Haiti and the Legacy of Debt, Intervention, and Exploitation

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought renewed attention to the fact that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Many commentators on the Left have pointed out, that while an earthquake is indeed a natural disaster, poverty is manmade. The question arises–why is Haiti so poor? This query was largely ignored by the mainstream media and was only been taken up by a handful of rightwing commentators, who have implied Haitian poverty is divine punishment for a pact with Satan, the fault of “Communism,” or finally that Haitians “don’t produce anything.” As rational beings, we know all these said “causes” to be false. The correct answer lies of the 200 year legacy of Western policy towards  Haiti–namely the addressing issues of debt, intervention, and exploitation. The story of modern Haiti and its exploitation by imperial powers begins with Christopher Columbus. As detailed by CLR James in the prologue to his work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins,  Columbus arrived first at San Salvador, and “after praising God enquired urgently for gold” at which point he was directed to Haiti. As James describes, Columbus and the Spaniards “introduced Christianity, forced labor in mines, murder, rape, blood hounds, strange diseases, and artificial famine.” In a 15 year period the native population was reduced from around a million people to 60,000. Eventually, Spain would eliminate Native slavery and instead begin importing slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa. While colonial control of modern day Haiti drifted between the French and the Spanish, it was firmly entrenched in the ruthless resource extracting mercantilist system.
Inspired by the French Revolution, Haitian slaves led a successful revolt against the colonial system of slavery. In the process they defeated not only the white plantation owners of Haiti, but three separate imperialist armies (France, Britain, and Spain). Thus Haiti became not only the first successful slave revolt, it also became the world’s first black republic. Immediately, Haiti’s defiance drew the ire of Western Powers, who sought to punish the new republic. The United States Congress in 1806 voted to embargo Haiti, and did not officially recognize the island republic until 1862. More importantly though, the French demanded the freed slaves provide reparations for lose of property (i.e. themselves). At first, Haiti but eventually was forced by a French naval embargo to accept the demand. In order to pay such reparations Haiti had to borrow heavily. They would not finally pay off this debt until 1947. To make matters worse, United States Marines invaded Haiti in 1915, resulting in a 19 year occupation of the island nation. President Wilson’s invasion order cited the protection of US and Foreign interests as the official pretext. During this time the US wrote a new Haitian Constitution, which allowed for the first time since 1804 foreigners to own land in Haiti. According to noted social critic Noam Chomsky, “It was a murderous, bloody intervention which destroyed the constitutional systems, reinstated slavery.” The Marines, claiming authority under 1864 Haitian law which allowed peasants to work on state infrastructure in lieu of paying a road tax, forced Haitian peasants to labor building 1,000 miles of road. While the US finally withdrew in 1934, the US would continue to keep Haiti within its hegemonic grasps. After years of brutal dictators, most of them sponsored both politically and economically by the US, in 1990 Haiti had its first democratic election. Former priest and adherent of liberation theology, Jean-Betrand Aristide was elected President. President Aristide’s populist policies were opposed by both foreign and domestic wealthy elites and in 1991, members of the Haitian military with strong ties to the CIA staged a coup.
Despite an embargo against the coup regime, both Presidents Bush I and Clinton authorized exemptions for US corporations. The coup regime also privatized key state industries, selling them to US corporations. Most notably, in the cases of the state flour and cement factories, factories were closed leaving Haiti dependent on imports. President Clinton, after getting President Aristide to agree to certain neoliberal economic policies, sent Marines to Haiti in 1994, allowing Aristide to out his last term of office. Ineligible to run for consecutive terms, Aristide would not return to power until being elected again in 2000. Neoliberalism was further cemented in Haiti as part of a 1996 IMF Emergency Development Plan. This Plan called for, among other things, a suppression of wages and an elimination of tariffs. This elimination of tariffs opened the way for US agriculture imports to flood the market. The Haitian government is not allowed to subsidize its own goods due to World Banks loans and thus US imports are far cheaper than domestic crops. This, of course, had devastating effects on Haitian farmers, causing many into forced migration in urban areas. This new labor force provided the necessary means for the development of the now infamous Haitian sweat shops.
Aristide’s second election once again, caught the ire of the US. His opponents boycotted the election claiming it was undemocratic (a move similar to Contras). In the meantime, the US began indirectly funding Contra style guerilla groups in the Dominican Republic. When President Aristide went against US advice and raised the minimum wage to .54 cents, the US began an embargo against Haiti cutting off all aid, encouraging other countries to do the same and even went so far as to use its veto power at the Inter American Development Bank in order to block aid to Haiti. This is the backdrop upon which a disputed series of events led to the second ouster of Aristide and yet another occupation of Haiti, first by US Marines and then by UN Peacekeepers.

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