Saturday, January 23, 2010

Earthquake in Haiti: A Little Bit of History

An excellent article published in the New York Times provided a short concise history course on the nation of Haiti. Written by Mark Danner, a writer who has been exploring politics and history for many years and the author of five books, as well as numerous articles. I did not know many of the things Mr. Danner mentions in his article and I will try to hit some highlights for you. The link is available here so that you might read the article yourself.

Haiti started as a French colony, called Saint-Domingue. It became a very large source of wealth for the French, the wealth coming from the sugar cane harvested there. The harvest was done by people from Africa--captured people serving as slaves. Life in the cane fields was nasty, brutish and short, and it was required that French plantation owners go to Africa regularly and retrieve more labor. In 1791, slaves began to fight the system, taking up arms against the French. It took until 1804, when revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines created the Haiti flag by ripping out the white middle from the French tri-color. During the long conflict, most plantation owners and Whites were killed or driven from the land. The war was vicious and destructive, wounding the land and infrastructure. However, the people were free.

However, the world did not rejoice. The U.S., newly freed itself from colonial rule, refused to recognize the new nation, and with much of the first world, embargoed Haiti,and enforced the payment of reparations to the French for the lost of the colony. Danner notes that part of this was the fear that the slaves held in America would revolt too, disrupting commerce and life. The United States did not recognize Haiti as a nation until Abraham Lincoln's presidency, in 1862.

Large blocks of property were broken up. The people became small land owners, but taxes and bills for the reparations were a huge burden for the new country. There was little wealth to control, but the government, handling the taxes and money, became the center of power and the control of the government became the goal of the wanna be powerful. In this was the beginning of the countless power struggles over the leadership of Haiti's central government; it started in 1806 with the assassination of it's first leader, Dessalines. Danner describes the dysfunctional bent of the government: "...the colonial philosophy endured: ruling had to do not with building or developing the country but with extracting its wealth." It continued on in this way for years, one group taking over and reaping the benefits, then the next. In 1915, the United States nervous about German intentions in the Caribbean region imposed its will militarily on Haiti. Contributions were made to Haitian infrastructure, but the fundamental center being the government and its exploitation remained. In addition, more reparations were required by Haiti. When the Marines left, the Duvaliers took over. Making nice-nice with the U.S. during the Cold War, the Duvaliers, father and son, were able to hold power from 1957 until 1986. Since then, the government has been unstable, until the United Nations began to work to maintain order since the early 2000s. Now, the wealth that is extracted by the Haitian government is aid wealth. The land is worn out, as it has not been cared for. There are still trade barriers between First World nations, especially the U.S. and Haiti. Now, we have the earthquake, and in a way, an opportunity to produce real change.

The challenge is to make Haiti truly productive on its own, and then have the results of that productivity go not into some official's pocket, but into the country, and into the hands of the people. I'll give you Mark Danner's last three very hopeful but realistic paragraphs:
America could start by throwing open its markets to Haitian agricultural produce and manufactured goods, broadening and making permanent the provisions of a promising trade bill negotiated in 2008. Such a step would not be glamorous; it would not “remake Haiti.” But it would require a lasting commitment by American farmers and manufacturers and, as the country heals, it would actually bring permanent jobs, investment and income to Haiti. Second, the United States and other donors could make a formal undertaking to ensure that the vast amounts that will soon pour into the country for reconstruction go not to foreigners but to Haitians — and not only to Haitian contractors and builders but to Haitian workers, at reasonable wages. This would put real money in the hands of many Haitians, not just a few, and begin to shift power away from both the rapacious government and the well-meaning and too often ineffectual charities that seek to circumvent it. The world’s greatest gift would be to make it possible, and necessary, for Haitians — all Haitians — to rebuild Haiti. Putting money in people’s hands will not make Haiti’s predatory state disappear. But in time, with rising incomes and a concomitant decentralization of power, it might evolve. In coming days much grander ambitions are sure to be declared, just as more scenes of disaster and disorder will transfix us, more stunning and colorful images of irresistible calamity. We will see if the present catastrophe, on a scale that dwarfs all that have come before, can do anything truly to alter the reality of Haiti.

I have known and met people from Haiti. Freed from the constant governmental hand in the pocket, Haitian people who immigrate to other countries are productive, enterprising and innovative. The culture is family oriented and community oriented. Communities with large Haitian populations, such as Miami and New York find them to be an asset. We should, as a country ignore the cries of some of our more isolationist people and industries and open up our economy to the people of Haiti. Allowing their agricultural products into the U.S., and opening up factories and other commercial enterprises would be a start. The reparations bill, if it is still around, should be torn up and forgotten. Haiti should finally be allowed to be a real country, freed from colonial exploitation of any type, including that imposed by their own government. Now is as good a time as any to create a real and lasting change in Haiti. History should be a teacher as we look to do this. How many people, especially younger people, know that Haiti was not recognized by the U.S. for sixty years? That Haiti was forced to pay money to rich first world colonial powers after its liberation--something the United States was not forced to do? It is time to treat Haiti the way it should be treated, not as an ongoing charity case or a theater of drama, but as a full fledged grown up country.


Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
This is amazing. Thanks for bringing all this up. We really don't teach enough history or world affairs in this country, but--and I don't know what to do about this--we don't even teach reading very well any more.

What the heck are we supposed to do? I am asking sincerely!

Thanks for posting,
Ann T.

the observer said...

Ann T

Could it be that our schools may be a tougher problem to solve in some ways then the problems of Haiti?

Another irony--the Haiti history post is the sandwich meat in between two slices of education oriented bread.

The Obsever