Why is Haiti such a mess?

The history behind current events.
March 24 2004 11:31 AM

Why Is Haiti Such a Mess?

It takes a rebellion to get America's attention.

Aristide's out. Now what?
Aristide's out. Now what?

When it comes time for the U.S. Marines who landed in Haiti a few weeks ago to pack up again, they would do well to leave behind a toothbrush, a few pairs of clean socks, and a spare pressed uniform or two. If history is any guide, it won't be long before American boots are back on the ground in the Caribbean's representative on the registry of failed states.

Haiti was a mess long before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Feb. 29 departure compounded the country's latest plunge into chaos. Since independence in 1804, the Massachusetts-sized country has seen 33 coups. In 1915, the U.S. Marines, perhaps weary of commuting, landed and didn't leave until 1934, claiming as justification humanitarian intervention and the Monroe Doctrine—although protecting a key approach to the Panama Canal factored into the equation as well. After leaving Haiti to its own self-destructive devices for several decades, U.S. troops returned in 1994, to restore Aristide to power against a group of military rebels. The current U.S. military intervention, aimed at restoring order to the island, is the fourth in the past 90 years.

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Even less than the typical basket-case Third World country, Haiti's 7.5 million citizens can ill afford the permanent distraction of political instability. Consider the following sad litany: Haiti's AIDS infection rate is the highest outside sub-Saharan Africa, and the average Haitian lives about 51 years—far below the Latin American/Caribbean average of 71 years and the lowest national average life expectancy outside Africa and Afghanistan. Infant mortality is nearly three times the regional average. Haiti's adult literacy rate of 45 percent is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere by a margin of 19 percentage points. Growth in gross domestic product per capita has been negative for more than the past two decades. Foreign direct investment in 2001 amounted to just $3 million, pathetic by any measure.

Why has Haiti been so troubled for so long? For one thing, the country started off in a tricky position, as its mere existence—as a former slave plantation state that defeated Napoleon's France to win independence—terrified most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, for which slavery was an economic foundation. As a result, Haiti was an international pariah, which hurt post-independence trade and development. The United States didn't allow trade with Haiti and diplomatically recognized the country only six decades later in 1868.

On another front, the Haitian revolution didn't fundamentally alter the Grand Canyon-like divisions between the classes. Newly free slaves formed a serf class that lived under conditions very similar to slavery—and a mulatto elite stepped into the shoes of the former French colonial plantation owners. Following the massive social and economic dislocations caused by its revolution, Haiti went from being the world's largest sugar producer to producing just enough to satisfy the Starbucks down the block, as by 1825 production collapsed to one-300th of its pre-revolutionary output, further exacerbating class distinctions. In many ways, Haiti's economy has yet to recover.

Additionally, greed, megalomania, and incompetence—punctuated by recurrent episodes of dictatorial murderousness—have defined most of Haiti's political leaders. The country's first relatively free elections took place only in 1990. Without any tradition of choice, the critical siblings of democracy—like government accountability, a fair judiciary, or the rule of law—have not evolved.

In the broad sweep of history, American policy toward the Caribbean in general has fluctuated between obsession and indifference, with the United States "occasionally [being] suck[ed] ... into a vortex of crisis where it becomes preoccupied by small neighbors or their leaders. ... Then, almost as suddenly, U.S. interest and resources shift away from the region. ... Americans then feel they have escaped the whirlpool, but history suggests that they are on the rim, only to be pulled into the vortex with the next crisis," Robert Pastor, a Latin America specialist, wrote in 1996. Policy toward Haiti fits that pattern precisely.

It's convenient to argue that the United States should let Haiti sort out its own problems, thereby avoiding the headache of another nation-building exercise. After all, one of Haiti's main (legal) exports to the United States is mangoes.

But—especially during an election year—it's difficult for the United States to ignore humanitarian meltdown and political chaos 600 miles off the coast of swing state Florida, particularly if the early 1990s exodus of Haitians on ramshackle rafts is repeated. And Haiti is an important battlefield in the American war against drugs, as more than 20 percent of the cocaine that leaves Colombia every year passes through Haiti, according to Stratfor.com.

The big question now is whether the United States—and coalition partners it arm-twists into joining it—will make yet another run at fixing Haiti. This would entail, perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations, disarming all sides involved in the struggle, building democratic institutions via focused and coordinated assistance, reconstructing the ravaged Haitian economy to move it toward sustainable long-term growth, and laying the foundations for an aware and educated citizenry that would be interested and able to support and promulgate a system based on strong institutions rather than mercurial personalities. It would take at least a generation for Haiti to change, and for Haitians to (want to) take ownership of the entire process—so any help that doesn't last at least a decade or two wouldn't be worth the hassle.

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