Haiti was once the wealthiest, most lucrative cash-cow in the world. It was the dot-com boom of the late 1700s, when it was providing some 40 percent to 50 percent of France’s gross national product, 60 percent of all Europe’s coffee and 40 percent of all Europe’s sugar.
There is nothing inherent to Haitian culture or religion that renders it naturally vulnerable to every imaginable human catastrophe. There was no “pact with the devil,” as the most absurd religionists would have it, to explain its vulnerability to natural disaster.
The only devilish element in the Haitian mix might be the domination and manipulation of the nation and its populations over centuries by world powers serving their own needs.
So it is not the natural course of history that would leave Haiti with its current identifying tag: poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. But history, too often overlooked in Haiti’s case, does provide a good starting point for understanding how the tiny country arrived at its current status, desperate even before the earthquake.
Haiti came about by default, and piracy. Its slavery was initiated -- and blessed -- by history’s best known and least liked cardinal, Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu. It was a way to provide labor in a country where the indigenous Arawak population had been virtually wiped off the face of the earth by colonizers within a decade of Columbus claiming the land for Spain.
Louis XIII, a particularly staunch Catholic for a French monarch, was opposed to slavery. Richelieu, who wanted the colony’s income to create a navy to defeat the English, softened Louis’ opposition by promising all slaves would be baptized as Catholics. However, as slave numbers doubled by the decade, baptisms lagged. Spain officially ceded the island’s western third to France, and kept what is today’s Dominican Republic.
Two hundred fifty years ago, sons of French nobility, along with creative investors who built coffee and sugar plantations out of raw Haitian land, could expect to double their money every 10 years. An entire French shipbuilding industry grew out of the need to provide vessels to handle the mushrooming commerce -- and the slave trade.
By the 1760s profits began to double every three to four years. By the 1780s, Haiti was consuming 40,000 new slaves a year. Africa couldn’t keep up with the demand. Slaves for Haiti were being purchased or poached from other colonies, like Jamaica or Louisiana.
In Haiti life was cruel, brutal and short. Field slaves were dead before they reached 40. Exhausted slaves and lands were abandoned as new lands constantly opened up. The barbarity used to control the slaves was almost unimaginable. Recalcitrant sugar-workers, laboring in the fields or in the wood-burning refining factories operating 24/7, were buried to the neck, doused in molten sugar and left for insects to devour.
Rebellious slaves were filled with gunpowder and the fuses lit. The female house slave who upset her chatelaine could be simply cast into the boiler. The chatelaine could order the decapitation of a young female slave who happened to catch her master’s eye.
Society’s three tiers were the whites (settlers, and the royal governor, his bureaucrats and military), mulattos (mainly gens de couleur libres, free people of color), and slaves. The free mulattos were offspring of white men who married slaves because of the paucity of white women in the colonies.
By the 1770s, monarchical controls in Western European society were threatened. Growing republicanism produced two revolutions in short order -- the American, and then the French. The French Revolution spawned the Haitian Revolution.
On Aug. 22, 1791, 6,000 “Maroons” (escaped slaves who lived in the forests and raided plantations) rebelled in the port city of Le Cap. Haiti -- with its 32,000 whites, 27,000 mulattos, and at least a half-million registered slaves, but likely many more -- had been an uprising-prone tinderbox for four decades.
The revolution grew and, in a matter of days, 100,000 risen slaves destroyed 300 plantations. The white royalists responded. As the guillotines never stopped in Paris, in Le Cap six gallows operated night and day. But the whites were losing ground. Those whites able to flee did so, many to the United States, where they received permanent U.S. government allowances. In the next 12 years, the former slaves defeated local whites and their military units, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of 60,000, and an equally numerous expedition under Napoleon’s brother-in-law. During that same period, one-third of Haiti’s population was slaughtered.
Independence was declared in 1804, and internationally ignored. The Vatican shunned Haiti for 60 years while the church flourished domestically, inculturated to the highest degree. (According to the CIA World Factbook, today 80 percent of Haitians are Catholic, 16 percent Protestant and 4 percent other, while roughly half of the population also practices voodoo.)
The populace, however, was barely free, for its new masters, the lighter-skinned gens de couleur libres successors to the whites, realized slavery meant money. The era of light-skinned black exploitation of dark-skinned blacks was underway.
Slavery was not abolished in the Caribbean until the 1830s, and within three decades Haitian land reform created a nation of families with small plots, though large estates remain to the present. Despoliation was underway with a vengeance as forests were erased to make charcoal. Corruption flourished and expanded: By the 1980s, an estimated 1 percent of the population received 45 percent of the national income; today 10 percent controls 90 percent of the wealth. Periodic rebellions continued; the last, brief flowering for potential reform was during the ill-fated Aristide years.
The modern chapters in Haiti’s history include the all too familiar scenario of a dictator currying favor with the United States by taking advantage of Cold War fears. The Duvalier family -- specifically François and his son, Jean-Claude, popularly Papa Doc and Baby Doc -- played on those fears and ruled, with U.S. support, from 1957 until the overthrow of the younger Duvalier in 1986. The Duvaliers presided over one of the bloodiest regimes in the Caribbean arena, a display of almost unparalleled Haitian-on-Haitian violence. They left thousands dead and stole millions of the country’s wealth while piling up enormous debts.
The end of the Duvalier regimes gave way to the most recent period of instability, the twice-interrupted presidency -- and eventual removal -- of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the ongoing interference by the United States in Haiti’s economics and politics. Critics of U.S. economic policy convincingly argue that the dumping of U.S.-subsidized rice and sugar into Haiti has sabotaged Haitian agriculture so that today citizens of this country can no longer afford to buy its products.
William Quigley, an attorney, longtime advocate for Haiti and legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote on the Huffington Post Web site that the United States stopped hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Haiti in 2002, money that would have been used for public projects such as education and roads. “U.S.-based corporations have for years been teaming up with Haitian elite to run sweatshops teeming with tens of thousands of Haitians who earn less than $2 a day,” he wrote.
It is a bitter and awful irony that it took an earthquake of horrifying dimension to bring a stop to it all and to rivet the globe’s attention and compassion. A redemptive quality mixes even now with the stench of death that hangs over Port-au-Prince. The questions arising from the rubble are enormous. Reconstruction will occur, but it must be done in a way that does no further damage to the integrity of Haiti and that advances the broadest benefit for the greatest number of people.
The common good is not a well-established concept in Haiti, and Port-au-Prince before the earthquake provided the best evidence of the degradation that occurs when the perks of commerce and political power accrue to only a few while the rest remain in poverty.
Post-earthquake possibilities include the opportunity to manage the enormous outpouring of the world’s compassion and resources to develop Haiti beyond the borders of Port-au-Prince, to establish the infrastructure and services so desperately needed to revive agriculture and other industries in Haiti’s rural provinces.
Haiti has paid a historic price to the slave trade and to those in the hemisphere with the power to manipulate. It now deserves a fighting chance to reestablish itself as a player on equal footing with the rest of the world.