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Haiti – Forever in crisis

 Ireland's Big Issue 16 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) The recent earthquake in Haiti is just another catastrophe in the country’s long history of disasters. However, to date, most of its problems have been man-made as the country and its people have been run into the ground by a succession of misrule over the last 400 years.  - By Jennifer May

Jennifer May looks back at the recent history of Haiti to get some understanding of why the country is so ill equipped to face its current crisis.


The recent earthquake in Haiti is just another catastrophe in the country's long history of disasters. However, to date, most of its problems have been man-made as the country and its people have been run into the ground by a succession of misrule over the last 400 years. Ever since Christopher Columbus first happened upon it in 1492 while traversing the Caribbean Sea and claimed - Ayita as it was then known - for the Spanish people, wiping out most of the indigenous Arawakan population as he did so, the people of Haiti have suffered death, poverty and the indignity of slavery under its various despotic rulers. With a chequered but fascinating history, the people of Haiti, now the poorest country in the Western world seems destined to suffer for the foreseeable future.

After the arrival of Columbus, and the enslavement of the remainder of the population and plundering most of its natural resources, Spanish interest in the now named Hispaniola waned and in the 1600's Spain officially handed over control to their Gallic (French) neighbours. Cultivating cotton, tobacco and indigo, the French imported slaves from Africa and by the 17th century the last of the indigenous Arawakan people had disappeared from the colony.

Now known as San Domingue, the island went on to be one of the top exporters of cane sugar, indigo and cotton, and became one of the richest colonies in the French empire; made entirely on the backs of slaves imported from Africa. Though mistreated and abused they held onto the cultural beliefs they brought with them on the slave ships, especially the practice of Vodou; this remains a strong part of Haiti's culture even today.

During the Napoleon's reign, he ordered that slavery, which had been repealed on the Island, be re-introduced. It was decided in order to reclaim authority in San Domingue, at least 30,000 coloured men and women were to be destroyed. Vicomte de Rochambeau, whose responsibility it was to oversee the island, began the brutal genocide of the non-white population by burning, drowning, hanging and torturing; even boiling innocent people alive in cauldrons of black molasses. However his actions only succeeded in strengthening rebellion and united blacks and mulattos against the French.

In 1803, with France at war with Britain, Napoleon, realising he could not keep control, signed the Louisiana Purchase, selling his North American interests to the US. This allowed the Haitan military forces to take control and declare the island's independence. Instability, despotic rulers and military revolts were the pattern, until a workable constitution was introduced in 1874 by Michel Domingue, leading to a period of relative stability for the beleaguered islanders. When power passed to Lysius Salomon this stability continued and Haiti experienced something of a cultural renaissance and the development of the sugar and rum industries turned it into a model for economic growth in Latin American countries.

Another revolution in 1911 ended this period of stability and in the next four years there were six Presidents, either murdered or forced into exile by the revolutionaries. In 1915 a dictatorship was established by Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, but it lasted only a few months before he was lynched by a mob in Port au-Prince and America finally took control, worried over the state of the country's finances.

While the US stabilised debt and carried out reforms like public health and education, they also wrote a new constitution, abolishing the prohibition on foreign ownership of land - one of the most essential components of Haitian Law. The Marines, reviving an old law that required peasants to work free on roads in lieu of paying a road tax, built more than 700km of new roads, but their methods, harassing people under threat of violence to work in road gangs fuelled yet another up-rising; this time the leader, Charlemagne Peralte vowing to 'drive the invaders into the sea and free Haiti'. Over 15,000 Haitians would die in the conflict in the following two years.

In 1934, under Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbour Policy the US withdrew from Haiti, but retained control of its external finances until 1947. However problems persisted amongst the mulatto and back communities within Haiti as black people continued to be excluded in favour of their 'whiter' counterparts, denied positions of importance in government until the election of the first black President, Dumarsais Estimè in 1947. Under his leadership there were major civil and political reforms for the black community, however another military dictatorship was established until 1957, when yet another coup would see Dr Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier elected President. Duvalier, like his predecessors, wasted no time in establishing another dictatorship; one that is now considered to have been one of the most violent and repressive in modern times.

Papa Doc, with his paramilitary police force the VSN (known as the Tonton Macoutes after a voodoo monster), used extreme intimidation, violence and murder against his political opponents, exploiting Haitians innate fear of Voodo for his own ends even putting himself forward as some kind of Voodo high priest. Under his regime over 30,000 Haitians were murdered and corpses were often left, mutilated and hanging in the streets to remind his enemies of his infinite power; Papa Doc declared himself 'President for Life' in 1964. His policies, aimed at ending white and mulatto dominance in Haiti, also led to the mass emigration of the educated middle-classes, serving only to deepen its economic and social problems.

In 1971 after his death, his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) took over running the country, and the country continued its economic decline. But as a result of his improving human rights within Haiti, financial assistance would flood in from the international community. This, fraudulent schemes and slush funds, enabled Baby Doc to live a millionaire lifestyle, while he left his mother, Simone Duvalier, more or less in charge of the country, which crumbled in financial ruin by the 1980's. In 1986 after a visit to Haiti Pope Jean Paul II condemned the regime, finally forcing Duvalier to resign and go into exile.

In 1988 after two years of military rule, new constitution was ratified and Leslie Manigat was elected president in an election that saw less than 10 per cent of the population vote. However another coup rapidly followed and Haiti would remain in the grip of the military until 1990. Yet another election, this time won by a former Catholic priest Jean Bertrand Aristide, brought more violence and fear to the nation; Aristide encouraged and actively supported violence against his opponents, even endorsing 'necklacing' (putting a rubber tyre filled with petrol around a victims neck and setting them on fire) as a form of execution. Another (American backed) violent coup in 1991 which over 5,000 Haitians were killed forced Aristide to leave Haiti, and the country was once again ruled by the military until a UN ruling in 1994 authorized its members to use any means necessary to rid Haiti of its increasingly repressive military regime. With America poised to enter by force, President Jimmy Carter persuaded the military to step down and agree to constitutional rule - Aristide was returned to power.

The intervening years saw power pass between Aristide and his political ally Rène Prèval, but both worked towards ridding the country of any other political opponents, and elections were neither free nor fair. By 2004 violence and rebellion had spread and Aristide was forced, once again to flee the country. (He later claimed he was kidnapped by the US, a claim they deny). UN peacekeeping forces were deployed after a Human Rights investigation found serious abuses still widespread, stating 'summary executions are a police tactic', however the violence continued to get worse over the following year, until democratic elections in 2006, which saw Renè Prèval elected after winning over 51 per cent of the votes.

Many people claim that the real power in Haiti remains the US, and that Aristide is still the democratically elected President, however people of Haiti have remained the poorest in the western hemisphere, 80 per cent of the population living under the poverty line, despite some fiscal improvement since 2005. Haiti seems dogged with bad luck - now they have relative political stability and a chance for re-growth, they are plagued by weather systems that are destroying any chance of recovery. Still trying to cope with the aftermath of four tropical storms in 2008 which damaged the transportation and agricultural sectors, they are now facing their worst disaster yet.

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