I returned from just a couple of days before a powerful earthquake rocked the country on January 12. I was in Haiti on a solidarity delegation to document human rights abuses by the United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) and to observe preparations for February's legislative elections. Other members of the HAW Steering Committee encouraged me to share my thoughts with the broader HAW membership and friends on the historical background to this catastrophe.
Many people have observed that the Haitian earthquake was more a political disaster than a natural one. The similarly powerful 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California killed 63 people, while the death toll in Haiti appears as if it may soar over 100,000. Our experiences in the country confirmed that the solution to Haiti's problem is political in nature.
Two hundred some years ago Haiti was the richest colony in the world, but today it is the poorest and most unequal country in the Americas. A successful slave revolt in 1804 defeated the French planter class, but the only other independent country in the Americas, the United States, refused to welcome a Black Republic because of the powerful example it set for marginalized and oppressed people everywhere. The French demanded a 150 million franc payment from the Haitians for losing their prized pearl of the Antilles. Haiti made the payment, strangling any possibility for development, and sacrificing its future so as not to be seen as an international pariah.
The longer term solution, however, is political. Already conservative pundits are proclaiming that the earthquake is an opportunity to remake the country along neoliberal lines. But the extraction of natural resources, creation of low-wage jobs, and privatization of government functions are factors that have left Haiti incapable of responding to a natural disaster.
Haiti has never recovered from the ostracization it faced from the French and United States governments at independence, and ongoing international policies appear to be designed to sink the country deeper into debt. The U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, and the earthquake seems to provide a convenient excuse for the United States once again to land military troops and reassert its imperial control over the country.
The solution to Haiti's problems is to allow the country to develop its own economy and political system without constant outside intervention. Otherwise, Haiti's next natural calamity will be worse than this one, and the country will continue to sink deeper into poverty, inequality, and social exclusion.
Associate Professor of Latin American History
Truman State University
More information is available on his website http://www.yachana.org/reports/haiti/. For more in depth information on the historical background and current events in Haiti, see:
C. L. R. James, ; Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d rev ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1963).
Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Amy Wilentz, In the parish of the poor: Writings from Haiti (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1990).
David Patrick Geggus, Haitian revolutionary studies, Blacks in the diaspora (Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 2002).
Garry Wills, "Negro president" Jefferson and the slave power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).