Illustration by @iggdeh
Because this article is not on the entire history, and more specifically on what “The West Did,” we will skip to contemporary Haiti to understand how neoliberal institutions and systems continue to plunder the country. While it is true that dictators like Jean-Claude Duvalier (also known as “Baby Doc”) served as neoliberal puppets for the West during the 1970s and 80s, we are going to fast forward to 1991 when the U.S once again invaded Haiti’s sovereignty.
1991 ~ 2010: Rise and Fall of Aristide, Collapse of Local Agriculture, and the Rapid Urbanization Process
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new hope arose in Haiti, and the country made efforts to revive democracy. In December of 1990 and January of 1991 – in its first free election since the dictatorship ended – Haiti elected a left-wing populist priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a landslide victory. Following the Latin American liberation theology tradition of social justice, Aristide ran on a platform that called for increased wages and resistance to privatization of the five remaining state-owned companies in Haiti. A critic of globalization, Aristide later wrote in his book Eyes of the Heart (2000) that neoliberalism is a “strategy is to weaken the state in order to have the private sector replace the state.” (p.49)
The end of the Cold War, which political scientist Francis Fukuyama infamously labeled “the end of history,” could not have been a worse time for a developing country to challenge the wrath of the neoliberal order. Despite winning in a landslide victory in a fair election, Aristide was forced to resign and leave the country by a CIA-backed coup in 1991. With no stable political leadership in place, a paramilitary right-wing death squad funded by the U.S and known as the “Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti” purged and massacred the remaining Aristide sympathizers. The death squad was led by a former military commander named Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, who, it was later revealed, was paid by the Bush administration’s CIA in exchange for information and intelligence. (Jeffery, 1997)
Eventually, the Clinton administration allowed Aristide to return to Haiti in 1994, but under the conditions that he would back down and let the more moderate Rene Preval be the new head of state and that he would not impede Haiti’s adoption of neoliberal programs and free trade. Aristide and Preval were forced to swallow this deal, which forced Haiti to lower tariffs to the point that it ended up destroying its domestic agriculture sector. Haiti’s local farmers had no chance of competing against the cheap and government-subsidized American produce that soon flooded the country. While 50% of Haiti’s GDP was from agriculture in the 1970s, it fell to just about 25% in the late 1990s. As a result, wages plummeted from an average of $3 – $4 a day in the early 1980s to a mere $1 – $2 a day in the early 2000s. (Hallward, 2010, p.6) Aristide became president of Haiti again in 2001 in an attempt to reverse the trend of rising unemployment and the collapsing agricultural sector. But like deja-vu, Aristide was overthrown in yet another CIA-backed coup by yet another Bush administration in 2004.
The long-term effect of the collapse of Haitian agriculture resulted in a rapid migration to urban areas. Most Haitians originally lived in the countryside. But after the forced implementation of neoliberal programs and free trade deals, unemployed workers from rural areas fled to the cities. In the capital of Port-Au-Prince, the population exploded from about 700,000 in 1982 to about 2-3 million by 2008. (Dupuy, 2010) The tragic consequences of this sudden urbanization in a country unprepared for such a change – with new residents huddling in makeshift tent cities – would be felt later in Haiti’s greatest natural disaster.
2011 ~ Present: The Earthquake and the Aftermath
On January 12th, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shattered Haiti and shook the world. About 220,000 – 316,000 people were killed, with 1.5 million displaced. The initial response and world reaction was one of compassion, with aid workers such as Doctors Without Borders rushing in to help the victims. In the U.S alone, more than half of all households contributed $1.4 billion to Haiti in that year, even when many Americans were still recovering from the 2008 great recession. (Schuller, 2016, p.4)
But despite all the charitable intentions, the funds raised for Haiti ended up being handled by an unprofessional and ill-prepared bureaucracy that failed to reconstruct the country. According to a ProPublica and NPR investigation, the Red Cross raised about half a billion dollars to build homes for Haiti – but ended up building only six. Many of the workers the organization had hired were foreigners who did not speak either French or Creole. Important leadership positions for the reconstruction effort remained vacant. The disparity between money raised and money actually used has led some to believe the Red Cross was more interested in using the disaster as a fundraising opportunity – focusing on publicity rather than actual development work.
As I hinted earlier, the number of casualties from the earthquake would also have been much smaller in scale if cities like Port-Au-Prince hadn’t become overcrowded due to the massive exodus from rural areas. Many Haitians who died in the earthquake were living in shacks, huts, or unstable structures that didn’t follow proper building codes. There was neither adequate space nor funds in the state’s budget to build safe housing for the city’s new residents and enforce building regulations. Of course, there is no way to prevent a 7.0 magnitude earthquake from hitting a country. But had Haiti been allowed to follow the policies desired by Aristide, the damage created by the earthquake and the loss of human life would have likely been much less severe. Not only would the agricultural sector have continued to exist with far fewer people living in crowded urban areas, there most likely would have been enough funds in the state’s budget to provide public services.
To show how U.S. neoliberal policies directly increased the casualty rate of Haiti’s earthquake, we need only compare it to a separate disaster that occurred a few years later in a different sub-tropical country in the Americas.
Ecuador was struck by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in April 2016. About 650 – 700 people were killed. Although still a high casualty rate, it was about 280 times lower than that for the (measurably weaker) 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti. In fact, the U.S. assessed Ecuador’s casualty rate to be low enough not to require the dispatch of a single rescue specialist to the country. Still, Ecuador managed to fare better than Haiti because, at the time, it had successfully rejected the neoliberal Washington consensus policies. Instead, the country had embraced the “Socialism in the 21st century” model followed by the Bolivarian government in Venezuela. With a constitution that permitted public ownership of natural resources, Ecuador was able to use its oil exports to pay for social services and was, therefore, better prepared to weather the effects of the earthquake. (Barra, & Alan, 2009, p. 181). Haiti, by comparison, was forced to change its constitution during the first American occupation to allow foreign investors to own natural resources thus hampering its ability to deal with a natural disaster.
The Future: Climate Change and The Next Disaster
If Haiti continues on the path of urbanization – spurred not by prosperity in its cities but by neoliberal policies that have made the countryside uninhabitable – it will become even more vulnerable to the next great disaster that is likely to strike: climate change. According to Mark Schuller (2016) at the University of California at Santa Barbra, “countries most at risk” to climate change-related natural disasters “tend to be tropical areas with large urban centers near coastlines.” (p.23). According to Maplecroft – a British consulting firm that analyzes economic and environmental risks for investors – Haiti is, along with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, one of the three countries in the world rated as the most vulnerable to climate change. For generations, capitalism has exhausted Haiti of its natural resources. The devastation wrought by climate change will be its final blow. Once again, the global south will pay the price for the West’s destruction of the planet’s ecosystem..
Besides its poor infrastructure and high poverty rates, Haiti is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to its lack of vegetation. Back when Haiti was called Saint Domingue and was a leading exporter of coffee, sugar, and cotton, the colony went through a massive deforestation process to make way for plantations. By 1780, a quarter of the colony’s land was used solely for coffee production. As mentioned in part 1 of this essay, even after colonial rule ended, reverse reparations forced the newly independent Haiti to pay off its debt to France by exporting much of its available timber resources (McClintock, 2003).
Moreover, the island of Hispaniola is already located in what’s called “Hurricane alley,” which, over the past 150 years, has been the pathway followed most frequently by tropical storms in their generally westward movement across the Caribbean Basin. While the more lush vegetation of Dominican Republic gives it “protection” from storms, Haiti has been left exposed and will inevitably suffer much more from the coming climate change-related hurricanes and superstorms than its neighbor to the east. We have already seen this. When Hurricane Jeanne hit Hispaniola in 2004, 18 people were killed in the Dominican Republic. The same storm claimed over 3,000 in Haiti.
There are still some mitigation and adaptation policies that Haiti could try in order to alleviate at least some of the effects of global climate change. They might, for instance, do what the Dominican Republic did when it faced its own crisis caused by deforestation. By adopting a massive reforestation program, the DR was able to restore its portion of forested land to 28 percent as in the 2010s after it had fallen to 12 percent in the 1980s. Reviving Haiti’s vegetation will help the country protect itself from extreme weather events and bring back its photosynthetic capacity. With no adequate (or humane) labor market available in its urban areas, the Haitian government could also try to revive its traditional agriculture sector by adopting mixed economy and protectionist policies. This could only happen, of course, provided that the country is allowed to reject previous neoliberal programs and free trade agreements.
After the great earthquake and in view of the coming climate crisis, the question becomes: will the U.S. change its policy towards Haiti and actually work to relieve Haiti’s poverty? Will it abandon neoliberalism, pay reparations, and respect the country’s sovereignty for once?
In 2010, former President Bill Clinton publicly expressed regret over his trade policy which resulted in the sale of U.S. subsidized produce to Haiti. He called it “a mistake” in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that, “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.” Despite this acknowledgment of fault by one former U.S. leader, it is questionable how much U.S. foreign policy has changed with respect to Haiti. A year after the 2010 earthquake, it was revealed through a Wikileaks cable that the U.S. state department pressured the country to keep its minimum wage at 31 cents an hour after the Haitian government itself had passed a law to raise it to 61 cents an hour. This opposition to a wage increase was done to please corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss, which owned factories in Haiti and were infuriated that the poorest country in the Americas had the audacity to raise the minimum wage an extra thirty cents. Although Haiti drove slavery out of their island long ago, multinational corporations backed by the United States continue to ensure that Haitians are still indentured to slave wages.
Haiti, however, continues to fight. A protest movement started over a surge in fuel prices in 2018 has led to a stand-off with the government. The anti-government protestors are demanding that U.S.-backed president Jovenel Moïse to step down after an illegitimately protracted term in office. Unfortunately, the struggle of the Haitians receives little media attention in the U.S. When U.S. rival Venezuela deals with anti-government protests against state corruption, there are constant news segments on how socialism has failed. In contrast, when Haitians protest the failures of capitalism that have resulted in a form of oppression that’s arguably worse than that in Venezuela, the media is silent.
Not surprisingly, the Biden administration has done nothing to pressure Moïse to step down. In fact, the new U.S. president has decided to increase the deportation of Haitians who fled the country during a precipitous spike in the number of those in hunger between the years 2018 and 2019. Biden deported more Haitians in a few weeks than the Trump administration did in an entire year.
Whether it is revenge for Haiti’s successful slave rebellion or because the U.S. remains a country that fails to value Black Lives, it is clear that, no matter who is president, the U.S. will continue to subjugate its Caribbean neighbor.
But the story does not need to end here.
Historian Laurent Dubois observes that in the last phase of the Haitian Revolution when Napoleon betrayed Toussaint Louverture and attempted to reinstate slavery in the island, the freed slaves of Haiti fought back against the French with “supranational intrepidity.” Dubois writes in the last chapter of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution: “The prospect of defeat was more frightening than the rigors of war. Women fought alongside men. In one battle in the south, they made up the first wave of an attack, carrying bundles of brush meant to help the troops behind them cross trenches around a fortification, and were massacred by French musket fire.” The Haitians marched into the line of fire, “singing Guinean songs, as if possessed by the hope that they would soon see their old acquaintances” and be reunited with “Papa Toussaint.” (p.295 – 296). Napoleon eventually had to give up retaking Saint Domingue, for he could not shackle a people that would rather die than be enslaved again.
Haitians today still understand that returning to slavery is a fate worse than death. It is why they continue to fight for their liberty despite the entire Western power apparatus fighting against them. Whether it is capitalism, imperialism, or climate change caused by both, Haitians will not go quietly. They have defeated the British, French, and U.S. empires and can do it again.
What is required this time, however, is worldwide solidarity. Haiti is the birthplace of liberty. It is where the Latin American independence movements were sparked. It is a thorn in the side of White Supremacists who rely on a narrative that black people can’t govern themselves. The West owes reparations to Haiti, but activists and organizers worldwide fighting for social justice also owe a blood debt to Haiti. We are free because they fought for us to be free. We yearn for a better world because they showed that such another world is possible. One day, when Haiti’s story is finally understood, the spirit of Toussaint will return to those deforested lands to replant the seeds of liberty, where liberty first sprang.
Aristide, J., & Flynn, L. (2000). Eyes of the heart: Seeking a path for the poor in the age of globalization. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
Barra, X. D., & Alan, D. B. (2009). Latin America after the neoliberal debacle: Another region is possible. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Dubois, L. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Dupuy, A. (2010, May) Beyond the Earthquake: A Wake-Up Call for Haiti. Latin American Perspectives. Sage Publications, Inc. Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 195 ~ 204
Hallward, P. (2010). Damming the flood: Haiti, Aristide and the politics of containment. United Kingdom: Verso Books.
Jeffery, S. R. (1997, October 7th) Haitian Paramilitary Cheif Spied for CIA, Sources Say. Washington Post. a01
McClintock, N. (2003.) Agroforestry and Sustainable Resource Conservation in Haiti., Raleigh, NC; North Carolina State University
Schuller, M. (2016). Humanitarian aftershocks in Haiti. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.
Read more of James’ work in Mixed Mag:
The Allure and Danger of Andrew Yang (Issue 8)
Cancel the Kennedys (Issue 3)
Why Immigrants Lose (Issue 1)