Reflections on Haiti in the wake of devastation, by Dr Tanya Casas

Jan 19, 2010













































Dr. Casas is Lecturer of Liberal Arts at Delaware Valley College. She has a Ph.D. in Development Sociology from Cornell University and has conducted research on economic development initiatives and social movements in Latin America.


By Tanya Casas


The images coming out of Haiti as a result of the earthquake and its aftershocks are heart wrenching. The loss of human life and the extent of destruction are extraordinary. As I write this, I can only imagine what it must be like for survivors in Port-au-Prince as they struggle with continued efforts to find and rescue their loved ones amid the sight and stench of lifeless bodies along the streets.


 Every minute counts and every rescued family member or friend dug out of the rubble gives hope to those on the ground and to Haitians and Haitian-Americans living in the United States and elsewhere that more might be found alive. They cling desperately to telephones hoping to get through to the tattered Caribbean nation knowing that time is running. Haitians need the help of the international community in this critical moment to avoid a humanitarian disaster even though, as history has shown us, Haitians are survivors.


Haiti was just beginning to emerge from the devastation wrought on the island of Hispaniola after four hurricanes struck in 2008, leaving almost 800 dead and 60 percent of the nation's harvest destroyed. Such hurricanes are not unprecedented. In 2004, hurricane Jeanne left 3,000 dead. These hurricanes have further weakened an almost decimated agricultural sector suffering from a chronic lack of investment in rural infrastructure.


 Although about two thirds of the Haitian population engages in farming activities, most work on small subsistence plots whose poor soils do not allow them to produce enough to survive.  In addition, decades of deforestation to access land for farming and to obtain charcoal have created soil erosion and exacerbated flooding.


After the waters subsided in 2008, many towns along the coast were left uninhabitable and life in this poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere seemed quite bleak. Already struggling from rising food prices as a result of soaring costs in energy, many in this food insecure country would go hungry. In Cité Soleil, Haiti's most notorious slum, "mud cakes," a product that had been consumed by impoverished pregnant women to obtain calcium, became the staple food of much of the slums inhabitants. They were not eaten for their taste or for nutrition but because they fill bellies. These "mud cakes," as the name suggests, are a combination of clay-rich dirt, margarine and a bit of salt.


 Widespread hunger led to unrest and food riots in April 2008 that toppled the prime minister. Haitian peasant organizations argue that environmental devastation and an increasing population only partly explain the failure of farmers to produce enough food for the small nation.


Thirty years ago, Haiti was a self sufficient producer of rice and before 1950 produced more than 80 percent of its own food, while exporting coffee, cocoa, meat and sugar. Since then, however, political instability combined with the adoption of trade liberalization policies has transformed Haiti into a net importer of food.


In 1995, for example, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund pressured Haiti to cut import tariffs on rice from 50 percent to 3 percent. This allowed cheap subsidized rice from the United States to flood into the country. Haitian farmers could not compete. Urban consumers benefited for a while from the low-cost imports, but they caused national rice production to plummet.


 Today, Haiti imports 80 percent of the rice and over half of the food it consumes-just as world prices have sky rocketed. In a country where two thirds of the population is impoverished, any swelling in the price of food can have a devastating impact as the thriving "mud cake" business, which appears to resist inflation, demonstrates.


While signs of an economic recovery, particularly within the tourist industry, were beginning to materialize towards the latter part of 2009, we can only imagine the setbacks the Jan. 12 earthquake has caused for this nation struggling against decades of political and social instability, and natural and ecological disasters. It is no wonder that many Haitians, despite fierce pride in their history, longingly hope to escape either to the United States, Canada or even to neighboring, and relatively more prosperous, Dominican Republic, despite historical tensions with this country and blatant hostility towards Haitians.


Haitians ruled over the entire island of Hispaniola from 1822-1842 - a period Dominicans describe as cruel and barbarous. Under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1937, between 10,000 and 20,000 Haitians living in the borderlands were massacred over a five-day period in what became known as the "Parsley Massacre."


 Hostilities continue in the Dominican Republic towards the many Haitians migrating across the border to escape poverty and desolation. This was made clear to me last year when our tour guide in the Dominican Republic outlined the physical characteristics that distinguished the darker-skinned Haitian from the lighter-skinned Dominican.


Many Americans are not, however, aware of Haitian history or how it has impacted our own. What we know is, often times, quite limited. We know that Haiti is impoverished and has historically been politically unstable, jumping from dictatorship to, in rare cases, a democratic transition. Yet, we fail to consider the historical context for its impoverishment and long years of political violence. And, I cannot fail to mention Haitian religious practices or vodou, which has long occupied the American social imagination.


Even our Dominican tour guide could not help but mention this important distinction between the two sides of the island. American cartoons, stories, and Hollywood have all contributed to the understanding of vodou as a type of witchcraft or black magic. Pat Robertson's very public and shocking statements following the earthquake regarding the legend of Haitian revolutionary fighters having made a pact with the devil, demonstrate this tenuous relationship we have historically had with this Caribbean nation that can be traced back to its inception as a republic.


I wonder how we can so easily silence Haitian history. How many children in the United States have learned that 500 Haitian "free men of color" joined American colonists and French troops in 1779 during the revolutionary war in an unsuccessful push to drive the British out of Savannah, Georgia?   


After returning home, Haitian veterans of the American Revolutionary War would help lead the "Black Jacobin" revolt in 1791 and turn the rhetoric of the French Revolution successfully against French colonialism. The rebellious slaves of the Haitian sugar plantation became the first to gain independence in the Americas and Haiti became the second independent republic, after the United States, in 1804.


The Haitian Revolution so weakened France that Louisiana ceased to be of value to the Empire leading to the Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803. The Black Jacobin Revolution would even affect the way the institution of slavery was practiced. Pro-slavery advocates in the U.S. South would point to the execution of French colonialists and the authoritarian rule that would ensue in Haiti soon after 1804 as proof that violence and tight control over slaves was justifiable.


What is often missing from narratives on the Haitian Revolution, however, is how this nascent nation was looked upon with disdain and often isolated by the international community, particularly the United States.


The African-American leader, orator, author, escaped slave and minister to Haiti, Frederick Douglass, spoke about Haiti and its relationship to the United States in a speech at the World Fair in Chicago 1893. In this speech he argued that Haiti and the United States should be natural allies given the circumstances through which each nation came to be.

...[I]t is a remarkable and lamentable fact, that while Haiti is so near us and so capable of being so serviceable to us; while, like us, she is trying to be a sister republic and anxious to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people; while she is one of our very best customers, selling her coffee and her other valuable products to Europe for gold, and sending us her gold to buy our flour, our fish, our oil, our beef and our pork; while she is thus enriching our merchants and our farmers and our country generally, she is the one country to which we turn the cold shoulder...

...But a deeper reason for coolness between the countries is this: Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black or forgiven the Almighty for making her black...

... Besides, after Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.

Douglass served as Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti from 1889 till 1991. He recognized the problem of disdain that haunted and divided this Caribbean nation from its inception when the international community chose to boycott Haitian goods for fear that Haiti's model would be replicated by slaves in slave-owning countries. The United States, the most powerful country in the hemisphere, would continue to give Haiti the "cold shoulder" well into the nineteenth century. This was a serious blow to a nation trying to build democratic self-rule.


While it is difficult to assess the impact of this initial international conspiracy, it had long term economic consequences. It led to disillusion and unrest among Haitians and caused political rifts among leaders who would exercise their power heavy handedly and compete for power amongst themselves. In its 200-year history, Haiti has suffered 32 political coups. This has led to vulnerability to interventions and occupations by outside forces that have, on more than one occasion, demanded large sums of money from the National Bank of Haiti.


 As early as 1825, France's King Charles X demanded 150 million francs (a sum later lowered to 90 million) as indemnity for profits lost in the slave trade in a treaty signed by President Jean Pierre Boyer in exchange for the French recognition of Haitian independence (and freedom from a French invasion).


At the same time, similar to other countries in the region, Haiti would struggle against its colonial past and a highly stratified social structure largely, though not exclusively, determined by complexion. While the white elite class was mostly eliminated after the revolution, a small, mainly French speaking, urban Mulatto elite and a small Black elite would emerge and control most of the country's wealth. Meanwhile, the vast majority of black Haitians would struggle against poverty. Later, the presence of foreign business interests in Haiti would further deepen these inequalities. Frederick Douglass resigned his post in Haiti in protest to American policies. He felt that American business was taking advantage of his position.


While U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 till 1934 would leave the country with greater infrastructure and more stability, it would also leave the country's financial system quite vulnerable and indebted to offshore creditors. This would only exacerbate throughout the twentieth century and throughout successive dictatorships that did little to address Haiti's financial woes. In 1956, Haiti would be ruled by the repressive and corrupt Duvalier dictatorship, beginning with "Papa Doc" until 1971, and then his son and successor at the age of 19, "Baby Doc," until he was forced into exile in France in 1986.


Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and populist leader briefly rose to power in 1991 until he was ousted in September of the same year in a military coup. Thousands of Haitians fled for Miami. A trade embargo was then imposed by the United States on the fragile nation from 1991-1994, severely hampering the economy and decimating domestic industries. After U.S. and other troops had been deployed to the country, Aristide returned to power from 1994-1996 when his term was completed.


Trade liberalization policies beginning in the 1980s and expanding in 1995 with the liberalization of agricultural trade increased the external debt and heightened inequalities as governments struggled to repay these obligations. This would worsen political rifts and Aristide would break ties with his former ally and prime minister in 1991, René Préval, president of Haiti. By 2000, the country would be engulfed in political gang violence. Aristide was again elected president in 2001 until 2004 when he was forced into exile to South Africa prompting involvement by U.N. peacekeeping forces to contain the violence - a force that would remain in Haiti.


 The irony is that there was a ray of hope in September 2009 when Haiti qualified for the cancellation of its debts by meeting the conditions of the IMF and World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Program. It looked like Haiti's fate was beginning to change.


And then Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and it is estimated that over 200,000 people might have perished. When San Francisco was struck by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in 1906, around 3,000 died as a result of the quake and resulting fires. What is clear is that the massive loss of life in Haiti has less to do with the quake itself and more to do with the impoverishment of the country - substandard construction and poor infrastructure. This poor infrastructure is severely hampering efforts to reach survivors and distribute clean water, food and medicine.


Let us hope that in the days, weeks and months that follow this devastation, we reconsider our approach to global poverty. It is not just a problem that has resulted from the internal political, social and economic dynamics of a country or region as the story of Haiti has shown us. It is a much broader, systemic problem. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to support Haitians in rebuilding and remaking their lives so that Haitians can fulfill their real potential.