The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti late on Tuesday would have wreaked havoc anywhere -- just look at the damage and loss of life from 1994's 6.7 magnitude quake in Los Angeles. But the reported destruction in Haiti, particularly in capital city Port-au-Prince, has been on a far more devastating scale. Twitter users in Haiti report leveled neighborhoods and inoperative civil services; official accounts estimate 100,000 dead--1% of Haiti's total population. What are the forces that made Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republican, so vulnerable? From recent and older sources, here are the most compelling and definitive accounts of Haiti's decline.
- Political Chaos Undermines Civil Society The New York Times's Walt Bogdanich explores Haiti's ruinous political system in a 2006 article. In 2004, "an accused death squad leader helped armed rebels topple the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Haiti, never a model of stability, soon dissolved into a state so lawless it stunned even those who had pushed for the removal of Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who rose to power as the champion and hero of Haiti's poor."
Today, the capital, Port-au-Prince, is virtually paralyzed by kidnappings, spreading panic among rich and poor alike. Corrupt police officers in uniform have assassinated people on the streets in the light of day. The chaos is so extreme and the interim government so dysfunctional that voting to elect a new one has already been delayed four times.
- Oppressive Ruling Class In 1993, The New Yorker's Mark Danner laments the corrupted supposedly-democratic institutions of Haiti, which in 1991 saw the rightfully-elected president, who wanted to help the poor and patch up civil society, ousted in a coup led by the ruling minority. "It is not at all clear how, or whether, democracy can be implanted in a place like Haiti," he wrote. Danner writes that the tension between the poor majority and wealthy minority causes political chaos and a lack of services for the ever-growing poor.
- Severe Health Crisis Worsens Poverty The New Yorker's Tracy Kidder profiles Paul Farmer, a doctor working to reform Haiti's abysmal medical system, in a 2000 article. Kidder notes the "per-capita incomes of about $230 a year and consequent burdens of preventable, treatable illnesses, which kill 25% of Haitians before the age of 40." Farmer believes that health and medicine are central to poverty in Haiti, which is central to the country's weakness. Farmer sees the roots of this in America's occupation, citing a country dam as an example:
The dam was planned by engineers from the U.S. army during the rather brutal American occupation of Haiti in the early twentieth century, and was built in the mid-50s, during the reign of one of America's client dictators, by Brown & Root, of Texas, among others, with money from the U.S. Export-Import bank. The dam had drowned the peasants' farms and driven them into the hills, where farming meant erosion, all in order to improve irrigation for American-owned agribusinesses downstream and, eventually, to supply electric to Port-au-Prince, especially to the homes of the wealthy elite and the foreign-owned assembly plants, in which peasant boys and girls still worked as servants and laborers, more than a few of them nowadays returning home with AIDS. Most of the peasants didn't get paid for their land. As they liked to say, the project didn't even bring them electricity or water.
- Since Colonialism, Abused Resources Anthropologist Jared Diamond dedicates an entire chapter of his 2004 best-seller, Collapse, to exploring why Haiti is so much poorer and more violent than the neighboring Dominican Republican. He argues that inefficient farming and European over-logging in the 19th century led to the exhaustion of Haiti's natural resources in the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, French Hispaniola's former slaves, who renamed their country Haiti (the original Taino Indian name for the island), killed many of Haiti's whites, destroyed the plantations and their infrastructure in order to make it impossible to rebuild the plantation slave system, and divided the plantations into small family farms. While that was what the former slaves wanted for themselves as individuals, it proved in the long run disastrous for Haiti's agricultural productivity, exports, and economy when the farmers received little help from subsequent Haitian governments in their efforts to develop cash crops. Haiti also lost human resources with the killing of much of its white population and the emigration of the remainder.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.