Present day Haiti presents an interesting case study of nationhood in the Western Hemisphere. Compared with the rest of Latin America, Haiti stands out. Also in terms of the development index for the Western Hemisphere and the world, Haiti ranks on the bottom rung of many metrics. In 2012 the GNI per capita was just $760, and significant basic services, health care, education, were unavailable to many of its citizens (The World Bank, 1). In order to understand the present condition of Haiti today, it is important to travel back along its history to better understand why current conditions are as they are. In 2010, when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti, already strained social and government services took a further dive, creating the Haiti that exist today.
Haiti stands out in the history of the Americas as the place where Christopher Columbus landed on December 5, 1492. Columbus claimed the island for Spain and named it “the Spanish Island” before it was called Hispaniola. This settlement lasted and grew between 1492-1625. The French settlement of Haiti in the 17th century would go on to become what is today Haiti, and also give the country its official language. France relied on its colony, and in the 18th century, Haiti was producing half of the world’s coffee supply and forty percent of the sugar consumed by France and England (Watkins, 1). This prosperity came on the backs of slaves taken from Africa and sent to Haiti to work on sugar cane or coffee plantations. During the time of the French revolution, the population of Haiti was estimated to be around half a million inhabitants.
The French revolution had ramifications outside of just the boarders in France and the effects of it were felt in its colonies. After the French revolution a number of uprisings began. The first was when the administrators in Haiti refused to give land rights to mullatoes causing them to rebel in 1790. These and other rebellions caused France to end slavery in Haiti in 1793. Other rebellions and political crises outside of the scope of this paper continued until on January 1, 1804 Haiti declared independence from France. This was met by hostility from Napoleon France and a number of suppressions and attacks to reinstate French authority in Haiti occurred. It would be a quarter of a century, in 1825 when France finally accepted Haiti’s sovereignty in exchange for 150 million francs. In today’s dollars, this is the equivalent of $22 billion, a huge sum for a small island nation (Jere-Malanda, 26). Haiti was forced to pay it if it wanted an embargo being imposed by England, France and the US to be lifted.
This caused Haiti to take out high interest loans, which took over one hundred years to repay. It was not until 1947 that this debt was finally repaid (Watkins, 1). This had a crippling effect on Haiti’s economy. As a new country, it stated in the red. Instead of investing in infrastructures, health and education, much of the government’s money went to servicing the debt that France had imposed on Haiti in exchange for its independence.
While Haiti was still servicing its massive debts that were the price of its independence, it was also dealing with the unintended consequence of a US occupation of its territory, which took place from 1915-1934. The US justified its occupation by reasoning that it was there to bring about positive changes in politics, society and economics. While there were positive aspects that came from the occupation, there were a lot of unintended consequences that occurred as a result of it.
At the time of the occupation, the US enforced Jim Crow laws, which were racist in nature and oppressive towards blacks. This policy of discrimination, being routine in the US, was brought with US marines into Haiti (James, 102-103). Colonel Walker of the US Marines can be quoted as having said, “They are real niggers and no mistake, they are some very fine looking well educated polished men here, but they are real nigs beneath the surface” (Ferguson, 27).
Phillipe R. Girard called the revolution a “World-shifting event” and cites another writer as saying that it had a “profound influence on African American history, culture, and political thought” (Girard, 229). A negative consequence of the US occupation is that the US Marines disbanded the Haitian military which caused the country to become less stable. Most of the Haitian people were against the US occupation. Certainly, there were positive consequences of it, including new roads; schools and agricultural projects which helped improve the overall economy and means of the country and people.
Not long after the US occupation, Haiti would face another trying political problem when Francois Duvalier assumed a position of dictator within the government. In order to seize power he replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral one and decided over presidential and legislative elections. He ran for the presidency, and managed to win with 100% of the vote, which made the elections an obvious sham. In 1964 he declared himself president for life. This was not completely uncharacteristic of Haitian politics, since seven heads of state before him had made the same declaration.
Duvalier’s political policies were created with the goal of ending the dominance of the mulatto elite, and this led to a massive emigration of the educated elite which only deepened Haiti’s social and economic problems.
The period of 1957-1986 is known as the Duvalier Dynasty, or era, because in April 1971, after Duvalier’s death, he gave power of the state to his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, also called “Baby Doc.” Following the tradition of his father, Haiti continued to decline under his rule (Ferguson).
Opposition to the Duvalier Dynasty continued to grow, and in 1983 started to reach a breaking point. Pope Paul II visited Haiti that year and publicly denounced the regime. Finally, in February 1986 the army forced Baby Doc to go into exile.
These three time periods are important in understanding the Haiti of today. When a massive earthquake struck in 2010, it wreaked massive devastation upon a country with very feeble government, feeble social systems, and one that did not have the reach nor the funding in order to help the country. Even foreign aid was notoriously misappropriated.
Haiti, in one sense, has never been thriving. From bad leadership, unjust debts, natural disasters, and foreign interventions that fail to bring sweeping reform, the Haitian people struggle and are playing in a global market place with the deck of the game stacked against them. While the 2010 earthquake helped bring some awareness to the daily struggle of everyday Haitians, Haiti still ranks very low on the World Bank’s development scale and has a ways to go in order to fight disease, poverty, violence and political corruption that runs rampant within the country
Jere-Malanda, Regina It’s pay back time New Africa. Jan 2004. Pg. 415
Fuerguson, James. Papa Doc, Baby Doc: Haiti and the Duvaliers. New York: Basil Blackwell INc., 1987.
Girard, Philippe R. The “Dark Star” : Ew Scholarship ON the Reprecussions Of The Haitian Revolution Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies: 2011; pg 229.
Leyburn, James The Haitian People. New Have: Yale University Press, 1941
Watkins, Thayler . "Political and Economic History of Haiti." Political and Economic History of Haiti. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 June 2014. <http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/haiti.htm>.