excerpts from the article
Why Is Haiti So Poor?
by Bob Corbett, Director - People
Fall 1986, updated in 1999
HAITI: THE JEWEL OF THE ANTILLES
Haiti, once called The Jewel of the Antilles,
was the richest colony in the entire world. Economists estimate
that in the 1750s Haiti provided as much as 50% of the Gross National
Product of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco,
cotton, the dye indigo and other exotic products. In France they
were refined, packaged and sold all over Europe. Incredible fortunes
were made from this tiny colony on the island of Hispaniola.
How could Haiti have once been the source
of such wealth and today be the poorest country in the Western
Hemisphere? How could this land that was once so productive today
be semi-barren? How did "The Jewel of the Antilles"
become the Caribbean's hell-hole?
ROOT CAUSES: A. INTERNATIONAL FORCES
THE FRENCH COLONIAL CONTRIBUTION.
One of the primary reasons that Haiti
was such a productively rich land was because of slave labor.
When people are willing to put productivity above all other values,
then productivity is likely to soar. Not only did the slaves work
long days under tremendously unsafe conditions, with little or
no technology beyond hand labor, but Haiti's slave system was
the most brutal in the Caribbean. Many documents of Western slavery
explain that the ultimate threat to a recalcitrant slave was that
he or she would be sold to Haiti.
Unfortunately for the masses of Haitians,
slavery did not die with French rule. Rather, the basic concept
of forced cheap labor was passed on to the emerging native Haitian
elite. The French system allowed for some slaves to earn their
freedom by exceptional work. This system worked well to get more
productivity from the slaves, and the system was tough enough
that very few slaves were able to earn their freedom. Thus slave
owners got increased productivity with little loss of slaves through
A second group of slaves who became free
were the mulattos, the children of white masters and slave women.
These children were in a middle ground, uncomfortable to both
slaves and whites. The slaves never knew how the white man would
respond to his child, but often the slave owner didn't want to
be reminded of his paternity. Thus mulattos were not welcomed
in either community. Many mulattos received their freedom and
formed a special middle class in the colonial period.
A special class of freed slaves emerged.
About 1/2 of them were freed black slaves and about 1/2 of them
were mulattos. They could receive some education, operate businesses,
own property and in general imitate the French.
This imitation of the French became the
hallmark of these freedmen. They wanted a clear separation from
their slave backgrounds. Thus they imitated the whites. They adopted
their religion, language, dress, culture, education and ways.
But, most importantly for this story, they learned the value of
slave labor. The colonial French heritage carried on in the Haitian
elite's imitation of the French labor system. This is an important
factor in Haiti's later misery.
INTERNATIONAL BOYCOTT OF THE NEW HAITI.
After the revolution which concluded in
January, 1804, Haiti became the second free country in the Western
World (after the United States), and the first black republic.
However, the United States was still a slave nation, as was England.
While France had freed the Haitian slaves during the revolution,
France and other European nations had slaves in Africa and Asia.
The international community decided that Haiti's model of a nation
of freed slaves was a dangerous precedent. An international boycott
of Haitian goods and commerce plunged the Haitian economy into
It is difficult to measure the exact impact
of this international conspiracy. Here was a nation of ex-slaves
trying to rise to democratic self-rule, rising to run an economy
in which the masses had only served as slaves before. The international
boycott of Haitian products at this time was devastating for Haiti's
long-term economic development.
THE FRENCH DEBT OF 1838.
The Haitian governments were extremely
anxious to be recognized by France and the Europeans. But France
would not recognize Haiti unless indemnities were paid for lands
of former slave owners taken over after the revolution. Finally,
in 1838 President Boyer of Haiti accepted a 150 million franc
debt to pay this indemnity. This debt plagued the economy of Haiti
for over 80 years and was not finally paid until 1922. In the
meantime Haiti paid many times over 150 million francs in interest
on this debt. It is difficult to measure the incredible harm which
this did to the Haitian economy, but by the most conservative
measures it was extremely significant.
THE UNITED STATES OCCUPATION OF 1915-1938.
Perhaps the most serious blow Haiti ever
had to her independence and self-image was the occupation of the
United States Marines in 1915. The marines took over control of
the collection of revenues, the banks, and forced through a new
"Haitian" constitution which repealed the 1804 provision
that foreigners could never own land in Haiti. The U.S. decided
who would and would not be government servants. The only factor
of Haitian life which seemed to escape U.S. domination was education.
The elite's identification with French culture was too strong
for even the marines to overcome and the schools remained French
in language and structure.
POST WORLD WAR II UNITED STATES DOMINATION.
The occupation ended in 1934. However,
the U.S. presence in both the economy and internal government
affairs was well established. Ever since the occupation and increasingly
since 1946, the United States, through the power of its aid packages,
has played a central role in Haitian politics. In this way the
U.S. has contributed to the misery of Haiti since it has given
oppressive governments comfortable aid packages which kept these
rulers in power. The United States was not interested in furthering
Haitian misery itself, rather this is the price the U.S. has had
to pay to keep friendly governments in power so that American
military, propaganda and economic interests could be served. The
result may well have served the interests of U.S. control in the
region, but the issue here is the cause of Haitian misery. U.S.
backed governments have certainly been a major factor in this
ROOT CAUSES: B. HAITIAN ELITE
The international community has done and
continues to do its share in causing Haitian misery. But the contribution
of the Haitian elite and Haitian governments has been and continues
to be a root cause of suffering.
SLAVE-LIKE LABOR SYSTEMS IN THE EARLY
After the French left there was a scramble
for power and control in Haiti. The elite emerged as the dominant
power. Given their superior educations, and experience in running
businesses and other affairs, their control was not at all surprising.
But, a pattern arose because the only model they knew for successful
agriculture was the slave system. It was impossible to return
the masses to slavery, but Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first
president, tried to enforce a system of labor on the peasants
which resembled medieval serfdom, i.e., tying the peasants to
particular plantations owned by the elite. This system failed
miserably and in the process created a labor system which has
been instrumental in the developing misery of Haiti.
What happened in the 1804-1820 period
set the tone for Haiti's future and is directly responsible for
much of her misery. The former slaves ran away from the lowlands,
the plantations, away from the cruel rulers who would have effectively
enslaved them again. They ran to the mountains where they would
be safe from the soldiers and police of the realm. And here they
have in large measure remained. This pattern of relocation has
defined several aspects of Haitian life which undermine the development
of a healthy economy.
The price the Haitian masses have paid
for their freedom has been to live at or below subsistence, remaining
in their tiny huts and non-fertile mountain regions in order to
have peace and freedom from oppression.
For nearly two centuries they have sub-divided
their small plots among their generations of descendants until
the plots of land are very tiny and relatively unproductive.
A widespread attitude has developed holding
that no government could ever be good government. Folk wisdom
seems to demand that one retreat ever further from government
and eke out an existence outside the mainstream of society.
All of these factors contribute greatly
to the misery the Haitian people suffer, and they are a direct
legacy of Haitian politics and government. These evils are brought
to the Haitian people by the greed of the elite.
THE ELITE'S PROTECTION OF ITS WEALTH.
For the most part the 3% of the people
who constitute the Haitian elite are descendants of those same
families who were free prior to the independence of 1804. There
is an elite which is mainly black and an elite which is mainly
mulatto. These two groups have their own fights and battles, but
in the few cases when the masses have attempted to rise up and
assert the rights and needs of the people as a whole, the elite
has rallied together using its wealth and power to crush the masses.
The Duvalier family's rise to power was
just another in a series of such moves. The present government
of General Namphy continues the pattern even today. There has
been no revolution in Haiti, just a change of government.
Corruption is common in all governments,
especially prominent in highly authoritarian regimes, and practiced
beyond measure in Haiti. The elite have used their positions in
government ever since 1804 to gather the wealth and power of Haiti
for themselves. What little wealth the country had has been manipulated
into the hands of this elite. Foreign governments and humanitarian
and religious organizations have often attempted to aid the suffering
people of Haiti. Time and again, over and over in the 182 years
of so-called freedom, the Haitian elite and government officials
have sidetracked much of this wealth for their own purposes. Haiti
faces the incredibly difficult task of dealing with corruption
that is so established, so all-persuasive as to be an accepted
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AS A TOOL OF OPPRESSION.
One would never expect that the Haitian
masses would have sat placidly by and allowed such a tiny elite
to inflict the conditions of misery on them. Indeed, the people
did not sit willingly by. The history of Haiti from early colonial
days until the present is one of constant resistance, constant
rebellion. But the elite have been equal to the challenge. For
182 years the Haitian rulers have used terror, killings, beatings,
illegal arrests and detentions, forced exile and other such measures
to keep the masses in line.
Even recently when it seemed that the
overthrow of the Duvalier dynasty would end the dreaded Tonton
Macoute and ease the pressure against resisters, we are reading
of the activities of the Leopards. This is a crack military organization
which has been implicated by Amnesty International in recent attacks
on literacy workers and others aiding the masses in attempting
to non-violently break out of two centuries of oppression of the
SUMMARY OF THE ROOTS CAUSES
The poverty and misery in Haiti are human
created. The root causes are the political and economic systems
which have dominated Haiti for the whole of her 182 years. These
oppressive factors have come from the international community,
especially France and the United States. However, the Haitian
elite, comprising only 3% of the Haitian people has also been
a major factor in creating and continuing these oppressive conditions.
The causal roots are generally not very
visible. Rather, they are the basis of the more visible and immediate
factors which I will explain in the next section. Even the overt
human rights abuses are not mainly visible on a daily basis. However,
the Duvalier years were especially bad. Tens of thousands of people
died or disappeared. Hundreds of thousands more felt forced to
flee their homeland and seek a safer life elsewhere. Nearly everyone
in the country felt the terror of the Duvaliers and their Tonton
SECONDARY, BUT MORE IMMEDIATE CAUSES OF
LANGUAGE AS AN OPPRESSOR
Perhaps the oddest cause of poverty anywhere
in the world is the fact of language in Haiti. In a word, the
imposition of French on the country is an immediate cause of Haiti's
French is the official language of the
country. All state business is carried on in French, the schools
educate mainly in French. Social prestige is related to the ability
to speak French. Yet only about 10% of the people can even get
along in French, with less than 5% knowing the language fluently.
Creole is the language of the masses. 100% of the Haitians speak
and understand Creole as their mother tongue.
The road to social, economic and intellectual
development is reserved to the speakers of French, while the masses
are kept in their misery because their language is not recognized
nor allowed as an official language.
Creole is not a patois or dialect of French.
It is a recognized language in its own right, with its own syntax
which is significantly different from French. The Creole grammar
is rooted in Central African languages, though most of its vocabulary
is influenced by French.
IGNORANCE AND ILLITERACY.
One of the results of this oppression
of language is a national illiteracy rate which is very close
to 90% in the cities, and higher in rural areas. It is hard to
calculate the suffering tied to illiteracy and the ignorance of
alternatives which comes with illiteracy and lack of education.
When a whole people cannot read, they are cut off from advances
Thus they are condemned to repeat the
forms of life they have developed whether or not those practices
have negative aspects. Haitian life has many disastrous practices
and these account for much of her misery. These will be detailed
below. The point here is to note that the immediate cause of many
negative practices is rooted in ignorance of the alternatives.
It is ignorance that allows traditional practices in agriculture
or education, health care or house-hold hygiene. Some of these
practices are killing Haitians unnecessarily and destroying the
agricultural base of this agricultural land. This harmful ignorance
is the direct result of the illiteracy which defines the nation.
THE SYSTEM OF EDUCATION (OR, MORE PROPERLY,
Legally, education is free and open to
all. Actually, state-sponsored education is limited and most secondary
or university education goes to the children of the elite. Only
about 30% of Haitian children ever begin school, and of the 30%,
only 2% stay in school beyond the 5th grade.
There are many factors which contribute
to the lack of education, among them are:
Education is mainly in French, a foreign
tongue to the masses of Haitians. In the past 6 years Creole has
begun to creep into the school as part of a reform movement. However,
books are still primarily in French, and after the 5th year in
school, even classroom instruction reverts to French. More importantly
is the indoctrination that only French is the language of intelligent
and well educated people. Thus peasants, who speak only Creole,
despise their own real language and demand that their children
be educated in French, thereby assuring that their children will
not succeed in school.
After the fifth year students must pass
a difficult examination, the "sertifica" in order to
continue. This examination is in French. Few children of the peasant
masses pass this examination.
Teachers are very poorly prepared. Materials
are totally inadequate. In the rural schools it is common that
only the teachers have books. Rote learning is the most common
form of instruction, even in schools in the capital. Students
are taught to parrot the teacher. They learn little beyond the
Schools are terribly overcrowded. Teachers
have many too many children in each class and discipline is a
problem. Of course, the fact that class centers around a language
the children do not know does not help discipline either. The
response to serious discipline problems is a harsh punishment
system which relies on beating and serious physical assaults on
In a word, the school system is in shambles.
It does very little to help Haiti out of her massive ignorance
and illiteracy. If anything, it helps to continue the reliance
on French, a primary controlling tool of the Haitian state.
Nearly everyone has heard about Haiti's
disastrous soil erosion. Haiti is a mountainous country. For the
past 200 years people have been cutting the trees on their mountains
without replanting. Now, when the rainy season comes with its
four or five months of daily pounding rains, one can see the brown
rivers torrent down the mountain sides and watch, helplessly,
as Haiti's little remaining soil flows out into the Caribbean
Sea. How has this terrible situation come about?
1) There are four primary reasons for
the soil erosion:
2) The need for fuel.
3) The need to earn a living.
5) Lack of motivation to reform.
Haiti has no fuel except wood. People
cook with charcoal. This requires massive amounts of wood to provide
fuel for 6 million people. Thus the demand on wood as a crop is
the immediate cause of the denuding of the mountains of Haiti.
The immediate motivation of much of the
cutting is economic. Peasants are hungry. They have little available
work. But wood is in constant demand as charcoal, or to sell to
others to make charcoal. Peasant wood-cutters who do understand
the soil erosion problem will argue that they have no alternative.
They either cut and sell wood or they starve. Mainly they are
right. Haiti suffers massive unemployment and most peasants have
inadequate access to farm lands.
Because of the problems of illiteracy
and lack of education detailed above, Haitian wood cutters do
not really understand the extent of damage their cutting does.
These uneducated peasants have little sense of history. In their
generation Haiti has always looked denuded like it does today.
Thus to convince them that they are contributing to Haiti's misery
by cutting the few trees which any one of them cuts, is not a
very convincing argument. When compared with the alternatives
of hunger or even starvation facing the wood sellers, the argument
fundamentally makes no sense.
There is little motivation for wood cutters
to replant more trees. Mainly they do not own the land. They cut
here or there as sharecroppers or renters, then move on to other
lands. The land owners are often city people or more wealthy village
folks and they do not keep a close watch on their lands. Were
they to replant, it is likely that the neighbors' animals would
eat the seedling trees since there is little forage left in Haiti.
The land tenure system--the way land is owned and used in Haiti--provides
little motivation to anyone to replant the trees. Of course, it
is in the interest of the nation as a whole to replant trees.
But, no individuals who own, share-crop or rent lands are personally
motivated to do this costly and troublesome, and non-economic
EXPORT CROPS VS. LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION.
The largest portions of Haiti's best lands
produce crops for export. Sugar cane is the dominant export crop,
but tropical fruit and other crops are grown as well. With most
of the very best land out of production for local food crops (beans,
rice and corn), the masses of people do not have access to land
to grow food for eating or selling on the local market. Ironically,
Haiti, a primarily agricultural land, is a net importer of food.
At first one might think that this is not such a bad thing. After
all, by selling crops on the international market income is generated
for Haiti, jobs are produced and money circulates. Unfortunately
none of this happens in any positive way for the great masses
First, these lands which produce the export
crops are controlled by the elite of Haiti. Most of the imported
cash goes to these owner/controllers of the land and most of it
is not spent in Haiti, but in the more interesting markets of
the United States and Europe. Not even a trickle down effect is
felt from this flow of cash. Further, the farm wages are among
the lowest in Haiti. Cane cutters spend an entire day in back-breaking
work to cut a ton of sugar cane. For this long day one can expect
$1.00 a day OR LESS! When one compares this with the high prices
of imported food, one can see the contribution to Haiti's difficulties
from this concentration on export crops.
THE LACK OF SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE.
Haiti does not have the basic social infrastructure
to allow a viable economy. There are inadequate roads in the rural
areas. Thus shipping goods to the market in Port-au-Prince is
expensive and risky. Travel by workers is difficult and extremely
time consuming because of bad roads. During the rainy season many
areas cannot be reached at all by motor vehicles.
Water presents difficulties for the people
as well. Only the houses of the wealthy in Port-au-Prince and
the major regional towns have running water. The masses do not
have access to potable water and the death and disease related
to water is critical. It is said that 80% of all disease in Haiti
is water borne. Sewerage systems are limited to the homes of Port-au-Prince's
elite. The rest of the people make do with outhouses or worse,
just use the outdoors. This presents a terrible medical problem
in the crowded slums of the capital.
Electricity is not available except for
a tiny percent of the populace. I've already written about the
deplorable conditions of schools and the inadequate health care
facilities. Haiti simply doesn't provide the basic infrastructure
which allows a healthy people in a healthy economy.
Haitian governments plead that the country
is too poor to provide such services. There is some truth to this
claim. However, millions and millions of dollars donated by foreign
governments and charitable groups for infrastructure projects
have been stolen by government officials. Cheating and corruption
in dealing with these funds are widespread. Lastly, the economy
is run for the benefit of the rich elite. There are too few just
taxes to provide the needed income for the basic infrastructure
which makes a decent life possible.
UMEMPLOYMENT AND UNDEREMPLOYMENT.
Masses of people have no work, or work
for pay which cannot come close to providing a living wage a one's
family. Because of the soil erosion and structure of agriculture,
thousands pour into Port-au-Prince looking for work.
Most of them have heard of a friend's
friend or an uncle's cousin said to have found work in the tourist
industry, or manufacturing sector. But there are few jobs to be
had, and the slums grow. These unemployed masses put increasing
pressure on the already inadequate city infrastructure.
The problems of unemployment and underemployment
are caused in large measure by the lack of an adequate infrastructure
and the domination of all wealth by the few. The political instability
of the present moment does not help. Members of the Haitian elite
and foreign investors are leery of investing in Haiti since no
one knows where the government will move.
UNDERDEVELOPMENT IN AN AGE OF INTERNATIONAL
Today's world economy is international.
Competition is bitter and severe. We are all familiar with this
competition between the United States, Western Europe and Japan.
But this is a competition of the strong fighting the strong for
a piece of the market. Haiti is in a terribly disadvantageous
position. Haiti is an undeveloped country. It is not even a developing
nation. The economic structure of Haiti has in large measure deteriorated
in the 29 years of Duvalier rule. Haiti cannot compete. It's a
case of being hopelessly behind in a long distance race of superstars.
Instead of catching up, Haiti falls farther and farther behind
My own experience has been that large
masses of Haitian people suffer from a self-defeating image of
themselves. They know they are poor in a rich world. They have
heard that they are ignorant and illiterate. They speak Creole
and are told that this is not a "real" language, but
a bastard tongue. They experience their own powerlessness and
are told it is their own fault. Such a self-image creates its
own cycle of misery. The victim, the masses of Haitian people,
blame themselves for their own suffering.
FOREIGN INVESTMENT IN MANUFACTURING
Haiti needs jobs. Hundred of thousands
of people are unemployed in Port-au-Prince, or can only find part-time
work. Thus, at first glance it would seem that the arrival of
American manufacturing operations in the 1970s would be a boon
to Haiti. Well, are they really? The case is not so clear.
On the positive side, some 350,000 jobs
now exist in the manufacturing sector which did not exist 15 years
ago. 350,000 people have full-time employment; people who were
However, the national minimum wage is
$2.60 daily. Most companies evade even this pittance by shifting
their pay system to piece work and then making it so that the
typical wage is closer to $2.00 than the minimum wage.
Until the fall of Duvalier, labor unions
and labor activity were illegal. Even now few people know what
a labor union is and the government continues to harass any labor
activity. Additionally, the press of the hundreds of thousands
who have no work, and who would very much like even these $2.00
a day jobs, keeps workers disciplined not to rock the boat.
The $2.00 a day actual wage is nearly
double the $1.00 typically earned in the agricultural sector.
However, the American firms who own and run these plants earn
fantastic rates of return on capital, profits entirely generated
by the labor of the Haitians. Any sense of justice one can muster
calls for a fairer distribution of the wealth created in these
Are these plants a way out of Haitian
poverty? Yes and no. Immediately, they do employ the unemployed
and that is a positive factor. But, the non-living wage which
is paid insures that people will not rise out of their squalor
and misery, but will remain at subsistence level.
This situation is quite like the early
Industrial Revolution in the United States and England. Most of
us are familiar with the hard and long battles which labor had
to fight to get a fairer portion of the wealth their own labor
created. The Haitian fight is hampered by many factors which were
not as limiting in the United States--the high level of illiteracy,
more severe levels of government oppression than existed here,
more competition for jobs, etc.
So, I find this new development in Haiti
to be a puzzle. Does it help or hinder Haitians? I just don't
know. With just reforms this manufacturing sector could profit
both Haiti and foreign investors. At present some Haitians do
survive because of these jobs, and fortunes are made by the investors.
Haiti is a small country, about the size
of Maryland. It has between 6 and 6.5 million people. The soil
erosion, inability to compete in the international economy, backward
agricultural technology and many other factors combine to make
this population of 6 to 6.5 million one which Haiti cannot easily
The overwhelming portions of the best
Haitian lands are used to grow export crops for North America
and Europe. This production benefits only a handful of the Haitian
elite. Thus, if only the land were returned to the Haitian people
and used for local food crops, Haiti would have no difficulty
in providing a sound diet for all her people.
Even minimal improvements in agricultural
technology (wider use of oxen and plow, for example), or improved
understanding of agricultural problems (stronger national help
in fighting soil erosion) and the land that is in production of
local food crops could be much more productive.
Since hunger is caused by the present
social system, it would seem that it is not overpopulation which
causes the crisis in Haiti. But this view is shortsighted. A reformed
use and understanding of agriculture (both highly unlikely) would
make it possible for Haiti to feed its present population and
even the expected population into the next century. But, eventually,
Haiti will face a population crisis. Certainly by 2025, only 38
years from now, Haiti's present 2.2% growth rate will make Haiti
incapable of feeding her people in the best of circumstances.
There are population control programs
throughout Haiti. But they simply don't work. Much research shows
that moral preaching, sex education, available contraceptive measures
and even force do little to reduce populations in very poor nations.
This is because people NEED lots of children. They need them for
1) As workers in the farm fields.
2) As old age insurance for parents who have no other security.
3) Because in a life of low material gratification, raising children
is among the few joys and delights one can have.
Because they suffer high children mortality
rates, people must have many children so that enough will survive
to accomplish 1,2, and 3.
Sociologists know that only economic development
can effectively lower the birthrate, and that economic development--providing
old age security, and some level of material comfort, almost invariably
lead people to voluntarily limit birth rates. Such a rise in material
standard is also accompanied by higher levels of education, which
further contributes to voluntary birthrate limits.
Is it really overpopulation which causes
Haiti's misery, or is the overpopulation another result of Haiti's