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Centuries of folly scar Haiti

As the world rallies to help victims of Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti, there's a sense of been there, done that.

This was the first quake in 200 years to hit the West's poorest country, but there have been so many other disasters — hurricanes, landslides, floods — that it's hard to keep track of them all. Billions of dollars in aid have poured into Haiti over the years, yet nothing seems to get any better.

Why is Haiti such a basket case while people in the Dominican Republic, which occupies the other half of the island of Hispaniola, live an average of 13 years longer and earn six times more?

The answer lies in the colonial past, Haitian and Dominican policies and, almost as importantly, the policies of the United States.

The Spanish settled Hispaniola in the 16th century, but ceded the western third to France as Spain's attention turned to the gold-and-silver rich Americas. France's new colony, based on forestry and sugar, became one of the richest in the Caribbean but only by importing thousands of slaves from Africa.

In the late 1700s, slaves revolted and established the world's first black republic in 1804. The United States, which refused to recognize the new nation for fear of undermining its own slavery system, led a worldwide boycott against Haiti that lasted until nearly the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865.

Also isolating Haiti was its own constitution, which sought to block a return to colonialism by barring foreigners from owning land.

"To European eyes, the oversimplified image was of the Dominican Republic as a partly European society receptive to European immigrants and trade, while Haiti was seen as an African society composed of ex-slaves and hostile to foreigners," Jared Diamond writes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

"With the help of invested capital from the U.S., the Dominican Republic began to develop a market export economy, Haiti far less so.''

Concerned about risks to the Panama Canal because of political turmoil in the Caribbean, the United States occupied the entire island of Hispaniola during World War I. In the Dominican Republic, Americans trained an army headed by Rafael Trujillo, who became president, then dictator when U.S. troops pulled out.

Though ruthless, Trujillo sought to modernize his nation. He developed the infrastructure and economy — "mostly running the country as his own private business,'' Diamond writes — and took important steps to protect its forests.

Haiti had its own ruthless dictator, Francois "Papa Doc'' Duvalier. But unlike Trujillo, he had no interest in modernization or the environment. One result: massive deforestation that has led to soil erosion, which in turn decreases crop yields and causes deadly landslides.

From the air, the border between the two countries "divides a darker and greener landscape east of the line (the Dominican side) from a paler, brown landscape west of the line (the Haitian side),'' Diamond notes. "That contrast exemplifies a difference between the two countries as a whole.''

U.S. economic and military aid — along with American manufacturers drawn to Haiti by cheap wages — helped keep Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, in power for nearly three decades. But the regime's downfall began in the early '80s when the United States insisted that Haiti destroy its entire pig crop after an outbreak of swine flu.

That threw thousands of pig farmers out of work and started an uprising that led to "Baby Doc's'' exile to Paris in 1986.

Nor was that the only time U.S. policy undercut gains made by U.S. aid.

Before 1950, Haiti produced most of its own food. But after the International Monetary Fund persuaded it to reduce import tariffs in the '80s, U.S. rice poured into the country and put many rice farms out of business. Today, three-fourths of Haiti's rice comes from the United States.

American meddling has also contributed to Haiti's long history of political instability. In 2000, for example, exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to office with U.S. support. Four years later, amid corruption allegations, he alleges he was "kidnapped'' by U.S. Marines and forced into exile again.

Haiti's current president is René Préval, who heads a country that was languishing far behind the Dominican Republic even before Tuesday's quake. But $100 million in relief has been pledged by the United States — Haiti's sometimes benefactor, sometimes nemesis.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Centuries of folly scar Haiti 01/15/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 17, 2010 12:09pm]
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