I have heard it said that obstacles are often stepping stones to opportunity. Obstacles on route to prosperity have piled up against Haiti ever since the country gained independence from France at the beginning of the 19th century. Opportunities, on the other hand, have been hard to come by.
Haiti has been the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere for decades, and now a severe earthquake centered 15 miles outside the nation’s capital has provided an opportunity to change the status quo. And changing the status quo is what is needed. Reconstruction is not going to improve the centuries-long impoverishment and instability that gave birth to the current state of affairs. Haiti must be reborn; and with it, our behavior toward a country that has endured so much misfortune.
A Tumultuous History
Haiti won its independence in a destructive fight for freedom against Napoleon’s armies at the end of the 18th century. France then imposed a large indemnity on the nation of freed African slaves. Following suit with the other great colonial powers, the United States refused to recognize Haiti’s hard fought independence. The phrase “All men are created equal” gained its first footnote; all men are created equal – unless your freedom means igniting the fires of revolt in the human chattel of American slaveholders.
The great Western powers believed that Haiti was an example of freedom carried too far. The United States, for its part, rewarded Haitian freedom with a suffocating trade embargo, and a demand that in exchange for peace the tiny nation pay vast reparations to its former colonial overseer.
The trade restrictions and political isolation strangled the Haitian economy for much of the next century. The economically crippled country experienced years of instability – as most nations fighting an uphill battle against poverty are likely to experience – with ten presidents killed or overthrown between 1888 and 1915.
Big Brother to the North
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti with the goal of protecting U.S. assets and preventing a growing German influence in the region. And after failing to persuade the Haitian legislature to adopt a constitution which would allow foreigners to own land, President Wilson forced the legislature to dissolve in 1917.
Under the American occupation, Haitians were effectively removed from positions of governance. And by the time the Americans left in 1934 “Haiti’s own institutions had atrophied,” says Michele Wucker, Executive Director of the World Policy Instituteand author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominican, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola.
Throughout the American occupation, the United States overturned laws that restricted foreign ownership, thereby allowing American corporations to gain a permanent stranglehold on the country’s agriculturally dominated economy.
From 1957 to 1986, Haiti was ruled by a brutal and corrupt dictatorship that deserves much of the blame for the countries desperate state, but despite the violent and oppressive nature of the regime it was none-the-less supported by the United States as a counter weight to communist Cuba and as a supporter of American corporate interests.
Foreign Aid and Structural Adjustment
Foreign aid as a development strategy is coming under increased scrutiny. While food aid from the United States has helped feed the poorest people in Haiti, it has also had the effect of putting Haitian farmers out of business.
This, says Wucker, should raise “the larger question of how the United States subsidizes its farm industry and dumps surplus crops in the form of food aid. This practice has done a lot of damage in Haiti and other developing countries. For Haiti to sustain its own people, it needs to rebuild the roads and infrastructure needed to transport crops internally.”
This brings an interesting trend to light: the disintegration of the Haitian state. Mark Levine, in No ‘Hope for Haiti’ without Justice, argues that the absence of any kind of effective state response to the earthquake should not be surprising, but expected as the result of policies set in place during the last three decades of neoliberal structural reforms imposed by the United States and international financial institutions.
The actions of the international financial community in Haiti have been well documented. The damaging effects of neoliberal economic policies were outlined by Lisa McGowan in Democracy Undermined, Economic Justice Denied: Structural Adjustment and the Aid Juggernaut in Haiti. In January 1997, Haiti was crippled by street protests in the largest of a series of strikes organized by grassroots organizations against the structural adjustment policies being implemented by President Rene Preval as prerequisites for receiving funding from the international financial community.
McGowan’s report offered critical analyses of the real objectives of the IMF/World Bank/USAID structural adjustment policies for Haiti. She argued that the economic programs would perpetuate and intensify the economic, social and political crises in Haiti and give new life to the country’s historic instability. “These policies continue to serve the interests of a few creditors, some foreign investors and consumers, and a small class of Haitian elites at the expense of the Haitian people,” wrote McGowan.
To back up her position, McGowan brought attention to the IMF’s persuading the Haitian government to curb public spending on basic services for the poor while encouraging subsidies for the private sector and foreign investors in the form of tax and tariff exemptions. The international financial community and USAID, McGowan argued, also sought to transform the policies that were protecting the Haitian agriculture and industries.
The effect of these policies were the elimination of small peasant farms, which were not able to compete with cheaper subsidized imports, a concentration of limited development resources in the promotion of agribusiness trade and investment and production for export, and an increase in food import dependency.
For example, in the mid-1980’s Haiti was able to produce nearly all the rice it consumed. Following market liberalization, the country only produced about 50% of its needed rice ten years later. The other 50% is achieved through imported subsidized rice from the United States. This situation has turned Haiti, once a self-sufficient rice producer, into the largest Caribbean market and seventh largest importer in the world of subsidized American rice.
There is a strong link between poverty, agricultural production and environmental degradation in Haiti. With the settlement of the Spanish and later the French colonists, the plantation system and export-oriented agriculture were established in the country. Unsustainable agricultural techniques that are designed to maximize crop yields with little recognition of soil conservation became the norm in Haiti. Unfortunately, peasant farmers in the newly independent nation continued the unsustainable farming techniques they had learned under the yoke of their colonial masters.
Haiti has also been thoroughly deforested. The country was originally 93% covered by forests, but today under 3% of that forest remains. Much of the forests were cleared to make way for sugar cultivation by Europeans by the mid-17th century. Lumber was also shipped to Europe (which was nearly completely deforested by that time) for commercial purposes. Later, when steam power became the dominant source of power, Haiti’s forests were depleted so that they could fuel the fires of colonial sugar mills.
Today, the greatest threat to the minimal remaining forest is from charcoal being the primary source of fuel. The United Nations estimates that 70% of the population uses charcoal for cooking. The use of charcoal has been an environmental catastrophe, with the remaining forests disappearing at a rate of 15 to 20 million trees a year, effectively turning the country into a regional desert.
Silver Lining, or Another Missed Opportunity?
As I said at the beginning of this article, opportunities can often come about by overcoming an obstacle. And the rebirth of Haiti faces many obstacles.
The immense amount of suffering in Haiti is grabbing headlines around the world at present. The spotlight is shining bright on Port-au-Prince, and many governments are working hard to flood the country with aid. Poverty is so rampant in Haiti that what little basic infrastructure the country had before the earthquake has crumbled. But while many news sources are focused on presenting a positive picture of their government’s relief efforts, to do justice to the Haitian people one must recognize that the extent of suffering currently being experienced is a stain on the hands of man, not Mother Nature.
Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, hit the nail right on the head when he said “it should not take a natural disaster to turn our attention to the less fortunate.” It shouldn’t, but I dare say it does. Writing in The New York Times, Mark Danner expresses this sentiment so accurately that it is worth quoting in length:
The other evening I watched a television correspondent shake his head over what he movingly described as a “stupid death” — a death that, but for the right medical care, could have been prevented. “It doesn’t have to happen,” he told viewers, “People died today who did not need to die.” He did not say what any Haitian could have told him: that the day before, and the day before that, Haiti had seen hundreds of such “stupid deaths,” and, over the centuries, thousands more.
Danner goes on to say that Haiti has proven itself to be a country which can absorb the “attention of outsiders who, as often as not, remain blissfully unaware of their own contributions to what Haiti is.” While the commitments and promises currently being made are necessary to make sure this opportunity to “remake Haiti” is not lost like so many others, holding governments accountable to the pledges they have made with a dose of skeptical realism will have a more lasting effect than uncritical idealism toward the rebuilding process.
“Great natural disasters are often a catalyst for huge, positive change,” writes Abhas Jha for a World Bank blog. I sincerely hope that optimistic appraisals like these will prove that pessimists, such as Jeffrey Sachs at The Washington Post, need to have a little more faith in humanity coming together. Sachs believes that in Haiti we are facing not only a natural disaster but the combination of nature, poverty and politics. He writes that,
President Obama has declared that the United States will not forsake Haiti in its moment of agony. Honoring this commitment would be a first for Washington. To prevent a deepening spiral of death, the United States will have to do things differently than in the past. American relief and development institutions do not function properly, and to believe otherwise would be to condemn Haiti’s poor and dying to our own mythology.
The opportunity for Haiti to be reborn has presented itself, and we will need a happy medium between hopeful idealism and critical realism to see that this devastating earthquake is remembered as having a silver lining and not as another missed chance to change the status quo.