Haiti is a country in the Caribbean, one of the parts of the world most beloved by tourists and outsiders in general. It has glorious palm-fringed beaches, coral reefs, lush tropical forests, lots of rum, a colorful history, cultures that blend influences from Europe and Africa, great music and dancing, and a lifestyle that ranges from easygoing to partying hard — lubricated by all that rum. Haiti has all of these and more, but it also has a dire reputation as the most problem-plagued part of the Americas. Foreigners are far more likely to visit as aid workers than to relax.
This reputation is mostly deserved, and Haiti does face enormous obstacles before it can reach the levels of its Caribbean neighbors. This blog post will shed some light on arguably the Americas’ most maligned nation and provide some perspective on how it came to this.
Originally, Hispaniola (the island Haiti is on) was inhabited by the Arawaks, who lived in villages of varying size governed by chiefs and subsisting on horticulture of root vegetables, fishing, and barbecue (which they invented). Then Cristobal Colón came by in 1493, and everything changed. It is obvious how much Spanish colonization changed the Americas — probably nowhere else in the world has gone through such a drastic change — but Hispaniola got the first, most intense dose of it. Eager to exploit its gold, the Spanish enslaved the natives and worked them to death in mines. Revolts were put down ferociously. To top it off, the Spanish introduced diseases the Arawaks had no resistance to. By the 1540s, the Arawaks were pretty much extinct, making this episode probably history’s most successful genocide. Today only faint traces of Arawak culture, like canoes and cigars, survive, although the Spanish predilection for rape at least ensured the survival of some Arawak genes.
But for the most part, Haitian history has been shaped by a different group of outsiders: Africans. To replace the native population they had wiped out, Spain imported African slaves instead, turning the Caribbean into an interesting outpost of African culture in the long run. The western part of Hispaniola was less-developed than the east, making it easy prey for the French when they got around to sailing in the Caribbean; they seized it in 1697 and named it Saint-Domingue (the Spanish colony being called Santo Domingo).
Thanks to intensive sugar cultivation on plantations, St-Domingue became France’s most profitable colony, and the island developed a class of rich, conservative French planters. It also had free blacks and mulattoes, or mixed-race people. But over 80% of St-Domingue’s people were slaves, and they worked under horrible conditions and were subjected to constant brutality. A steady flow of slaves from Africa ensured that slaves’ lives were cheap. Revolts were common — machetes are awfully sharp — but they never caused the French too much trouble.
… Until the French Revolution, that is. Stirred by that movement’s calls for liberty and equality, a mulatto named Vincent Ogé called for the same ideals to be introduced in St-Domingue. When he was ignored and thrown out of the National Assembly, he resorted to a revolt in 1791. Although it was short-lived, it helped inspire a much longer, more violent one. Stoked by the cruelty with which they were treated and coordinated through secret societies imported from Africa, the revolt could not be put down. The story of the ensuing Haitian Revolution is an involved and interesting one; it includes a three-way war between St-Domingue’s different racial classes, the whites’ political confusion as the home country tore itself apart, rank betrayal, the unification of Hispaniola under black rule, British and Polish (!) intervention, outbreaks of yellow fever, a prominent starring role by Napoleon, accomplished generalship by Haiti’s national hero (Toussaint L’Ouverture), and a LOT of grisly violence, torture and destruction. When it was all over in 1804, St-Domingue was independent at last, as Haiti (an old Arawak term). It was only the 2nd country in the world (after America) to throw off colonial rule, and the only successful slave revolt in history, 2 facts that give Haitians enormous pride to this day. On the other hand, its white population mostly fled during the war, except for a band of Polish soldiers who stayed behind to farm.
Haiti struggled from the beginning. The revolution left it split in 2, with Henri Christophe ruling the north as a king and reintroducing slavery and Alexandre Pétion ruling the south as a president and encouraging small-scale subsistence farming. Unsurprisingly, slavery was unpopular, and the kingdom crumbled in 1820, leaving the republican system ascendant. But the shift from sugar plantations to small cassava farms hobbled the Haitian economy. America despised Haiti for setting a “bad” example for its own slaves and refused to recognize it. France demanded 60 million francs in compensation for all its colonists had lost (and to assuage its own wounded ego); Haiti spent over a hundred years paying it off, bankrupting the economy. Like other ex-colonies later in history, Haiti was deprived of crucial knowhow and leadership by the violence of its revolution. Its politics were highly unstable, and its presidents kept getting overthrown and assassinated. Santo Domingo successfully revolted in 1844.
The early international isolation of Haiti had subsided by the 1900s, and a small German community gained disproportionate influence over its economy. That unnerved America, which was determined to control the Caribbean and safeguard the Panama Canal nearby. It occupied Haiti in 1915 after its dictator was lynched and essentially recolonized it. According to Hans Schmidt in his study of the occupation, it “embodied all the progressive attributes of contemporary Italian fascism” — better roads, bridges, and buildings than Haiti had before, plus a more productive economy, but with all power in the hands of the American army, censorship and arbitrary arrests, forced labor, sugar production oriented for America’s own benefit, and systemic racism along the lines of America’s “Jim Crow” system of segregation. The occupation ended in 1934 — either because America wanted to promote better relations with its neighbors or because growing resistance in Haiti had made it unpopular at home, depending on your level of cynicism. Still, the Haitian treasury remained under American supervision for another decade.
After this, Haiti was ruled by a series of weak, incompetent dictators who tended to get forced out by street protests. They were succeeded in 1957 by a strong one: François Duvalier, usually called “Papa Doc” since he was a folk doctor. He promoted blacks in the government (mulattoes had been dominant ever since the revolution) and by encouraging their culture, even styling himself after the Vodou spirit Baron Samedi. He also pillaged the government for his family’s gain and terrorized the country with his private militia, the Tonton Macoute (named after and dressed as another spirit who kidnaps kids). America sponsored him because he was anti-Communist. The Duvalier regime continued after Papa Doc’s death in 1971 through his son, Baby Doc, until he was ousted by a coup after popular revolts against his accepting payments from the Dominican Republic to send migrant workers over. (He ran off with the money.)
The main political drama since the Duvalier era was the rise and fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A populist priest who won a following among the poor with his impassioned sermons, he won the election in 1990 but was overthrown in a coup only a year later. He moved to America and lobbied it for an intervention to restore him to power. A flood of Haitian refugees fleeing the dictatorship added to the pressure. American president Bill Clinton relented in 1994, and once again US troops marched on Port-au-Prince. Yet Aristide failed to turn around the economy, and he and his successor agreed to IMF-imposed terms that gutted Haiti’s subsistence farmers. The political situation and crime had grown so bad by 2004 that the UN intervened, the only UN occupation force in the world outside of a war zone.
As if all this wasn’t dire enough, Haiti was battered by God in 2010, when an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. At magnitude 7, it would be difficult for any country to deal with, but with Haiti’s shoddy infrastructure, most of the capital was in rubble, including the presidential palace. To make matters worse, much of the foreign aid Haiti needed to clean up afterward never arrived or was slow in arriving. To make matters even worse, UN troops from Nepal introduced cholera through lackluster sanitation, killing another 10,000 Haitians. And to make matters even worse, it has become increasingly obvious that foreign aid workers indulged in sex slavery rings.
Given this dismal history, it is easy to conclude that Haiti has been “cursed by one thing after the other,” as the American preacher Pat Robertson once claimed. And it continues to face huge challenges. Only half the population can read or access basic health services. Most Haitians rely on informal jobs or farming small plots to get by. The contrast with Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is glaring, leading many Haitians to head east for work, despite the racism (both petty and official) they face by its lighter-skinned population.
Yet this is only one aspect of Haiti. It offers picturesque scenery like all the other Caribbean islands. Its heritage is evident in sites like the massive Laferrière Citadel built on a prominent peak and the colonial architecture in its towns. The ethnic cleansing in Haiti’s past means that African culture has been better preserved here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, although it has blended with European and Arawak influences. That means its language, Creole, is basically French but with different grammar and a smattering of vocabulary from Spanish, Taino (an Arawak language) and West African languages. Haiti also has its own religion, Vodou, which is descended from a similar faith in Benin; it is a blend of Catholicism with the worship of unique spirits called lwa, which can possess adherents in lengthy ceremonies. Vodou’s tight-knit secret societies makes the religion a potent political crucible, but it’s also led to a lot of bogus portrayals overseas since its priests are said to perform magic.
Vodou is a major source of inspiration for Haitian culture, and Vodou images, paraphernalia, flags and clothing are important preoccupations of Haiti’s vibrant arts scene. Haitian painting is colorful and creative, but the most interesting thing about Haitian art might be how its artists use whatever stuff they can find to make something strange, ghoulish or beautiful. Street and even bus art is everywhere. Music is also a Haitian highlight: rara uses crude instruments like drums, bamboo trumpets and maracas to bang out simple but infectious beats, while Cuban son, Dominican merengue and American rap are also popular and filtered through Haiti’s more African sensibilities. All of these art forms come together in wild Carnival parties, which rival any other of the Caribbean’s many wild parties.
Haitian culture also places a big emphasis on solidarity and community spirit. Urban neighborhoods and rural villages are tight-knit and mutually supportive. Haitians are resourceful and used to making do with what little they have. They are hardworking and, out of necessity, patient in the face of adversity. This has made Haitian workers crucial for the Dominican Republic and the American state of Florida, as well as other Caribbean countries. Haiti also may hold promise as a low-wage manufacturing center and already has a textile industry.
That being said, Haiti resembles Africa in other ways too. It is the poorest part of the Americas, and by quite a margin too (its average per capita income is $719 a year). Damage from the earthquake is still evident 8 years later, and some still live in tents in “temporary” camps. Living conditions in general are shabby: power and water are scarce, roads are potholed, and public transit is unreliable and crowded. Port-au-Prince’s vast slum, the Cité Soleil, was once considered one of the world’s most dangerous places and was basically ruled by warring gangs until the UN took control in 2007. Crime and violence are still very high. About 150,000 Haitians have AIDS. Sanitation is in a dire state: trash and poop are dumped in ditches and canals, which means they get in houses when there are heavy rains. Most Haitians have to skip meals or eat basic foods like yams, plantains and rice. 200 years after the revolution, a racial divide between mulattoes and blacks persists.
At the root of all of these problems is the government, which struggles to provide even basic services. It is caught in a classic African trap: it has very little tax revenue to spare, but its people have very little money to tax. This means it is very dependent on foreign aid, even if that means accepting crippling conditions from the World Bank and IMF. For example, the government is currently buckling under protests against a slash in fuel subsidies that makes the kerosene many Haitians depend on unaffordable. This is not new in Haiti: as the historical background should make clear, Haiti doesn’t exactly have a stable political tradition, and civil disorder can make the country ungovernable sometimes. The usual corruption and mismanagement of developing countries hollows out government resources even more.
Haitians are optimistic and stoic in even the worst of circumstances, and there are far worse neighborhoods than the Caribbean. But it will be a long time before Haiti becomes a place most people want to go to instead of a place they’d rather leave.