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Haiti on Reflection

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When the news of the earthquake in Haiti hit the first thing I did was take out my expired passport and look up the last time I had been there. It was July 31, 1987. My first trip had been in April of 1978. My brother and I had just taken over the family textile supply business and we were looking to expand. Back in those days the US still had a viable textile industry and it supported lots of wealthy owners and middle class workers. Even in the Carter administration American companies were sending American made cut fabrics and trimmings into Mexico and other countries in the Caribbean Basin under a trade agreement called Article 807 Offshore Manufacturing. This allowed the actual assembly labor to be done offshore and taxed at its add-on value, with finishing done back in the US. Through mutual business acquaintances we got involved with a contractor from Port-au-Prince who wanted us to place garment work in one of his factories. We took the trip and had some loose agreements to manufacture children's clothing there. There was one little detail that had to be ironed out, that of giving Baby Doc Duvalier his percentage. Nothing got done in that country without his getting his part of the action. It took a few more trips to get things rolling. We were in Baby Doc's company several times where he either entertained us at the palace, or we wined and dined him (and his entourage). Before actually signing any binding contracts we decided not to go through with it because we felt that the country wasn't stable enough to protect our interests if things didn't go well. It had always been one of those nagging feelings in our minds and it manifested itself just in time. We placed the work in Mexico instead (and that's another story). Baby Doc's abdication didn't come for several years, but on reflection we were better off not being there.

The striking contrast between the opulent life of the ruling elite and the abject poverty of the masses was always a concern. Every time I flew in I was met by an armed escort that traveled with me to my hotel and went to the factories with me. No amount of profit is worth that kind of risk. The ruling elite were still powerful after Duvalier's downfall. The contractor from Port-au-Prince again asked me to place work for him and I tried, but no reputable US manufacturer wanted to take a chance, even though Henri Namphy was now in office.

Haiti is an absolutely beautiful country once you get outside the city. It's very mountainous and its soil is very rich. At one time Haiti produced more than half of the world's sugar cane and was one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas. Today it is the poorest. This is not by accident, and we in the US are as much to blame as anyone. The devastation, contributed to by absolute lack of infrastructure could have been a lot less had there been proper building codes and effective government policies in place. Had we not treated Haiti like a banana republic for the last 95 years it might have prevented much of the loss of life and breakdown in its civil systems that were caused by the earthquake.

Haiti's history has been one of suppression by outside forces since Christopher Columbus discovered the Island of Hispaniola in 1492 and established (by necessity) a colony called La Navidad in what is now Haiti. By 1517 the Spanish occupiers of the island were importing slaves from Africa to work in the gold mines. The first French settlers were actually pirates who were looking for safe havens. During this period the French developed plantations for growing sugar cane, coffee and tobacco. Another lucrative industry was the production of indigo. More African slaves were brought to Haiti for the indigo industry as they were experts in growing the plants and processing the dye. The Spanish during this period did not establish agricultural communities but continued to strip the island of its gold and other precious minerals. As the French populations grew and prospered skirmishes between the French and Spanish became more spirited until boundaries were set by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the eastern part of the island to the Spanish (Santo Domingo) and the western part named Saint-Domingue to France. The French were no better at treating slaves than were the Spanish, however, after the French Revolution France actually freed the Haitian slaves for a short period of time until Napoleon Bonaparte took over the government and attempted to reinstitute it. He sent 50,000 soldiers to retake the country but an outbreak of Yellow Fever killed a majority of them and the rest of them were defeated by the Haitian population. Haiti declared its independence on Jan 1, 1804 renaming itself Haiti after a local indigenous tribe.

Having no experience in self determination, Haiti was led by a series of strongman despots who ruled with iron fists. In the roughly 200 years since Haiti first declared its independence, the government has suffered 32 coups from either the Army, the elite class or outside influences. In 1825 France decided to send its Navy and troops to retake the island. France threatened a blockade which would cripple Haiti's then robust economy. American slave owners from southern plantations also threatened to join the blockade since the idea of a free country run by former African slaves was anathema to their thinking. A treaty was negotiated that allowed Haiti to keep its independence in return for war reparations of one hundred and fifty million francs. Haiti did not finish its war reparation payments until 1947, and in order to pay the debt Haiti had to borrow tremendous sums of money from American, French and German banks at almost usury rates. As economically powerful as Haiti could have become, this onus consumed as much as 80% of its national budget according to British historian and author Alex von Tunzelmann. Up through the beginning of the twentieth century Haiti managed to survive and export its products, however the US sent in marines to occupy in 1915 during another upheaval, ostensibly to protect the safety of US citizens, but the real reason was to protect Haiti's ability to repay the reparation loans. We were not alone as Great Britain and Germany also sent troops to occupy. Our occupation lasted twenty years and ended in 1935, right in the height of the Great Depression. You can be sure that the US got its loan payments, even if we had to raid the Haitian Treasury to do it.

The US occupation never worked for the benefit of the people; instead, we preferred to use Haiti's economic engine as a tool to distribute wealth to foreign investors and banks rather than reinvesting in the country's economy and infrastructure, while further burdening Haiti with an additional forty million dollar debt in 1922.

Francoise (Papa Doc) Duvalier became politically active during the period following the end of the US occupation. His appeal was based on his disdain the ruling elites and the rise of the African masses and his call for the return of the national religion Vodou (better known as Voodoo). Duvalier was another despot who was acceptable to the US due to his anti-communistic positions. He was an absolute dictator whose private army (the Tonton Macoutes) was more powerful than the regular army. Whatever wealth Haiti could produce found its way into his pockets rather than the treasury and the Duvalier regime was noted for its corruption. During this period most of Haiti's professionals and intellectuals immigrated to other countries, thereby leaving even less qualified people to run things properly. After his death in 1971 his son Jean Claude (Baby Doc) was installed.

Baby Doc had no time for governing the country and let his mother and his ministers do it instead, preferring to race his sports cars and live a lavish lifestyle, as I and my associates can personally attest to. During this period of time the US influenced the Haitian government to open its factories to American manufacturers as a way of putting people to work. It sounded good, but what happened was that people left the farms in the country to come to work in the city. Port-au-Prince did not have the jobs to support the mass influx of people and once they left the farms they weren't going back. This resulted in less crops being grown or sold, almost complete depletion of its forests because of the need for lumber and charcoal, which in turn led to massive flooding and soil erosion. Ramshackle buildings were constructed anywhere there was space, whether or not the ground was level. Whole hillsides contained residences, lacking foundations and that had not been constructed according to any building codes.

After Baby Doc was exiled there still was no viable infrastructure in place to address these issues. With all the upheaval American manufacturers cancelled their production contracts and placed work elsewhere. This left Haiti in the position of having its agricultural products as the only credible part of its economy. Of course, the farms had lost their labor and soil erosion had also taken its toll. The US, further exacerbating an intolerable situation, convinced Haiti to lower its import tariffs on American foods and operate in a free market fashion. Rice farmers in Haiti were devastated as American rice could be sold cheaper than the home grown product. As rice farms went out of business the population headed to Port-au-Prince to seek work.

While we shouldn't cast the sins of our fathers upon ourselves, we do bear the responsibility of not continuing them, which we've not done. Prior to the information revolution we didn't give much thought to how we treated Haiti, but in recent years we've seen how unrestricted enterprise enriches the elite few at the expense of many and that our government turns a blind eye in most cases. I don't feel that our government's efforts in aiding Haiti have anything to do with guilt, favoritism or political advantage. This is something that people of all civilized nations of conscience do willingly. Mr. Limbaugh and his right wing cronies should understand that American involvement in Haitian affairs since before the Civil War helped bring this devastation about.

Haitians need help not just to get over this crisis, but they need help to rebuild their society properly. It takes more than money. It takes the will to institute agricultural reforms, governmental reforms, economic and social reforms that have been sorely lacking since the nineteenth century. We need to help them get there.