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
- 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.
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the author at
mfisher at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.