When Haitian forces led by Toussaint L’Ouverture defeated the French, and Haiti became an independent republic in 1804, France, the US, and Canada refused to recognize the new government and placed an embargo against trade with Haiti. The reason? Haiti had stolen France’s “property” when it freed the slaves. To survive, Haiti eventually agreed to compensate France’s slaveholders, and in addition to bankrupting its treasury, was forced to borrow money from French banks to make the first payment. So, the new republic began life crippled by terrible debt and beholden to the bankers of France—a nation whose prosperity derived in part from the sugar plantations and slave labor of its former colony.
Haiti is often described in the media as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere,” but as Peter Hallward notes in a 1/13/10 article in The Guardian, “This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.”
The 19-year occupation by US Marines ending in 1934, US support of the notoriously brutal dictatorships of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, the recent US assisted removal of the popularly elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide—all have prevented Haitians from governing their own country for their own benefit.. The result? Hallward again: “Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population ‘lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day’.” Since the 1970s, US dumping of cheap foodstuffs has forced tens of thousands of small farmers off their land and into urban areas to look for work. They lived in substandard housing on steep deforested hills. Most of them are now dead. Their houses collapsed and slid down the treeless hills on January 12.
It did not have to be like this. Earthquakes are a fact of nature, but the decimation of Port-au-Prince was caused by human hands—criminal hands—reaching back hundreds of years. The Haitian people are long overdue for compensation.
Why is Haiti Poor?