Haiti's 200-Year Earthquake

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The recent earthquake in Haiti has brought the island nation a level of attention, interest, generosity and solidarity that is perhaps unmatched since it declared independence and the end of slavery in 1804 after a devastating revolution against its colonisers.

But the magnitude of the earthquake’s human toll has also prompted international shock and an examination of the factors which explain why the quake was so much more devastating in Haiti than similar quakes have been in other parts of the world. A closer look at the history of the island quickly demonstrates that it is foreign interference — economic, military, and covert — that is principally to blame for the fact that Haiti is the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere and, in turn, why the toll of the 12 January quake has been so great.

Haiti was essentially born into debt, forced to pay its former colonial master, France, a 90-million franc ransom in order to begin receiving international recognition of its sovereignty. The debt was to "compensate" France for the loss of its slaves, the new citizens of the first free republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first Black republic in the world. Beginning payments in 1825, Haiti would not finish paying off this debt until 1947.

With the reign of "President for Life" François Duvalier beginning in 1957, and later his son, Jean Claude, Haiti began a new path of indebtedness. The new debt was also odious in that it was accrued by a brutal dictatorship that used the funds to pay the infamous "Tonton Macoutes" death squads and to purchase expensive personal luxuries.

This is some of the island’s more well-known history, but it barely begins to tell the full story of how Haiti came to be the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. Chronic interference by the US government has included its role in Haiti during the 1910s when it plundered Haiti’s National Treasury on behalf of US banks. From 1915 to 1935 the US military occupied and controlled Haiti and implemented a new constitution, allowing, for the first time since independence, foreign ownership of Haitian land.

The US inflicted further long-lasting economic harm on Haiti during the Duvalier era. When a swine flu outbreak occurred in pigs in the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island, and a few infected pigs were subsequently discovered in Haiti, the US insisted on the total eradication of Haiti’s native Creole pig population (some 1.3 million pigs). US companies profited from this when they supplied replacement pigs — fat but "fragile" hogs from Iowa that, unlike their hearty Creole cousins, required shelter and a special diet (the native Creole pigs would eat garbage). The slaughter of the pigs was economically devastating for Haitian families, for whom they were a form of investment, requiring relatively little care, but which could later be sold to finance significant purchases — for example, school fees and books.

The Creole pig eradication was just one intervention that struck Haiti’s agricultural sector in the 1980s and ’90s. At the urging of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which for decades acted as the de facto head of an international creditors’ cartel, Haiti slashed import tariffs on rice. Haiti, self-sufficient in its production until the 1980s, was soon flooded with cheap rice imports from the US. This triggered massive internal migration, as peasants, no longer able to sustain their livelihoods through farming, moved to Port-au-Prince to seek employment in apparel factories (where workers were paid as little as USD$0.14 per hour in 1993). One legacy of this rural-to-urban migration is the shantytown communities on the hillsides around Port-au-Prince, which were so vulnerable in the earthquake.

Another infamous condition imposed by the IMF was the privatisation of state-owned companies, including a flour mill, the cement company, banks, and the state-run telephone company, Teleco. The popular rejection of this plan took the Washington-based lenders by surprise; "privatisation had already proved to be contentious in Haiti," the World Bank noted in 1998. "Clashes over [privatisation and downsizing]were very visible." Opposition to the privatisation push became an important battleground, putting presidents Aristide and then Preval between the seemingly irreconcilable demands of labor unions and social movements on the one hand, and the IMF and the World Bank on the other.

The pressure exerted on the democratically elected Haitian government to adopt Washington Consensus policies was backed by US actions, however, that saw Aristide overthrown twice (in 1991 and again in 2004). In 1994 Aristide was forced to accept the IMF’s policy prescriptions in order to be allowed back into office following his exile. The battle over the privatisations has continued up to the present, with the announcement of Teleco’s prospective sale to Vietnamese company Viettel coming the same day as the earthquake.

The duration of Aristide’s second administration, beginning in 2001, took place amid a new battle with Washington in which the US used the multilateral development banks (MDBs) as proxies. The Bush administration enacted an aid embargo against Haiti, using a flimsy pretext of supposed electoral irregularities in the 2000 election of several senators as an excuse (despite observers from the Organisation of American States having originally stated the elections were clean).

The US Treasury Department directed the IDB to withhold disbursement of loans for potable water, health, and education, even as the IDB insisted the Aristide government pay interest on the withheld loans anyway. While the Bush administration economically undermined his government, the Washington-based International Republican Institute (a sort of international arm of the US Republican Party) assisted in destabilising Aristide through its ties with the Haitian-elite-controlled "Democratic Convergence" and "Group of 184" coalitions, who were in close contact with the gang of coup-plotters, drug runners, and thugs that began to mount attacks on towns and police stations in northern Haiti. When the would-be coup-plotters announced a "high noon"-style showdown with Aristide was imminent, it seemed that he might flee the country. When he decided he would stay instead, the US military flew him out of the country to the Central African Republic. Both Aristide and eyewitnesses to his departure claim he was kidnapped.

Following Aristide’s ouster, an unconstitutional dictatorship was imposed on the country, headed by former technocrat Gerard Latortue. Unlike their relationship with Aristide, the World Bank and other Washington institutions would have little conflict with Latortue. Following the imposition of Latortue’s regime, the then World Bank Country Director for the Caribbean, Caroline Anstey, noted that "the interim government is made up of technocrats who have agreed not to run in the next presidential election. As a result, they are much freer to embrace a reform agenda."

Under current president Rene Preval, Haiti has seen little more economic progress despite much hope and anticipation following his 2006 election. Preval has been hampered by a strong opposition in the legislature (due in large part to the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas from elections in 2006 and 2009), although the country has benefited from partnership in PetroCaribe, through which the Venezuelan Government sells oil to Haiti on preferential terms.

Haiti has also benefited from the recent 2009 cancellation of three-quarters — US$1.2 billion — of its external debt, due in part to a prolonged campaign by the Jubilee movement. Yet considering that Haiti is so reliant on agricultural imports, that it has sold off formerly profitable state-owned businesses, and considering Haiti’s already degraded roads and infrastructure (now made even worse by the earthquake), it is difficult to see what the engines of Haiti’s future economic growth will be and how it will begin to significantly reduce poverty.

For Haiti to rebuild successfully, it must have a functioning, democratically elected government that serves its people free of foreign interference — something that Haiti has not truly enjoyed since before the 30 September 1991 coup d’état. Yet the elections planned for 28 February (now almost certain to be delayed) would arbitrarily exclude Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular political party, and 15 other parties from the ballot. This undemocratic exclusion received little attention from the international media and even less outrage from foreign governments.

If the international community truly wants to help Haiti get back on its feet, it must support democracy — which means allowing the Haitian people to choose their governments, and then allowing those governments to implement policies and serve out their full terms — free of aid embargoes, coups and destabilisation efforts. Only then can there truly be hope for Haiti’s future.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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