(The following was published in the Denver Post, online edition, January 24, 2010)
By now, most are aware of the terrible toll the recent earthquake has had in Haiti. Not only has it caused tens of thousands of deaths, it has also destroyed hospitals, schools, and government buildings, obliterating the country’s few health care and rescue services. The tremendous poverty and vulnerability made starkly clear by this disaster is but a legacy of Haiti’s long history of domination by powerful outside interests.
In 1804, Haiti became the first French colony to win independence and the first independent black republic. With stunning courage and at a cost of half their population, slave armies had alternately fought the forces of France, Britain and Spain to win their freedom. In honor of the island’s original inhabitants, they called their new country by its Taino-Arawak name, “Haiti” or “land of mountains.”
After this hard-won victory, however, France and Great Britain, later joined by the U.S., imposed a punishing economic boycott against the new nation. When Haiti finally achieved recognition by the French government in the 1860s, it was only by agreeing to pay 125 million francs to indemnify their former slave owners for the loss of their property. In addition, the French took control of Haitian finances to assure that timely interest-laden payments would be made. By the early twentieth century, Haiti’s burdensome debt obligation had turned what was once the richest colony in the world, into the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
U.S. hegemony replaced that of the French in 1910, when National City Bank of New York took over Haiti’s finances. When Haitian lawmakers balked at the arrangement, U.S. marines landed at Port-au-Prince, seized the half million dollars in the Haitian treasury and transported the funds to National City Bank of New York.
The marines continued in control until the 1930s when a professionally trained Haitian army took their place. In the decades that followed, a succession of dictators turned the army into a personal police force with the most notorious, “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc,” terrorizing their own population through paramilitary gangs known as tonton macoutes. Until finally ousted in 1986, Duvalier allies grew rich by embezzling government funds and seizing land from poor peasants. Public services fell into disrepair, illiteracy reached 90 percent, and poverty and malnutrition grew rampant. Because the regime remained staunchly opposed to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, however, it was rewarded with a steady flow of aid from the U.S.
In 1990, Haitian history changed. In the country’s first free and fair elections, voters chose parish priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had worked many years in the slums of Port-au-Prince, to be their president. Upon taking office, Aristide promised to raise minimum wage, improve health care and education, and relieve misery in this country where one percent of the population owns half the wealth.
He faced stiff and often violent opposition among Haiti’s economic elites, however, who only ten months later backed the overthrow of their first legitimately elected leader. While Aristide was returned to office with help from the Clinton Administration, he was again ousted in 2004. The move was followed by a full revival of the debt-led model of trade and continued impoverishment of the majority.
Today, as the country struggles to recover from disaster, we must ask where recovery will take this country. Who will lead and what will the priorities be? Will elites continue to be favored over the 80 percent living in abject poverty? Or can humanitarians support a strategy where health care, education and a decent standard of living for all can be envisioned? In the midst of this great tragedy, it is up to those who care about Haiti to support a recovery process that can lead to a genuinely democratic system. In the absence of that support, only the most powerful interests will prevail – again.
Lynn Holland, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of international studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, as well as a member of DJPC’s Salon Committee.