By Jean Hervé Charles
When Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of Haiti on December 5, 1492, where he has been sent by the natives from Salvador/Bahamas to go further down, in his quest for gold and spice, he discovered a much bigger and richer island. His exclamation was: this is fabulouso! That awe moment is still resonating with the acute observer in disembarking from the plane in Haiti.
Each city, including the capital, Port au Prince, is surrounded by majestic mountains, some barred because of erosion but some filled with trees that are so packed that Labadie the port of call in the northern part of the country near Cape Haitian is routinely rated as one of the best touristic and pristine spot in the Caribbean cruise itinerary.
Why rich Haiti is so poor is a question that learned observers have been lamented with for centuries. In my morning walk on the hills of Port au Prince, looking at the mothers holding their toddlers to bring them to school descending from the mountains where they have been living in filth in a majestic setting fit for the rich and the famous, I am asking and I am trying to answer that very question: “Why rich Haiti is so poor!”
The distant past
Of course it started with the sailors brought along with Christopher Columbus who massacred the Indians by the million in just one generation. The Ayiti colony was one of the most populous and one of the most organized in the Caribbean. As such, Columbus decided to make Ayiti his home base. Condemned to extract gold that was a natural décor for the Indian women, it did not take long for the entire Indian population to be decimated through hard labor and new disease brought along by the new Spanish migrants.
In the quest to find new workers, a defrocked priest Las Casas obtained permission from the Queen of Spain to start the importation of blacks from Africa to replace the decimated Indians. As such, the raw exploitation of rich Ayiti took place in earnest almost unencumbered for 300 years. From the Spanish it passed to the French, who perfected the art of taking the most without giving the least, rendering the metropolitan colony extremely wealthy.
Throngs of mahogany and other forests were cut without the thought of tomorrow. But nature in its magnificence keeps replenishing itself with the support of abundant rain and plenty of sun. By the end of the 18th century, Ayiti was justly trademarked internationally as the pearl of the islands of the Caribbean, giving more produce (sugar, cocoa, cotton) to Europe and to America than all the other islands combined, while it contributed more than 50% of France’s gross national product (GNP).
All that wealth was generated on the back of a slave population (500,000) that received no remuneration except for the food ration that would prevent certain death.
Three hundred years later, around 1796, a bunch of Spartacus under the helm of one black general, Toussaint Louverture, and later Jean Jacques Dessalines, decided to set on fire entire plantations of sugar cane and coffee to force the French to leave the island and set free the black slaves. With gusto and determination, the connivance of the British, the Americans and of the mosquitoes, Ayti became Haiti, a free and independent black nation, on January 1, 1804, the first and the last to gain its freedom from the battleground.
Haiti was labeled a dangerous precedent and, as such, an international embargo and boycott was imposed upon the black nation. Born with a lost patrimony, Haiti was saddled with a demand of indemnity of 150 million francs from France in 1838 for lost gain due to the Revolution. It took Haiti 80 years to consume that debt that was refinanced under onerous terms several times.
While King Henry Christophe refused to negotiate with the former ruler except with the threat of the cannon, Jean Pierre Boyer, the fourth Haitian president accepted a deal that compromised Haiti’s welfare then and for the future. Through successive mafia-like loans, the new nation went deeper and deeper into misery leaving no funds for infrastructure and for institution building.
Successive nations, in particular, Germany, France, Holland and later the United States imposed draconian policy upon the government of Haiti, including the very American occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934 with imposition of taxation of the nation.
On the home front, Haiti’s rulers, supported by a mulatto elite, as well as black sons and daughters of the former generals, developed a culture of disdain for the larger population. It was expressed in the institutions and in the infrastructure that did not exist in the rural sector where most of the Haitian people reside.
Bob Corbett, a student of Haiti, in a documentary written in 1986 and revisited in 1999 on why Haiti is poor, placed the colonial labor as well as the French heritage system imitated by the Haitian elite as one of the major culprits for Haiti’s misery.
Corbett described the Haitian canvas as such: My own experience has been that large masses of Haitian people suffer from a self-defeating image of themselves. They know they are poor in a rich world. They have heard that they are ignorant and illiterate. They speak Creole and are told that this is not a "real" language, but a bastard tongue. They experience their own powerlessness and are told it is their own fault. Such a self-image creates its own cycle of misery. The victim, the masses of Haitian people, blame themselves for their own suffering.
A most recent past
Lately, Haiti has suffered for 60 years of dictatorship, militarism and illiberal democratic regimes that added injury to its pain. The international community that came to ease its pain is a cottage industry that enjoys rich Haiti without abetting the injury. In fact, a UN-led stabilization program named MINUSTHA has introduced cholera into the country, killing some 8,650 people.
It has just been decided by the Security Council that the UN has sovereign immunity; no compensation can be paid to the injured parties without a special waiver by the Council. That waiver will never be granted because it will set a precedent for the many wrongful injuries committed by UN troops dispatched all over the world.
Haiti is the same as it was 500 years ago. A rich land inhabited by a population albeit no more in slave bondage but in complete misery as free citizens. As a colony, the statistics were the following: 85% black slaves, 11% mulatto and small owners and 4% big white owners. Haiti today has the same characteristics, 85% rural citizens (in the mountains or in the slums of the cities) 11% middle class and 4% big entrepreneurs.
How to reverse the situation to create a critical mass of citizens where the culture and the practice of wealth creation is the norm? The solution lies in focusing on the forte of the masses to create wealth where it is now, through organic agriculture, organic husbandry and creative art-craft for export. Haiti without proper infrastructure and sane institutions is not ready for high class tourist venture; it is ready for its own Diaspora eager to immerse in its live Catholic/voodoo religious and cultural fiestas taking place in each one of its towns and villages all throughout the year.
Haiti must also develop the common sense of purpose where the misery of the most is the concern of the few. The demagogic solution of making believe that Haiti care for its own, must give place to substantial policy of wealth creation for all. That alone will stop perpetuating the culture of fake citizens in a fake nation.
This is the way for rich Haiti to engage in, while making all its citizens “rich like a Creole” as it was said circa 1800 in Newport or in Baltimore. The foreign tourists might add cream and pudding on the cake, which is succulent anyway!