sugar, coffee, and indigo with slave labor.
A slave rebellion, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, fought the French government from 1791 to 1803. The liberated armies were commanded by General Toussaint L’Ouverture. The French National Assembly abolished slavery in the French colonies in 1794, but later Napoleon sent troops to regain French control.
French General Charles Leclerc invited L’Ouverture to meeting, but then kidnaped him and sent him to France, where he was imprisoned and died in 1803. Some 50,000 French soldiers died in the attempt to capture Haiti; the death toll for the rebels was 100,000, and some 24,000 European settlers also perished.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the Haitian toops to victory against the French. Haitians proclaimed independence on 1 January 1804, naming the country Haïti, on of the Taíno names for the island. Several thousand French settlers fled, taking their slaves with them, and settled in New Orleans, which had the lasting effect of strengthening the French culture there.
Instead of welcoming Haiti as the Western Hemisphere’s second independent country, the U.S. government shunned it. President Thomas Jefferson, fearing that the Haitian slave revolt would spark an American slave rebellion, imposed a trade embargo on Haiti that lasted until 1862. Ironically, the independence of Haiti created the United States of America as a continental power. Without Haiti, the Louisiana Territory was difficult to defend, and rather than being profitable as was Haiti, Louisiana was costly to administer. Needing funds to wage war on Great Britain, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. Yet the U.S. compounded an ungrateful lack of political recognition with barriers to trade.
The third Haitian tragedy began when instead of establishing democracy, Dessalines drove out and killed the remaining Europeans, and became a dictator. Haiti was instrumental in the struggle of the Spanish colonies for independence, assisting the leader Simon Bolivar. In 1822, Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer conquered the Spanish side of the island and freed its slaves. He also turned the Haitian workers into peasants forbidden to leave the farm lands.
The fourth tragedy began in 1825 when King Charles X of France sent troops to reconquer Haiti. President Boyer signed a treaty by which France recognized the Haitian independence in exchange for a payment of 150 million gold francs, reduced in 1838 to 90 million. It was allegedly a compensation for profits lost from slavery, but there was no compensation to the slaves. The lost profit was really wages stolen from the slaves and land rent stolen from the Indians. With the economy still ruined by destruction during the rebellion, resources that could have been invested in developing the economy were instead sent off abroad.
The United States recognized the independence of Haiti in 1862 and sent Frederick Douglass to be the consular minister. There were later several interventions by American and European forces, and from 1915 to 1934, the U.S. military occupied the island. They built up the infrastructure using forced labor, but did little to establish genuine democracy.
The fifth tragedy of Haiti occurred in 1957 with the election of Dr. François Duvalier as President. “Papa Doc” became a dictator and ruled until his death 1971. His son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” then ruled untl 1986. Violence, corruption, and political turbulence continued with the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990, who was later overthrown and returned.
The sixth tragedy of Haiti has been environmental. The French began clearing forests for their plantations. Later, almost all the forests were chopped down to use for fuel, which has caused erosion, floods, and the loss of the land’s fertility. A major reason for Haiti’s being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is the depletion of its soil. Much of its food is now imported.
Haiti’s economic tragedy is tied to its political tragedy, as corrupt chiefs have siphoned off much of the produced wealth. Massive foreign aid, making up a third of the government’s budget, has not created prosperity, because it has not confronted the political, environmental, and economic causes of Haiti’s poverty. Haiti’s government has also borrowed from the IMF and World Bank, and the debt service offsets much of the aid. Much of the debt was incurred during the Doc years.
Haiti was wealthy when it was a French colony. The country’s poverty originated in 1825, when it had to borrow from French banks to pay the coerced indemnity debt. Much of the political turmoil in Haiti stems from having its generated wealth go to foreigners to pay the debt.
The National Bank of the Republic of Haiti became entangled with U.S. banks in financing railroads in Haiti. U.S. companies pressured president Wilson to take control of Haiti’s custom houses that collected revenues from tariffs. Thus was created Haiti’s seventh tragedy, imperialist intervention by the United States, especially the invasion of U.S. marines in 1915 to secure U.S. financial interests.
When World War I began in 1914, U.S. Marines entered the capital Port-au-Prince and took $500,000 of currency to New York, making Haiti dependent on the U.S. for the use of its own money. The U.S. strengthened its hold in 1915 with the occupation by the U.S. Marine Corps, in order to pay off U.S. creditors. Loans originally made to Haiti to pay off the former French landowners were later bought by U.S. lenders. The U.S. military was engaged to force Haitians to keep paying ransom for their liberation! Except that now they had U.S. masters. These loans were finally retired in 1947.
The eighth tragedy of Haiti is this most devastating earthquake. After the immediate provision of food, medical aid, and security, the U.S., France, and other countries need to take responsibility for their role in creating poverty in Haiti.
First, the U.S. and other countries should drop all barriers to imports from Haiti. Second, they should promote political stability, the rule of law, and genuine democracy by advocating local democracy and bottom-up voting and governance. Third, the Haitians should reduce corruption by creating a new police force that is paid well and devoted to safety rather than bribery. Fifth, Haitians should establish a truly free market in which there are no arbitrary restrictions on establishing enterprise, and no tax on labor, trade, and enterprise, with public revenue instead from land value, along with user fees and pollution charges.
With economic freedom, investment would pour into Haiti to make the economy flourish as it did during the French days, but now, the wealth would be retained by the people, who would be finally liberated from slavery, foreign domination, and tyrants.
[Editor’s note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Foldvary’s blog, the Foldvarium, on January 31 2010]