In January Haiti was struck by an earthquake that was 8.8 (10 is the worst) on the richter scale. The Haitian government has recently announced that the death toll as a result of the earthquake is approximately 230,000. What you may not know is that a month later an earthquake, also 8.8 on the richter scale, hit Santiago, in Chile, killing about 214 people, according to Chile’s interior minister. Both earthquakes hit urban areas of large population. So why was Haiti’s earthquake so much more lethal than Chile’s?
One possible answer is poverty. Haiti has the lowest human development index in the Americas (it is ranked 149th out of 182), 76% of Haitians are classified as poor (living on $2 a day or less), 56% as extremely poor (living on $1 a day or less). It is the poorest country in the Americas and the fourth poorest in the world. The GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power to equal what it would be worth living in the US, is $1,610. It is the poorest country in the Americas and the fourth poorest in the world. Life expectancy is 52 years for women and 48 for men, adult literacy is about 50% and unemployment is about 70%
A new phrase, “classquake”, has been coined by leading hazard geographer Kenneth Hewitt to describe 20th century earthquakes’ “biased pattern of destruction,” which falls mainly on “slums, tenement districts” and “poor rural villages”. Poverty stricken people can only afford to build shabby houses that cannot stand up to the destruction of earthquakes and other natural disasters, leading to a situation where “seismic destruction usually maps with uncanny accuracy to poor-quality brick, mud, or concrete residential housing”. The destruction of the earthquake in Haiti has been “vastly magnified by the desperately impoverished and informal, unregulated housing conditions of masses of marginalized people in and around the sprawling slums of Port au Prince. In that city’s most notorious slum, Cite-Soliel … population densities are “comparable to cattle feedlots” crowding more residents per acre into low-rise housing than there were in famous congested tenement districts such as the Lower East Side in the 1900s or in contemporary highrise cores such as central Tokyo and Manhattan.” (Mike Davis, Planet of Slums and Paul Street, Haiti, “Classquakes,” and American Empire).
In other words, what Haiti has experienced is no ordinary earthquake, but a classquake. But Haiti wasn’t always so poor. According to historian Hans Schmidt, “Saint Domingue [Haiti] was the wealthiest European colonial possession in the Americas.” According to Noam Chomsky it was “producing three quarters of the world’s sugar by 1789, also leading the world in production of coffee, cotton, indigo, and rum”. Eric Williams described Haiti as “the pearl of the caribbean” (Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-34; Noam Chomsky, Year 501, The Conquest Continues and New Military Humanism). So how did Haiti get so poor? The answer – 500 years of plunder and exploitation. If there was a prize for the most exploited country in history Haiti would be one of the front-runners.
The exploitation of Haiti began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). La Casas, a priest who witnessed and later documented the savagery of Columbus’ and successive Spanish invasions of Hispaniola, described how the Spanish were systematically involved in “killing, terrorizing, … torturing, and destroying the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty” (cited in Chomsky, Year 501). La Casas further described how “husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk … from 1494 to 1508, over 3 million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines” and by 1508 the population of the island had been reduced to “60,000 people”, or 2% of the original population (cited in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).
After Hispaniola was depopulated, the Europeans began bringing over slaves from Africa from as early as the early 1500s, but in greater numbers when the plantation system was later established. This was immensely profitable and “by the 1770s, an exceptionally brutal plantation economy generated more revenue for Haiti’s French colonial masters than did all of Britain’s thirteen north-American colonies combined.” An ex-slave recounted that in the plantation system the French “hung up men with heads downwards, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars … forced them to eat shit … cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitos, … throwing them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup”, and constantly “flaying them with the lash”.
By 1791 there was a revolt against slavery in Haiti that was eventually successful. This is very important, as “Haiti is the one and only place in the world where colonial slavery was abolished by the slaves themselves”. This revolution was extremely enlightened for its time and Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith writes that "Haiti was the first nation in the world to argue the case of universal freedom for all humankind”. The Europeans responded to this revolution by sending in their armies. “Britain invaded in 1773”, the United States sent the French “$750,000 in military aid as well as some troops to help quell the revolt. France dispatched a huge army, including Polish, Dutch, German and Swiss troops.” By 1804, the Haitian rebels, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines had defeated the European invaders and declared Haiti independent – but this independence came at a huge cost. “Much of the agricultural wealth of the country was destroyed, along with perhaps a third of the population.” France then forced Haiti to pay them “colossal amounts of ‘compensation’ for the loss of its slaves and colonial property – an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time. With its economy still shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could only begin to repay this debt by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, massive sums from French banks. By the end of the nineteenth century Haiti’s payments to France still consumed around 80% of the national budget. French banks received the last installment in 1947” and by this time Haiti was utterly impoverished (all quotes are from Peter Hallward, The land that Wouldn’t Lie: Foreign Intervention in Haiti and Chomsky, Year 501 and Democracy Restored, Zmagazine, November 1994).
Even after Independence, Haiti continued to be exploited. On top of the debts to France, “between 1849 and 1913, US navy ships entered Haitian waters 24 times ‘to protect American lives and property’”. Then, in 1915 President Wilson sent in the Marines to Haiti to stop Haitian resistance to “the systematic expropriation of peasant farms, and of collectively- or indigenously-owned land and resources” by the Europeans, a system that was increasing poverty across Latin America and increased poverty in Haiti when the resistance was overcome. The occupation was brutal and “Wilson’s troops murdered, destroyed, reinstated virtual slavery, and demolished the constitutional system.” The Haitians continued to rebel against the conquest and “the marine response was savage … an in house marine inquiry, undertaken as atrocities were publicly revealed, found that 3,250 rebels were killed, at least 400 executed.” Leaked marine orders admitted that “indiscriminate killing of natives” had “gone on for some time”. “A 1927 study of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom recounted such U.S. atrocities as burning men and women alive, summary execution of children, beating and torturing, machine-gunning of civilians, daily shooting of cattle and burning of crops, houses, mills, and so on.” Haitian historian Roger Gaillard estimates that the invasion resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Haitians. The occupation “consistently suppressed local democratic institutions and denied elementary political liberties”. After the invasion “the US-designed constitution overturned laws preventing foreigners from owning land, thus enabling US corporations to take what they wanted” and “imposed a poverty-enhancing ‘structural adjustment’ programme” in which the Americans “took over the National Bank, reorganised the economy to ensure more regular payments of foreign debt, imposed forced labour on the peasantry, and expropriated large swathes of land for the benefit of new plantations like those operated by the US-owned Haitian American Sugar Company. Some 50,000 peasants were dispossessed in northern Haiti alone. Most importantly, the Americans transformed Haiti’s army into an instrument capable of overcoming popular opposition to these developments.” Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes that “the occupation worsened the economic crisis by augmenting the peasantry’s forced contribution to the maintenance of the state” and it “worsened the crisis of power by centralising the Haitian army and disarming [citizens in] the provinces … putting in place structures of military, fiscal, and commercial centralisation”. The occupation added tremendously to the poverty and misery already rampant in Haiti (Ibid and Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-34).
After ruling for 20 years, the US left Haiti “in the hands of the national guard it had established and the traditional rulers” and the pattern of murder and exploitation continued much the same, while Haitians were still paying “reparations” to the French. This continued occupation in all but name ended when the dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier “came to power in 1957 via a rigged election in which he won only a quarter of the votes garnered by his main rival” and with strong US support. Papa Doc was an infamously brutal dictator and he set up a brutal paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes, to control the population. As a result of the repression, “by the mid-1960s perhaps 80% of Haiti’s professionals had fled to safety abroad, and most never returned. Estimates of the total number of people killed under Duvalier vary between 30,000 and 50,000”. Then, “in 1971 Jean-Claude Duvalier [“Baby Doc”] inherited his father’s office as ‘president for life’”, following the same brutal policies of his father. As a result of the repression “throughout the 1970s, thousands of boat people fled the ravaged island, virtually all forced to return by US officials.”
The economic policies of the Duvalier dictatorships were, if anything, more brutal than the repression. Their economic policies were designed to
“’open up’ Haiti to far-reaching foreign penetration and manipulation. They were designed to turn the country into the sort of place that international investors tend to like: a place where people are prepared to work for starvation wages without making a political fuss, a place where private property and profits receive well-armed protection but where domestic markets, local farmers, state assets and public services do not. Locals soon started to refer to these policies as the ‘death plan.’”
This plan caused “agricultural production to decline, along with investment, trade and consumption … By the time “Baby Doc” Duvalier was driven out in 1986, 60 percent of the population had an annual per-capita income of $60 or less according to the World Bank [that supported and initiated the death plan], child malnutrition had soared, the rate of infant mortality was shockingly high, and the country became an ecological and human disaster, perhaps beyond hope of recovery”. As a result of the death plan, wages have been severely reduced to the point that “in real terms they are worth less than a quarter of their 1980 value.” According to the NGO Development GAP “agricultural production has experienced a steady decline, increasing the poverty of peasant farmers over time and adding to the severe environmental degradation of the Haitian countryside.” And as a result of the structural adjustment programs “much of the tax-free profits made from the assembly sector were repatriated by U.S. investors, not reinvested in Haiti”.
After just 10 years of the “death plan”, Noam Chomsky reported that “healthcare and eduction have radically declined, electricity cutoffs up to 24 hours are used to ration power, unemployment exceeds 25 percent, and poverty is rampant” and that there was “a decline of 56% in Haitian wages throughout the 1980s” alone. As a result of privatization of Haiti’s sugar mills “sugar is so expensive in Haiti that peasants cannot afford to buy it.” According to Development GAP, as a result of Haiti’s neo-liberal economic policies “food production fell … the assembly sector remained stagnant, and the value of agricultural exports dropped due to declines in the international price of coffee.” The death plan has also left Haiti with massive debt, through tied aid and other policies familiar to any country that has experienced “structural adjustment” programs. “Haiti’s debt rose from US$53 million in 1973 to US$366 million in 1980” and in 2003, according to the US Centre for International Policy, “Haiti spent $57.4 million to service its debt, while total foreign assistance for education, health care and other services was a mere $39.21 million.” However, the death plan was extremely profitable to foreign corporations which profited off the cheap labour and used Haiti as a dumping ground for goods that they couldn’t sell, due to its lack of tariffs. (Ibid; Development GAP, Democracy Undermined, Economic Justice Denied: Structural Adjustment and the Aid Juggernaut in Haiti; Peter Hallward, Securing Disaster in Haiti; and Benjamin Dangl, Profiting form Haiti’s Crisis).
Following the coup against “Baby Doc” in 1986, Haiti was ruled for 4 years by successive US supported governments, that followed the same policies as the Duvaliers, and which were described, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide as “Duvalierism without Duvalier”. According to Hallward “over the course of the 1980s, opposition to the twin forces of Duvalierist oppression and neo-liberal adjustment inspired a powerful and courageous popular mobilisation”, which led to “Haiti’s first ever round of genuine democratic elections, which in early 1991 brought the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power on an anti-neo-liberal and anti-army agenda.”
Aristide “won with 67 percent of the vote, defeating the US candidate, former World Bank official Marc Bazin, who came in second with 14 percent”. The Washington Council on Hemispheric Affairs (bitterly anti-Aristide) described the Aristide presidency as “a textbook example of participatory, ‘bottom up’ and democratic political development”, which was committed to “the empowerment of the poor” and to “social and economic justice, popular political participation and openness in all government affairs”.
Then, “in September 1991, another US-backed military coup cut short Haiti’s ‘transition to democracy.’ Three years of repression decimated the popular movement and left some 4,000 Aristide supporters dead.” According to Americas Watch, Immediately after taking power, the army “embarked on a systematic and continuing campaign to stamp out the vibrant civil society that had taken root in Haiti.” The terror was widely regarded as “worse than Papa Doc”. This period of terror also heightened the neo-liberal economic policies and “a recent Ministry of Agriculture estimate indicated a 50-percent drop in real revenue for all peasants during this period.” Emmanuel Constant, the leader of the paramilitaries that ruled Haiti, “admitted that, at the time, he was working for CIA operatives in Haiti”. He “and other paramilitaries were trained in Ecuador by US Special Forces between 1991 and 1994” – the years of the terror. Aristide was finally permitted to return to Haiti, but only when he “accepted both the US military occupation and Washington’s harsh neo-liberal agenda – the same “death plan” that had so impoverished the poor Haitians that Aristide represented.
However, the Aristide government listened to the Haitians and never followed through with the US imposed “death plan” and according to Anthony Fenton:
Under his [Aristide’s] leadership, the Haitian government has made major investments in agriculture, public transportation and infrastructure … the government doubled the minimum wage from 36 to 70 gourdes per day … President Aristide has also made healthcare and education national priorities. More schools were built in Haiti between 1994 and 2000 than between 1804 and 1994.
USAID responded by withholding aid to Haiti “to ensure that cement and power mills [were] privatized for the benefit of wealthy Haitians and foreign investors”, at the expense of the Haitian workers. Following 8 years of power sharing Haiti held elections in 2000, in which “Aristade was re-elected president with his Lavalas party winning 90 per cent of the vote” as well as “19 of the 27 senate seats and 72 of the 82 lower house seats” and “two hundred international observers assessed the elections as satisfactory.” One of Aristides first moves was to abolish the army, one of the primary sources of misery and repression in Haiti.
As a result of his adopting “the preferential option of the poor”, Aristide was overthrown by the US in “another internationally-sponsored coup in early 2004, just in time to squash any untimely celebration of the bicentenary of Haitian independence”, another sick irony of Haiti’s exploitation. “In mid-2004 a large UN ‘stabilisation’ force took over the job of pacifying a resentful population from soldiers sent by the US, France and Canada, and by the end of 2006 another several thousand Aristide supporters were dead. Around 9,000 heavily armed UN troops occupy the country to this day.” The occupation forces reinstated the same paramilitaries that ruled the country during the reign of terror and put the Haitian elites back in power. Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based lawyer representing the Haitian government, said of the paramilitaries: “this is a group that is armed by, trained by, and employed by the intelligence services of the United States.” Massive repression kicked off and “the Lancet disclosed that during the twenty-two-month post-Aristide period of the Washington-backed "interim" Government, 8,000 people were murdered in the greater Port-au Prince area of Haiti alone … The study also found that in the same period, a staggering 35,000 women and girls were raped in Port-au-Prince.” Under the occupation, the neo-liberal policies that impoverished Haiti so much were reinstated and “over the course of 2009, a suitably stabilised Haitian government agreed to persevere with the privatisation of the country’s remaining public assets, veto a proposal to increase minimum wages to $5 a day, and to bar Fanmi Lavalas [the popular grassroots party that was led by Aristide] (and several other political parties) from participating in the next round of legislative elections” (Hallward, Securing Disaster in Haiti; Development GAP, Democracy Undermined, Economic Justice Denied: Structural Adjustment and the Aid Juggernaut in Haiti; Hallward, The land that Wouldn’t Lie: Foreign Intervention in Haiti; Chomsky, Year 501; Media lens, Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media; Ben Terrall, Repression of Lavalas Continues Under Ongoing UN Occupation; and Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, and New Military Humanism and Democracy Restored, Zmagazine).
From 1492 to the present day, Haiti has suffered constant exploitation, and this is the reason for Haiti’s extreme poverty. This poverty was one of the main causes of the vast death toll that resulted from the “classquake”. The occupation that has gone on since 2004 continues and the Haitians have been constantly protesting against it. They have also been protesting against the economic “reforms” being put in place, and the prospect of greater exploitation by foreign corporations. They have also been demanding the payment of reparations for colonial exploitation and the return of Aristide as well as fair elections. If we want to try to help the Haitians put an end to their misery and exploitation then we must show solidarity with their struggles for freedom, independence, democracy, and justice. And if we want to allow Haiti to develop as an independent country free of the gruesome poverty that now afflicts it we must allow the Haitians to decide their own future, and we must pressure our governments and the corporations in our countries to stop exploiting Haiti and to let the Haitians decide their own path. If we fail to act then Haiti will be condemned to further impoverishment and misery, and an equally massive death toll will follow from the next natural disaster