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Haiti’s Eternal Crisis

How do previous U.S. efforts to stabilize Haiti compare with current military interventions around the world?

April 3, 2006

How do previous U.S. efforts to stabilize Haiti compare with current military interventions around the world?

Today’s dysfunctional state in Haiti reflects, in part, the legacy of minority European settlement — and of the worst kind. Back in 1789, Haiti (then known as Saint-Domingue) was one of the richest places in the world — and the most unequal.

A population of 40,000 whites, 30,000 freed mulattoes (the offspring of slave-owners) and 450,000 slaves produced $800 million in exports in today’s dollars.

Exports included sugarcane, coffee, cotton, indigo and cocoa. At the time, Saint-Domingue provided 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the sugar imports of France and England.

The value of production per worker was far higher than in the United States.

Today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — and ranks in the poorest tenth of countries worldwide.

Haiti’s population of 8.3 million produces $463 million in exports of goods and services — a little bit more than half of the amount over two centuries ago.

And measured on a per person basis, exports were 31 times higher in 1789 than in 2002. A slave regime generated the 1789 export performance.

The legacy of slavery evidently has something to do with Haiti’s failure at political and economic development. The exports of 1789 showed just how much potential the land of Haiti had.

The exports of 2002 show how two centuries have passed moving the country and its people ever further away from their potential.

The Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 overthrew the hated slave-owners. However, the mulattoes and their descendants took the whites’ place as the oligarchy dominating to this day.

Throughout the 19th century, blacks and mulattoes alternated in power. Of the 34 signers of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence, only five died a natural death.

Only one Haitian ruler finished his constitutional term alive. In the second half of the century, political life polarized itself between a mulatto Liberal Party and a black National party.

For example, the mulatto leader Jean-Pierre Boyer ruled from 1820 to 1843, with all important political posts filled by mulattoes.

Emulating French colonial policy, he founded schools for mulattoes — but none for blacks.

An Englishman observed at the time, "The present government seems to consider the poverty and ignorance of the people as the best safeguards of the security and permanence of their own property and power."

Beyond the European roots in Haiti’s ongoing failure are the American ones.

In fact, Haiti can be considered a previous incarnation of the utopian internationalism of military intervention around the world today as shown in the U.S. effort to stabilize unruly republics in the Americas.

The United States did direct military interventions in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to spread democracy and free markets in the late 19th and early 20th century.

After bombarding Veracruz during the Mexican revolution in 1916, Woodrow Wilson said "the United States had gone to Mexico to serve mankind."

Meanwhile, as historian Hans Schmidt noted "U.S. Navy ships visited Haitian ports to ‘protect American lives and property’ in 1857, 1859, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1889, 1892, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912 and 1913." Finally tired of all those round trips, the United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

Haiti’s second colonial masters, according to Gendarmerie Commandant Smedley Butler, were "trustees of a huge estate …the Haitians were our wards and we were endeavoring to develop and make for them a rich and productive property."

Even though this patronizing attitude was only rarely contradicted, Haitians united again in resistance against the foreign invaders — and the Americans left in 1934.

The Americans left behind a newly trained Haitian army, the Garde, with black soldiers and mostly mulatto officers.

Mulattoes dominated political office until 1946, when the black majority of the Garde revolted with a new vision of black pride and power, the noiriste movement.

After further political instability, a leading noiriste, Francois Duvalier, defeated his mulatto opponent in the elections of 1957.

Papa Doc Duvalier would rule until his death in 1971, after which his son Baby Doc ruled until 1986.

Enter the IMF. The IMF’s charter bans it from considering domestic politics. Sometimes, this approach leads to happy outcomes.

Mexico over the last decade has made a transition to democracy and pursued pro-market reforms and macroeconomic stabilization.

It did this with the support of IMF lending (short-term crisis loans called stand-bys), although corruption, drug trafficking and violence remain problems. The IMF tactfully overlooked Mexico’s previous autocratic government.

But the problem with an apolitical approach is that it is not apolitical. Supporting a sitting government with funds is unavoidably a political act.

Such an approach does not have much of a safeguard against the IMF enabling some really awful rulers.

To see some of the consequences, answer the following trivia question: Who got the most stand-by financial support agreements from the IMF over the last half century?

The answer is Haiti, with 22 stand-bys. And not just Haiti, but the Duvalier family — Papa Doc and Baby Doc — under whom Haiti got 20 of the 22 stand-bys from 1957 to 1986.

The politics were bad, but the Duvaliers made up for it with even worse economics. The income of the average Haitian was lower at the end of the Duvalier era than at the beginning.

Half of children did not go to elementary school when Papa Doc came to power. And half of the country’s children were still out of school when Baby Doc left power.

Haiti has known some degree of democracy for five recent years (1990, 1994-98) out of its 200-year history. For most of that history, it had the worst possible democratic rating on a scale of 0 to 10.

After almost 200 coups, revolutions, insurrections and civil wars since independence, Haiti today still has one of the world’s most undemocratic, corrupt, violent and unstable governments.

However, the illiteracy and powerlessness of the majority of the population had condemned Haiti to underdevelopment long before the Duvaliers and the IMF arrived.

The IMF giving Haiti credit after credit did nothing to address the centuries-old political roots of macroeconomic instability, not to mention underdevelopment.

The IMF did not reverse the country’s history: How much could it help a state that has been dysfunctional for two centuries?

After the fall of the Duvalier family, a mixture of military regimes tried to stave off the coming to power of the populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was finally elected President in 1990.

Another United States military intervention in 1994 restored Aristide to power after a coup.

The second U.S. occupation was less ambitious than the first, obsessed above all else with avoiding American casualties.

After the United States spent $2 billion to restore Aristide to power, U.S. support weakened in Aristide’s democratically-challenged second term.

Aristide government ministers diverted aid money into corrupt takings — just like their many predecessors.

The World Bank in 2002 ranked Haiti as the world’s second-most corrupt country out of 195 countries rated. After an armed rebellion in February 2004, Aristide took the traditional Haitian path into exile.

Aristide’s jet had barely disappeared over the horizon before the World Bank convened a meeting of donors.

The Bank announced "a joint government/multi-donor Interim Cooperation Framework (Cadre de Coopération Intérimaire, CCI)." The CCI believed Haiti was now "primed to tackle many urgent and medium term development needs."

If only it had been so. But the real news about Haiti — and the strategy of the United States is even more disillusioning.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholars Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper analyzed 16 U.S. nation-building efforts over the past century.

Only few were democracies ten years after the U.S. military left – Japan and Germany after resounding defeat and occupation in World War II, and tiny Panama (1989) and Grenada (1983).

Besides those countries already mentioned, the long list of 20th century intervention disasters includes Cuba (1898-1902, 1906-1909, 1917-1922), the Dominican Republic (1916-24, 1965-66), Nicaragua (1909-1933), and Panama (1903-1936).

At last report, Haitians had elected an Aristide protégé as president, and prosperity and peace remain as elusive as ever.