Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week 5: Haiti.

Distribution Source: Google Video, YouTube, CBS, Al Jazeera, FOX, ABC
Content Source: Eunide Alexandre Television, CBS, Al Jazeera, FOX, ABC, Noam Chomksy
Format: Video
Length (Combined): 57 minutes
Voice of Haiti: History
Haiti's History of Struggle
Haiti's History of Hardship
Haiti's Troubled History
Noam Chomsky on Haiti
Haiti's Political History
History of US Aid to Haiti

This week's topic came from my girlfriend, who told me I should write about Haiti - not about the crisis, but how it became one of the poorest countries in the world. I thought this was a great idea, and am extremely glad I listened to her. This week, I will try to give you the succinct story of Haiti (or as much of it as I could understand from only an hour of videos).

To summarize everything that is to follow: over the past few hundred years, the Haitians have gotten a terrible deal. It's also clear that Haiti is inextricably linked - culturally, politically, and economically - to the US and to Western Europe.

The known history of Haiti, dating back to 1492 (the year Columbus "discovered" America and Hispaniola), consists of multiple world powers occupying and exploiting the country. The native Taínos ruled the island prior to the Spaniards claiming the island of Hispaniola. The story that follows mirrors other Conquistador victories - the Taínos were subjugated and forced to mine gold (of which Haiti and the Dominican Republic had a lot) or be killed. Disease also killed much of the Taíno population. In spite of the decimation of the Taíno population, due to mining and agriculture, Hispaniola was the most valuable land on the earth for almost a century.

Over time, the Spaniards realized that larger and more reliable mines could be found on the mainland, and largely withdrew from Hispaniola. Soon after, the French settled on the island. In 1697, the French and Spanish agreed to split up the land, with the Spanish keeping the eastern two-thirds of the island(now the Dominican Republic), while the French controlled the western third (modern-day Haiti). The addition of the French created an even more complicated racial and ethnic mix in Haiti, which already consisted of African slaves, Taíno natives, and Spaniards. The Haitian Creole language and culture followed. Religiously, Haiti was also unconventional, the result of an eclectic blend of Taíno spirituality, African voo-doo, and Roman Catholicism.

In the late 18th century, something amazing (and ironic) happened. Inspired by the egalitarian slogan of the French Revolution, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité," the Haitians revolted against their French rulers. Napoleon sent tens of thousands of his battle-hardened troops to crush the Haitians and their leader, Toussaint l'Ouverture. Incredibly, the French could not defeat the Haitians. In 1804, Haiti declared its freedom, thereby becoming the first independent nation in Latin America and the first black-led republic in history (I recognize the western-centric use/notion of "republic" here). In 1809, there was a large creole exodus to New Orleans, doubling the population of the city.

Unfortunately for Haiti, while it had triumphed in a military sense against the French, it was unable to do so economically - France forced massive indemnification payments on the country, for "profits lost from the slave trade." A French abolitionist later pointed out how ridiculous these payments were: "Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood." These debt payments took Haiti over 120 years to pay back and started a cycle of debt, dependence, and instability.

The newly independent country suffered from multiple coups (in its 200 years, Haiti has had 32 coups), and generally did not have the resources to build strong institutions that would allow an economy to grow. In 1915, US Marines occupied Haiti, citing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed the US to intervene in Caribbean economies if they were unable to pay their international debts (in Haiti's case, to France). It was also a direct effort to eliminate German economic interests in Haiti, making Haiti a derivative battle of World War I. In other words, Haiti's morally illegitimate international debts to France served as the precept for the US to occupy the nation and use it as a pawn in a global war. The US kept a military presence in Haiti until 1933; there were meaningful infrastructure projects undertaken, but throughout the entire period (and almost the entire 20th century) Haiti was ruled by dictators who routinely murdered and stole from the populace.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Haiti had any kind of representative government; the first truly democratic elections were in 1990, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected President. Within nine months he was overthrown in a coup and replaced by a thug. President Clinton successfully negotiated his reinstatement in 1994, but did so on the condition that Aristide implement his opponent's free trade policies. Haiti dropped its internal agricultural subsidies, and was flooded with cheaper international food. As a result, farmers migrated into Port Au Prince, which had became a city of a million people that by most estimates should hold only 40,000. More recently, Aristide was thrown out in 2004 in yet another coup; during this year Haiti was also ravaged by massive floods. In 2008, food riots plagued the country after four major hurricanes hit the island, inflicting over $1B in damage.

By now it should be clear that there is a major, complex problem facing Haiti's development. I am extremely disheartened by the failures of what we assume to be the best natural solution: foreign aid. Foreign aid figures to Haiti have been well-documented in recent history: $3B of US taxpayer funds have gone into the country since 1992, and $600MM per year in international donations have gone to the country. For a country with an annual GDP of $6B, this is significant. Most staggering to me, though, is sheer the number of international aid organizations operating in Haiti. For a country with 10 million people, I would have guessed between 100-1,000 organizations were operable. I was SHOCKED to learn that 10,000 aid organizations have on-the-ground operations in Haiti... in other words, one aid organization for every 1,000 people. How is this what's best for Haiti? Think of the overhead costs associated with installing so many different groups on the ground. Wouldn't it be better for these funds to go through fewer, more efficient groups? Alternatively, could this be a reflection of a failed NGO model? I'm reminded of the African official who, when asked what the UN could do for Africa made a heartfelt plea to please "leave us alone and do nothing."

In some ways, this is a moot point, because everything about Haitian aid and development has and will continue to change following the devastating earthquake. My hope is that going forward, the solutions implemented are those that empower individual Haitians to improve their own situation, as l'Ouverture and his army did against Napoleon. Otherwise Haitians will just be getting another raw deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment