Why is Haiti so poor? A history of quake-hit island

Papa Doc, Francois Duvalier

Once France’s richest colonial possession, earthquake-hit Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 14:15 ON Thu 14 Jan 2010

Once the richest French colony in the Americas - contributing as much as 50 per cent of the mother country's wealth - Haiti now vies with Nicaragua for the title of poorest country in the New World. Thanks to yesterday's magnitude 7.0 earthquake, it is likely to fall further behind its fellow developing nations.

The nation, the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, came under French rule in 1697 when it was called Saint-Domingue. (The eastern other half of the island - now the Dominican Republic - went to the Spaniards.)

Through the course of the 18th century the colony became the richest in the French-speaking New World, thanks to coffee and sugar plantations run on slave labour.

Given its former vast natural wealth, how did Haiti become so poor?

THE FRENCH CONNECTIONHaiti has been plundered throughout its history. It got off to a bad start immediately following independence from France in 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines and an army of slaves defeated French troops sent by Napoleon to restore slavery.

Dessalines, himself a former slave, was proclaimed emperor by his men who named the island after its American Indian name, Ayiti, which means 'land of mountains'.

Dessalines's rule was short, violent and populist. He forbade white people from owning property and ruled that the black population must either work in the plantations or in the army.
He was assassinated in 1806.

A nation forged by a slave revolt set a terrible precedent in a world heavily dependent on slave labour and France persuaded Spain and the US to join it in an economic embargo.

Desperate for international recognition, Haiti eventually agreed in 1838 to pay reparations to France in order to compensate slave owners and their heirs. The sum, 150 million francs, is estimated at $21bn in today's money, and kept Haiti in debt to France for the next 80 years.

To add insult to injury in the interim, Haiti's national bank was plundered on several occasions by US, British, French and German forces. Expatriates from the same countries bankrolled multiple plots against ephemeral governments in order to further their business interests; in its 200-year history, Haiti has endured 32 coups.

THE AMERICAN TAKEOVERIn 1915, the United States occupied the country, fearing the growing influence of the German community there. A period of stability followed, although the introduction of chain-gangs to improve the country's infrastructure was deeply unpopular in a country founded by slaves.

The US's primary legacy when it pulled out in 1934 was a strong, well-organised military. For the next 50 years the country would be governed by military dictatorships epitomised by that of physician Francois Duvalier.

'Papa Doc', as he was known, seized power in a military coup in 1956.

THE PAPA DOC YEARS'Papa Doc' Duvalier (above) won elections in 1957 on a populist ticket but threw off any pretence of democracy in 1964 when he made himself president for life.

The US tacitly supported him because of Haiti's strategic location close to Fidel Castro's Cuba, and for fear that it would also turn communist.

Papa Doc is widely credited with 30,000 deaths - mostly at the hands of the Tonton Macoutes, the paramilitary force he created to replace the army, which he disbanded for fear that it would topple him.

Papa Doc confiscated land held by peasants to give to members of the Tonton Macoutes. He further consolidated his power over the poor black majority by reviving Haiti's voodoo traditions - setting himself up as a voodoo priest.

This period was famously evoked in Graham Greene's 1966 novel, The Comedians, later filmed with Richard Burton and Alec Guinness.

THE HAITIAN DIASPORAWhen Duvalier died in 1971, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude, or 'Baby Doc', who continued his father's repressive policies, but began to lose the support of the black majority.

He fled the country in 1986 for France with the assistance of the Reagan administration in the United States. Today he is believed to be living modestly in Paris - or Brooklyn. Attempts since then to hold democratic elections have ended in disarray.

The corruption and repression of these kleptocratic regimes, which stole aid money meant for the poorest, forced educated professionals into exile. There are large populations of Haitians today in Miami, New York and French-speaking Montreal as well as on other Caribbean islands.

Haiti has never really recovered from this brain drain which led to a serious lack of teachers and doctors.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATIONThe almost total deforestation of Haiti has added to the island's problems. In 1923, over 60 per cent of Haiti was covered by lush forests; in 2006, that had fallen to less than two per cent, thanks to the demand for charcoal, the main source of fuel in dirt-poor Port-au-Prince, and land for agriculture. This has led to soil erosion, desertification and floods. · 

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