Haiti’s tragic history

Dr. François Duvalier, also known as "Papa Doc," ruled Haiti with an iron fist, and stole hundreds of millions of dollars from his country.

For Haiti, tragedy didn’t begin on January 12. Haiti is a country with a history that is at once glorious, and horrifying, enduring one of the most brutal periods of slavery in the Caribbean, then then throwing off the French in 1803 after a bitter, 12-year military campaign, only to spend until the 1940s using most of the country’s GDP to pay reparations to their former slavemasters.  Stunning. And that’s not even getting to the dictators.

Irony alert: France accuses U.S. of “occupying” Haiti

The Guardian posts this thorough, excruciating write-up:

“Haiti has had slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence,” says Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and writer currently working on a book about the country and its near neighbours, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. “Now it has poverty, illiteracy, overcrowding, no infrastructure, environmental disaster and large areas without the rule of law. And that was before the earthquake. It sounds a terrible cliche, but it really is a perfect storm. This is a catastrophe beyond our worst imagination.”

It needn’t, though, have been like this. In the 18th century, under French rule, Haiti – then called Saint-Domingue – was the Pearl of the Antilles, one of the richest islands in France’s empire (though 800,000-odd African slaves who produced that wealth saw precious little of it). In the 1780s, Haiti exported 60% of all the coffee and 40% of all the sugar consumed in Europe: more than all of Britain’s West Indian colonies combined. It subsequently became the first independent nation in Latin America, and remains the world’s oldest black republic and the second-oldest republic in the western hemisphere after the United States. So what went wrong? …

… Haiti today is “down there with Somalia, as just about the worst [most damaged] society on earth. Even in Afghanistan, there’s a middle class. People aren’t living in the sewers.” As far back as the 1950s, she says, Haiti was considered unsustainably overcrowded with a population of 3 million; that ­figure now stands at 9 million. Some 80% of that population live below the poverty line. The country is in an advanced state of industrial collapse, with a GDP per capita in 2009 of just $2 a day. Some 66% of Haitians work in ­agriculture, but this is mainly small-scale subsistence farming and accounts for less than a third of GDP. The unemployment rate is 75%. Foreign aid ­accounts for 30%-40% of the government’s budget. There are 80 deaths for every 1,000 live births, and the survival rate of newborns is the lowest in the western hemisphere. For many adults, the most promising sources of income are likely to be drug dealing, weapons trading, gang membership, kidnapping and extortion.

Compare Haiti with its neighbours, equally prone to natural disasters but far better equipped to cope because they are far better functioning societies, and the only conclusion possible, says Von Tunzelmann, is that it is Haiti’s turbulent history that has brought it to this point. For the better part of 200 years, she argues, rich countries and their banks have been sucking the wealth out of the country, and its own despotic and corrupt leaders have been doing their best to facilitate the process, lining their own pockets handsomely on the way.

Read the whole thing here. It’s an eye-opener for those not up on the history of this beautiful, unlucky country, and especially good reading for those who keep asking why the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, fares so much better.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it: Baby Doc speaks (but does he have any money to give?)

Related: Matt Taibi cold cocks David Brooks (who’s one of those people who keeps pointing out that the DR is doing so much better…)

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