Haiti’s Disorder Is Due to Elite Malfeasance and US Meddling

Many observers of Haiti’s social disorder today maintain that the island country has always been dysfunctional. But the poverty and chaos in Haiti is of recent vintage, the product of disastrous decisions by political elites and heavy-handed US interference.

A woman carrying a child runs from the area after gunshots were heard in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 20, 2024. (Clarens Siffroy / AFP via Getty Images)

Social disorder. Prisons emptied of violent criminals by gangs looking to rebuild their ranks. Schools, hospitals, and pharmacies targeted for looting and frequently burned. Corpses left rotting in the streets for fear of succumbing to the same fate by attempts to remove them. The capital’s port was captured and ransacked, with famine threatening. Meanwhile, on Haiti’s northern coast, cruise ships still disgorge foreign tourists to the protected (with no shortage of irony) “Columbus Cove Beach.”

There’s no sugarcoating it — the collapse of order in Haiti and the activities by gangs in recent months to capitalize on the situation is bad.

Just as with the Middle East, we hear the refrain that Haiti “has always been like this.” Except it hasn’t. Haiti’s history has been both storied and challenged. Reasonably educated persons often juxtapose Haiti to the comparatively thriving Dominican Republic (DR), the neighboring country with which Haiti shares an island. The comparison hints at a defect of the former relative to its better-off neighbor. (The subtext sometimes is that race explains their different fates.) Yet a long view of Haiti reveals its current poverty relative to the neighboring DR has been anything but constant — it only emerged in the past four decades.

No doubt a wide gap has opened up between the economic performance of Haiti and the DR. The latter’s per-capita GDP last year was roughly 700 percent larger than Haiti’s. But going back to 1960, the year where quality data on GDP for the two countries became available, Haiti’s per-capita GDP was (inflation-adjusted) $1,716, 25 percent more than the DR’s, then at $1,374.

Indeed, Haiti’s per-capita GDP in 1960 was even a hefty 67 percent larger than today’s rich South Korea, and far from the poorest country in the Americas. This was no one-off performance. The trend, which predated 1960, differed little up to 1980; the DR was then posting per-capita numbers 29 percent greater than Haiti’s, which still placed them in the same ballpark.

Rather than Haiti “always” being this way, it was 1981 that marked the start of its rapid decline. The DR maintained and even slightly accelerated its steady economic growth that had until then been at rough parity with neighboring Haiti. By contrast, Haiti’s precipitously dropped.

Economic Disaster

Why? One reason was the 1970s oil shock, which increased the price of black gold by tenfold that decade. Needing to recycle cash from windfall sales of oil deposited with them, banks extended loans to all comers. Haiti’s dictator, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, gorged himself on loans, while investing too little of this cash to develop Haiti’s economy.

Meanwhile, the United States ended its inflation in 1980 with Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker’s monetary shock. This cured America’s inflation problem, but massively drove up the repayment costs of those 1970s loans around the world that had to be paid back in the now-inflated dollar.

Duvalier then made a series of lazy and disastrous bets for Haiti’s economy. He went hat in hand collecting foreign aid as cheap foreign credit evaporated, but this tranche of cash did little for Haiti’s economy. Next, he slashed taxes on export earnings and invited foreign companies to employ Haiti’s cheap labor for assembly factories. The model earned plaudits from the United States — but it did not provide much benefit to Haiti, as nearly all inputs came from abroad, tax receipts from the foreign investment were negligible, and wages were kept at subsistence levels.

Then, fearing a new swine flu, in 1986 the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1986 instructed Duvalier to slaughter Haiti’s chief source of protein: pigs. A small, hearty variety, Haiti’s pigs were perfectly suited to low-input peasant production. USAID tried replacing them with a large US variety requiring housing conditions many peasants might envy; these new pigs died. Absent their traditional source of protein, desperate Haitian peasants turned to felling trees to sell for charcoal, thus producing the now tragically familiar images of Haiti’s deforestation.

Political Upheaval and US Meddling

Political upheaval followed as Haitians worked to end their twenty-eight-year-old dictatorship. The United States sought to guide this process, forcibly at points, demanding a veto power over policy in Haiti.

In 1995, US president Bill Clinton instructed Haiti to drop its tariff on US rice (subsidized and chiefly grown in Arkansas) from 50 percent to 3 percent. Haiti’s rice production subsequently collapsed. Two decades later, Clinton apologized to Haiti for advancing this disastrous policy.

This coup de grâce to Haitian agriculture led peasants in the hundreds of thousands to decamp from the countryside to Port-au-Prince. Impoverished and desperate, peasants built housing from cinder blocks in the capital. When Haiti’s big 2010 earthquake hit, these cinder-block dwellings were destroyed. Official estimates put deaths at over two hundred thousand and injuries at three hundred thousand, with another 1.3 million displaced and widespread disease following the collapse of infrastructure, from which Haiti has yet to recover.

The above is to say that it indeed has not “always been this way” in Haiti, which once economically rivaled the now-successful DR. Yet it would be too easy to blame all Haiti’s misfortunes the past half century solely on the United States — Haitian elites have made their share of errors. And Haiti views some of its neighboring states with distrust. Recently, a summit meeting of Caribbean leaders met in Jamaica; the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leadership representing fifteen Caribbean states is now seen by many Haitians as a tool of bigger powers.

It did not help that behind the convening host at the most recent CARICOM meeting, prime minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness, stood by the Canadian, French, and Brazilian flags, an odd choice given the states CARICOM represents. Notwithstanding that CARICOM’s intentions might be “pure,” suspicions remain. Foreign interventions have always resulted in long-term disasters while at best providing short-term relief.

On March 25, James B. Foley, the US ambassador to Haiti from 2003 to 2007, published an op-ed in the Washington Post asserting “Haiti’s dysfunction is a permanent condition” and calling for yet another military intervention. If there has been any “permanent condition” in Haiti, it has been foreign interventions, and not the despair currently being experienced in the country.

Meanwhile, a presidential collegium was offered at the Jamaica CARICOM conclave, but with no Haitian representation at the meeting. In past decades in Haiti, the Cour de Cassation — Haiti’s supreme court — would have sent a provisional president. That option seemingly was overlooked, and with it, the sense that decisions will be made by Haitians rather than for them.

The Caribbean nations, particularly those that are members of the Commonwealth, are fiercely independent in their foreign policies vis-à-vis the United States, as many of their politicians are major intellectual figures. Their stance on Haiti comes from a position of concern; they acknowledge a shared history of resistance to imperialism. Yet today, one still cannot discount the observation made in February 1907 by Dantès Bellegarde, arguably Haiti’s best-known diplomat and one of its most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century: “The US is too close and God is too far.”

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Jeffrey Sommers is a professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies and Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and senior fellow at the university’s Institute of World Affairs. He is also senior fellow at the Center for Political Economy at Babeș-Bolyai University.

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He has authored and coedited five books on Haiti, including The Breached Citadel, and served as president of the Haitian Studies Association. He has been featured in interviews by CNN International, NPR, and other major outlets.

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