Haiti is today a country broken by poverty, destitution and hopelessness. A country which was once the biggest source of colonial plunder – providing France with £ 11 million out of its total trade of £ 17 million in 1789 – is today the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, eighty percent of whose population lives below the poverty line. The country, whose slave army repeatedly defeated the mightiest European armies of the 18th and 19th centuries, is today without an army of its own. A land famous for its forests and agricultural produce is today denuded of all its forests and can’t grow enough to feed itself. The Haitian State itself verges on the brink of collapse and cannot survive without the crutches of Aid dollars and the UN military force.
How did the first colony of the modern world to free itself come to this sorry pass?
Before we look at the causes of the decline and destruction of Haiti over the past two centuries, it is useful to describe the state of affairs there. As the plane descends one can see bare hills denuded of their trees. When Haiti was first “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492, it was often referred to as the emerald isle due to the thick forest cover on its mountains. The first deforestation happened with the establishment of sugarcane plantations worked by slaves. Even so, much of the island remained covered in thick forests where escaped the slaves and formed the ‘Maroon” bands which later transformed into its invincible slave army. Today less than two percent of Haiti’s land is covered by forests. Much of the deforestation has happened after Haiti won independence from France in 1804 when the young republic was sought to be strangled economically by the powerful colonial states. Denied the right to trade the produce of their plantations, Haitians had to turn to the forests for resources, specially fuel in the form of charcoal. Even after the economic embargo was lifted, forests continued to be destroyed to supply timber to Europe and North America. In 1990, almost 14 per cent of Haiti’s landmass was still covered with forests but the economic embargoes (in the name of “restoring democracy”) by the United States and United Nations, led people to destroy their last forests as they turn the massive tropical trees into charcoal to cook their meals.
Destruction of the forests has resulted in massive soil erosion, drying up of rivers and large-scale death and destruction from flooding and mud-slides which follow heavy rainfall. It has also led to a destruction of Haiti’s rich biodiversity.
One of the clearest visible symptoms of the destruction of Haiti’s natural environment is the pervasive use of plastic and other discards of industrial society by the poor. Use of plastics is widespread in the entire world, specially by the poor. But in countries like India, with which I am more familiar, the poor still have access to local natural resources which meet many of their subsistence needs. These could be ropes, mattresses, baskets, footwear, clothes, transport, etc. Millions of poor Indians, specially in the rural areas, make and use these and other things from locally available reeds, palm / coconut trees, bamboos, etc. Often local foliage provides food and drinks which add to the diet of the poor at low or no cost. From my visit to Haiti and the little that I saw and experienced there, this is something which has been lost to the Haitian people. Instead of baskets one sees plastic tubs, instead of coir ropes and mattresses one sees nylon ropes and old foam mattresses. I did not see a single animal powered transport with everyone travelling in packed mini-vans and busses.
A colleague of mine recounted how a young woman in a village near the border with the Dominican Republic had pleaded with him to take away her three week old son as nine out of her ten previous children had starved to death. In another village he visited, the people were happy to receive visitors but the entire village could muster only three potatoes to feed their guests. It was a common sight for me to see a woman sitting on the pavement, even in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, selling a dozen bananas or so. That would be her day’s sale, if she managed that she would be able to eat and feed her family. Driving through the city roads one would see hundreds of people sitting around doing nothing as there is no work in the economy.
It is not that only the natural resources of the country have been destroyed. The “modern” sectors of the State and economy are in ruins too. Haiti had a railway which connected the northern city of Cap-Haitian with its capital Port-au-Prince, which also had a tramway. Today both are long gone and even the rail tracks have disappeared. Coming into the airport one can see the shells of old ships rusting in the harbour and crumbling warehouses lined along the coast. Much of the country is without electricity and even in the better parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, electricity comes once in a while. Haiti’s army, which once defeated the mightiest colonial armies of the world, became one of the chief oppressors and killers of its own people and a tool of US imperialism and was finally disbanded in 1994 by Aristide.
As this column had argued last week, one of the principle weaknesses of the Haitian revolution was that while it took the political slogans of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” to their logical culmination, it did nothing to destroy and replace the economic system which undermined the actualisation of these very slogans. That economic system was based on commercial production of a few agricultural commodities in large plantations. To make these plantations economically profitable required, in turn, a large number of over-worked and under-paid workers. Slavery had provided Haiti, as well as much of the Western Hemisphere, with precisely such a form of proto-proletariat. By destroying slavery, the Haitian revolution had knocked the bottom out of the economic viability of plantation based commercial agriculture. But the leaders of the Haitian revolution did not, rather could not have in the given historical conditions, destroy the plantation system of commercial agriculture. Not only was this dependent on slave like labour (the British used “indentured” labour on their plantations once slavery had been “abolished”), but the success of this economic model was predicated on the ability to trade these agricultural commodites in the global market.
The contradiction of attempting to continue with plantation based commercial agriculture even as the people delivered a revolution for “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” was compounded by the fact that the colonial powers had imposed an economic embargo on Haiti and therefore the produce of the plantations could not be traded for food and other goods. In my estimation, it was the sheer emancipatory power of the slave revolution which kept Haiti a beacon of freedom in the Western Hemisphere for so many decades after its independence. The strength of the Haitian Revolution’s subjective valour did not allow the objective conditions of its economy to constrict its liberatory potential. But ideologies and politics cannot remain totally out of synch with the given objective conditions and the nature of property relations in Haiti eventually led to the reinforcement of reactionary politics. Large landholding classes in the colonial and post-colonial worlds always have a predilection towards becoming comprador and that is what Haiti’s ruling class became. Not surprisingly, Haiti has become a virtual semi-colony of the Americans subsisting on about $ 500 million of foreign aid.
A possible break from this cycle of debt, poverty and dependence was provided when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest who was popularly known as the “pastor of the poor”, won the first free elections in Haiti in 1990 with two-thirds of the vote. He came to power with the promise to restore democracy, protect the people from the oppression of the military, enact policies to help the poor and develop the economy. But he was soon ousted in a military coup and went into exile in the US. He finally managed to return to Haiti in 1994 and assume Government controls but under the patronage of the US State Department. At this moment, he disbanded the army arguing that Haiti’s army had only one use left – to suppress democracy and popular aspirations – and the country would be better off without spending money on its military.
While Aristide disbanded the army, he did not make any effort to raise a new, people’s army which would re-create the legacy of Haiti’s slave army. Instead he tried to fill the power vacuum created by the disbanding of the army by forming local militias who were allied to his political party. It appears that these local militias, while starting off as armed protection forces for the poor in their areas of operation, soon degenerated into typical armed gangs which indulged in drug running, smuggling and “protection” rackets. Aristide became something of a feudal lord with his vassal chiefs controlling packets of territory for him. While this provided temporary control to Aristide it did not help strengthen democracy as free political activity was equally difficult under these militias as was under military rule.
What is more significant, Aristide gave in to the US demands for privatisation of electricity and other public utilities. Aristide also agreed to pay the “debts” Haiti supposedly owed to Imperialist banks and donor agencies – “debts” which had been taken and often forced upon Haiti when it was ruled by the military. Further, Aristide agreed to open up the Haitian economy to “free trade” and slash import duties on corn and rice.
Taken together, these decisions severely weakened Aristide’s radical political programme. Moreover, there are strong allegations that he too became embroiled in siphoning off money and rewarding Government contracts and largesse to his cronies. A Haitian colleague of mine, who had voted for Aristide in the first two elections, said that one act of Aristide made him change his opinion of this man. When the country was going through a severe economic crisis and people were not getting fuel to cook their food, Aristide decided to use a helicopter to travel from his house to the presidential palace – a distance of a few kilometres – on a daily basis. He claimed he was not safe on the road. Similarly, officials and politicians close to Aristide suddenly started showing symptoms of wealth and power which they did not have a few months earlier. Increasingly, Aristide started looking more like a regular tip-pot dictator than a leader of the poor and dispossessed and this cost him much of his support.
Why is it that the pioneering revolution of Haiti has not produced the leaders who could rise above the crass longings of personal aggrandisement and abuse of power? A comparison with Cuba, Haiti’s close neighbour and the location of another pioneering revolution, may help give us some answers next week.
(to be continued)
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A somewhat different and shorter version of this was published in The Post on 30th January, 2008.