Haiti is a country that has seen unfathomable suffering; one that has been at the epicentre of natural disasters in recent years. The poverty and powerlessness that is so widespread (even before the earthquake, three-quarters of Haitian people lived in poverty), left the people defenceless against the horrific events of January 12. It’s no wonder people are asking whether this nation is cursed.
Across the world there arose an extraordinary spirit of generosity and solidarity in the wake of the earthquake, but sadly this tenderness is unlikely to last. Tearful comments projected onto our television screens at night have by now ceased, and as the coverage starts to diminish so too will the plight of the Haitians fade from our minds and our consciences.
But what if events took another course? What if the momentary sorrow we felt led to some deep searching about why this Caribbean nation has been so unlucky? If we did indeed do this thoughtful analysis, we would find that the story of Haiti, even from the earliest decades of its independence, is one of a downward spiral into debt and underdevelopment. As a nation it has been at the short end of the stick, time and time again, in its relationships with richer and more powerful countries. Haiti, it turns out, never stood a chance.
The story of Haiti
Until the late 18th century, Haiti was a French colony used to produce food, principally sugar, for a prosperous France. In 1803 the Haitian people staged the only successful slave revolt in history, defeating Napoleon’s French army and winning freedom for themselves and their nation. But the cost was high. The fighting destroyed infrastructure and killed thousands of the country’s people. And Haiti was punished not by God, but by the European colonisers who were angered by the dangerous precedent that the Haitian liberation movement had set.
In 1825, with warships positioned off the coast, France threatened to reinvade and re-establish slavery unless Haiti compensated slave owners for the loss of “property”. With other western powers also threatening an embargo, Haiti agreed to pay a sum of 150 million francs in return for recognition of sovereignty. The new debt, equivalent to US$20 billion in today’s currency, was 14 times larger than Haiti’s annual export revenues, so instead of spending its income on infrastructure and public services, the government was forced to divert up to 80 per cent to western banks for the right to self-govern.
The freedom won in the previous century didn’t last, and in 1914 a marine expedition from the US landed on Haitian soil, at least in part to facilitate the establishment of US plantations. For 20 years the US illegally occupied the country, only withdrawing when the government agreed to remove the constitutional provision prohibiting foreigners to own and run businesses.
The military occupation was followed by more of the same. For nearly three decades, between 1957 and 1986, the infamous father/son dictatorship of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier ruled the country. With the US, international institutions and other western donor governments turning a blind eye, the Duvaliers used foreign aid to pay for Manhattan shopping excursions, fur coats and government death squads. Despite widespread reports of the brutality, corruption and mounting foreign debt, the loans and political backing continued to flow so long as the dictators remained ideological allies in the Cold War. When the reign of the family ended, Haiti was left with an external debt totaling more than US$1 billion, while US$900 million worth of expropriated funds waited the Duvalier’s in French and Swiss bank accounts.
Even at the end of the dictatorships, foreign powers continued to exert strong influence over the political and economic scene of Haiti. In the 1980s and 90s the IMF was used to bail out the commercial banks who’d lent more money to developing countries like Haiti than the countries could ever afford to repay. The IMF, which claimed to be helping countries like Haiti fight poverty, began to dictate policy to ensure that repayment of foreign debt continued. Spending on public services was cut, tariff protections on export industries were removed, and new “aid” loans were diverted almost directly back to the banks in wealthy countries. The government was left with little to no capacity to invest in nation building.
In just one example of this phenomenon, the IMF forced the Haitian government to drop tariffs on agricultural production. As a result, the USA began to dump their own subsidised agricultural production on the Haitian market, putting most local rice farmers out of business. As many as two million people relocated from farming areas to the slums of Port-au-Prince, and this desperate pool of workers become the cheapest labour in the world. The country has since become home to a booming sweat shop industry.
Does this history matter today? The hard truth is that Haiti’s impoverishment can’t be viewed independently from a global economic system and a model of international development that is dysfunctional - one that works in the interests of wealthier countries and powerful developing country elites. Yet the real events are not reported by the popular media. To this day there has been no acknowledgement of the odious nature of the debt accrued by Haiti’s dictators, nor any recognition of bad policy advice by donor countries and international institutions. As a result it is all too easy for us to live in ignorance.
Instead, the people of Haiti have been characterised by a narrative depicting them as miserable, violent and incapable of solving their own problems. It should come as no surprise then that recent proposals to “help” the benighted country in the aftermath of this most recent tragedy offer solutions cast from the same mould. It is hard to imagine what more could be extracted from this country where half the population struggle for one meal a day, and yet the international community’s political interventions are as much about pushing its own agenda as helping Haiti become independent and self-sufficient, and the results will thus again be ineffective.
The IMF has offered the Haitian Government a new loan of US$102 million, attached to which are the same harmful economic policy conditions that have to date undermined the country’s ability to chart its own development future. The private sector is preparing to seize the opportunity, with a “Haiti Investment Summit” to take place in Miami soon. Corporations will be pressuring their governments to make sure they win reconstruction contracts through tied bilateral aid, or through influence in the international development banks.