The Western Origins of Haiti's 'curse'
Continued: the story of Haiti
The freedom won in the previous century didn’t last. In 1914 a marine expedition from the US landed on Haitian soil, at least in part to facilitate the establishment of US plantations. For 20 years the US illegally occupied the country, only withdrawing when the government agreed to remove the constitutional provision prohibiting foreigners to own and run businesses.
Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc' Duvalier
The military occupation was followed by more of the same. For nearly three decades, between 1957 and 1986, the infamous father/ son dictatorship of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier ruled the country. With the US, international institutions, and other western donor governments turning a blind eye, the Duvaliers used foreign aid to pay for Manhattan shopping excursions, fur coats and government death squads.
Despite widespread reports of the brutality, corruption and mounting foreign debt, the loans and political backing continued to flow so long as the dictators remained ideological allies in the Cold War. When the reign of the family ended, Haiti was left with an external debt totaling more than $1 billion, while $900 million worth of expropriated funds awaited the Duvalier’s in French and Swiss bank accounts.
Even at the end of the dictatorships, foreign powers continued to exert strong influence over the political and economic scene of Haiti. In the 1980s and ‘90s the IMF was used to bail out the commercial banks who had lent more money to developing countries like Haiti than the countries could ever afford to repay.
The IMF, which claimed to be helping countries like Haiti fight poverty, began to dictate policy to ensure that repayment of foreign debt continued. Spending on public services was cut, tariff protections on export industries were removed, and new ‘aid’ loans were diverted almost directly back to the banks in wealthy countries. The government was left with little to no capacity to invest in nation building.
In just one example of this phenomenon, the IMF forced the Haitian government to drop tariffs on agricultural production. As a result, the USA began to dump their own subsidized agricultural production on the Haitian market, putting most local rice farmers out of business. As many as two million people relocated from farming areas to the slums of Port-au-Prince, and this desperate pool of workers became the cheapest labor in the world. The country has since become home to a booming sweat shop industry.
Does this history matter today?
Haiti’s impoverishment can’t be viewed independently from a global economic system and a model of international development that is dysfunctional — that works in the interests of wealthier countries and powerful developing country elites.
Yet the real events are not reported by the popular media. To this day there has been no acknowledgement of the odious nature of the debt accrued by Haiti’s dictators, nor any recognition of bad policy advice by donor countries and international institutions. As a result it is all too easy for us to live in ignorance.
Instead, the people of Haiti have been characterized by a narrative depicting them as miserable, violent and incapable of solving their own problems. It should come as no surprise then, that recent proposals to ‘help’ the benighted country in the aftermath of this most recent tragedy offer solutions cast from the same mold.
It is hard to imagine what more could be extracted from this country where half the population struggle for one meal a day, and yet the international community’s political interventions are as much about pushing its own agenda as helping Haiti become independent and self-sufficient, and the results will thus again be ineffective.