It is necessary to temporarily break from the series on party politics to share a perspective on Haiti that responds to the ignorance and frankly racist comments flowing since the earthquake of last week. A particular strain of the comments seeks to make Haiti and its people incurably backward, genetically subhuman and so preoccupied with evil and voodoo that even the God of the universe has turned His back on the land and its people. Any attempt to understand and analyse the reasons for Haiti's backwardness as a society and the human condition of large numbers of its people should start from the appreciation that that country has been a victim of the worse forms of economic exploitation, racist sub-human degradation and imperial imposition known to man.
Haiti has been made to pay with the lives of millions for the effrontery of Toussaint L'Overture and his army to have beaten and humiliated Napoleon's all-conquering French army, the British and the Spanish, repulsing them from San Domingo and bringing to an end the most profitable and at the same time iniquitous form of slavery imaginable. What Toussaint was not good at, however, was recognising the kind of treachery which led to his murder at the hands of Napoleon (as sure as if the French emperor had inserted a blade into his chest). Because of the loss of L'Overture's natural and wise leadership, Haiti lurched through a succession of leaders and inevitably split into its camps of mulattos, blacks and planters, the country losing its focus and its capacity to cohere and move forward politically, economically and socially. But the "unkindest cut of all," to use James in another context, was the Haitian Government meeting the demand by the French Government to pay 150 million francs in compensation to the French farmers for loss of earnings and property because of the successful ending of the slave system.
In the most obscene manner, what the ordinary labouring classes amongst the Haitian people were required to do was to compensate the planters and France as a country for exploiting and brutalising them for over 100 years (1665-1790). Lacking the leadership of a L'Overture, the mulatto leader, Jean-Pierre Boyer, was bullied into making the compensation. He borrowed from a French bank, the country just out of a revolution, scattered and divided and not having the capacity to pay the demand. For near 100 years (1826-1922), Haiti had to meet debt payments from the scarcest of resources. When the American military occupation began (1915), 80 per cent of Customs revenue was used to repay this iniquitous debt. "The debt was a primary barrier to Haiti's development," states Mark Schuller (2006). "During the formative period in Haiti's history, the state lacked the resources to develop the educational system, infrastructure, agricultural technology, environmental protection, or invest in healthcare," states Schuller–the Jubilee USA Network.
The underdevelopment and backwardness of the society have nothing to do with voodoo and a perceived inherent inferiority of the Haitian mind and body, but rather to do with exploitation and racism of the last 200 years. During its heyday as a sugar producer, Haiti was the most prosperous slave colony, exporting to France over 218 million tonnes of sugar, cocoa, coffee and indigo. The vast majority of these products was re-exported from France in its trade with the rest of the world. Haiti was the envy of the British, who attempted to capture it (1796), even while Lord Pitt and company were seeking to end the slave trade on humanitarian grounds.
Coming at the end of the unconscionable economic exploitation by France, the American military occupation established and carried out the Munroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary to secure the American backyard and to make it known to the foreign powers they were not welcomed.
All through the first half of the 20th century, the brutality and subjugation by Haitian leaders against their people prevailed. So too did the social and ethnic divisions fragment the country. In the late 1950s, the Americans first helped to install and subsequently sustained the brutal and corrupt Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and subsequently his son, "Baby Doc." It was convenient for Washington to have such leaders in place, assured that they would do nothing to encourage the popular people's revolution that was taking place in Cuba to spread to Haiti. It is estimated that a major portion of today's Haitian debt, US$900 million, was accumulated by the Duvaliers from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The money was corruptly stolen by Papa and Baby Doc and did not go to the development of the human condition in Haiti. Not-withstanding this fact, the Government of Haiti has been ser- vicing this debt at approximately US$50 million a year; a sum far in excess of that spent on either health, environment, education and or transport.
Those are reasons for Haiti's backwardness of today; not voodoo.
To continue the punishment inflicted on Haiti for the revolution, which brought an end to the prosperity of the planters and the French economy, the country was deemed in 2000 by the World Bank not to have qualified for the debt cancellation awarded to the "neediest countries whose debt levels are unsustainable." This decision was made notwithstanding the fact that Haiti is the acknowledged "poorest country in the hemisphere." Instead, Haiti was required to meet a set of criteria (which could not have been realistically met) by September 2009 to qualify for cancellation of not all but a portion of its debt. When searching for reasons for Haiti's human condition, the backwardness of the society and its failure to advance from initiating the greatest revolution of ordinary people, we need to look at the reasons stated above.
The real test of civilised society of the 21st century making a change to the historical pattern of treatment of Haiti can be judged when the immediate humanitarian needs are met. Will there be a meaningful attempt to completely reconstruct the physical infrastructure? Will the international community address the need for human development and to do so without attaching impossible conditionalities on the Haitian people?