If the average American knows one thing about Haiti, it’s that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Many Haitians still live like their ancestors did 200 hundred years ago. They make do without electricity or running water, cook over open fires or charcoal stoves, take coffee and sugar to market on horseback or on foot down dirt roads. But just over the border in the Dominican Republic there are public schools, health care, tourist resorts, basic infrastructure. Haiti appears uniquely stuck in the past.
Why is Haiti so poor? Many point a finger at government corruption, blaming Haitian misery on the leaders exploiting the common people. And while it’s true a series of dictators treated the Haitian treasury like a personal piggy bank, graft alone does not explain two centuries without progress. The New York Times recently published a multipart series on Haitian history, tracing the nation’s trouble back to French colonial rule and the price Haitians paid for their independence.
Modern Haiti started in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Sugar and coffee plantations in the Carribean required immense labor, and the cheapest source of labor in the seventeenth century were African slaves. Starting in 1791 a slave revolt drove out the French. The former slaves formed the nation of Haiti, an indiginous name for the island. In 1804 Haiti won its independence, and the Haitian people have been paying for it ever since.
Twenty years after thwarting Napoleon’s army, the reinstated French monarch sent an even larger fleet to demand payment for the slaves that had been freed. Plantation owners from the former Saint-Domingue wanted compensation for their lost property and convinced the French crown to demand payment or take it by force. Being a nation of freed people, Haiti found few allies. Neighboring islands were still under European colonial control. And slave owners in the United States wanted nothing to do with Haiti, fearing their own property might get rebellious ideas.
Fearing invasion and bloodshed, the Haitian government consented to French demands. The ransom demand was twice the price of the Louisiana Purchase, and the first payment was six times what the Haitian government collected in a year in taxes. In order to pay, the Haitian government was obligated to take out a loan from a French bank. Thus began a cycle of foreign debts. Haitian taxes went to French bankers instead of roads, bridges, sewers, clean water, and schools.
The last payment on that original loan was paid in 1888, but in order to make that last payment, the government borrowed more money. Those foreign lenders made deals with certain Haitian politicians and the years of graft began. By 1911, $2.53 of every $3 in coffee taxes went to paying foriegn investors. Even after paying that initial debt, the Haitian treasury was still controlled by French investors. The national bank of Haiti was a subsidiary of a Paris based firm. Every transaction, from depositing tax money to funding schools, was accompanied by fees paid to the French bank.
In 1911, City National Bank of New York bought a sizable piece of the Haitian national bank, and soon control was in American hands. In order to secure their investment, American bankers encouraged President Woodrow Wilson to send in the marines, ostensibly to ensure Haitian independence. For two decades, US troops occupied Haiti. The Haitian parliament was dissolved at gunpoint and a new puppet government was installed which gave the US complete control over Haitian finances. In 1915 the Haitian government spent more on American occupiers’ salaries than supporting public health for the whole country.
When the American advisers finally released the Haitian purse strings, the country was in a dire state. According to United Nations officials in 1949 Haitian farmers lived “close to starvation level.” Those same experts noted Haiti lagged “even more markedly than other countries and territories of the region.” After a century of control by French debt and American advisers, Haiti was in a deep hole.
In 1957, Francois Duvalier was elected president of Haiti. He and his son Jean-Claude controlled Haiti until 1986, following the model of the American and French who came before. They ruled through fear and the constant threat of violence. And like the advisers, investors, and landowners before them, the Duvaliers put their personal aggrandizement before the needs of the country.
In 1990, Haiti elected its first president in four decades, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who served on and off – surviving a coup in 1991 – for the next ten years. In 2003, to mark the 200th anniversary of Haitian revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture’s death, Aristide launched a campaign for restitution from France. He demanded exactly $21,685,135,571.48. A year later, president Aristide was in exile, sent to the Central African Republic on an American plane to protect him from a possible coup. The American and French diplomats who arranged Aristide’s resignation and departure claimed it was necessary to avoid civil war. Aristide claims he was kidnapped.
This is how it has always been in Haiti. Since 1825 Haitian independence has been contingent on the whims of foreign powers. First the French who demanded ransom under threat of invasion. Then the Americans who invaded the country to protect the investments of Wall Street bankers. The Duvalier family stayed in power with the grudging support of Americans who preferred dictators to Communists. And in 2004 Aristide was whisked away so French and American forces could put down a rebellion.
Taxes that could have been spent investing in irrigation and roads financed the Eiffel tower in Paris. The national treasury couldn’t sign a check without the approval of bankers on Wall Street. Haiti remains poor because two centuries of debt, meddling, and graft have sucked the wealth from the many to enrich the few.