Victor Bulmer-Thomas’ The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars is a massive 710 page analysis of the economic development of the Caribbean region since 1820.
I bought this book specifically because I wanted to get a better understanding of how, when, and why Haiti had fallen so far behind its Caribbean neighbors since independence. Haiti is the only “low-income” country in the Western hemisphere.
Before opening this book, the usual explanations for Haiti’s failure struck me as counterintuitive:
1.) Haiti wasn’t the only country in the region (1915-1934) to experience a US occupation. In the Caribbean, US imperialism has historically had a much greater impact on Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the US Virgin Islands.
2.) In 2012, GDP per capita in Puerto Rico, a US territory since 1900, was $27,677. Puerto Rico is ranked by the World Bank as a “high income country.” It has an advanced economy based on manufacturing. In fact, Puerto Rico is the manufacturing colossus of the Caribbean because it is a US colony.
In 2012, GDP per capita in Haiti was $771. Shouldn’t Haiti, which has been an independent black republic since 1804, be fabulously richer than Puerto Rico which went from being a Spanish colony to a US colony?
3.) Ever since 1960, the United States has imposed a total commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba. From 1962 until 2009, Cuba was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS).
In spite of this organized attempt by the United States to diplomatically isolate Cuba and undermine the Cuban economy, GDP per capita in Cuba is $5,382. Cuba is well known for its medical and biotechnology industries. Under the Castro dictatorship, Cuba made rapid progress in a number of social indicators such as fighting illiteracy, expanding healthcare to the poor, reducing infant mortality, and rural electrification.
Even after the Cuban economy collapsed between 1989 to 1994, Cuba managed to recover by 2005. In the late twentieth century, Haiti didn’t face anything like the same external obstacles as Cuba during the Cold War, but it was Haiti that retrograded and ended up poorer in 2010 than it was in 1960.
3.) Haiti was the first country in the Caribbean to abolish slavery in 1794.
In 1802, General Richepance succeeded in restoring slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism in Guadeloupe. Slavery would continue to exist in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana until 1848.
In 2010, GDP per capita was $21,780 in Guadeloupe, $24,118 in Martinique, and $20,904 in French Guiana. In all of these colonies, the “legacy of slavery” (and white supremacy and colonialism) was much greater than it was in Haiti.
4.) Barbados was the birthplace of plantation slavery and the export based economy in the Caribbean. It was the model “slave society” that was copied by Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, Cuba and the other islands.
From 1640 until 1838, blacks worked as slaves on sugar plantations in Barbados. In fact, the plantation system survived abolition in the British West Indies – unlike Haiti, where the sugar plantation was dead by the 1820s, blacks were still working on sugar plantations in Barbados in the 1950s.
In 2011, GDP per capita in Barbados was $13,076.
5.) The Dominican Republic and Haiti have shared a common history. Like Haiti, the US took over the finances of the Dominican Republic from 1905 until 1941 and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. Like Haiti, the Dominican Republic was burdened by servicing a large external debt. Like Haiti, the Dominican Republic was ruled for decades by an authoritarian leader, Rafael Trujillo.
In 2012, GDP per capita in the Dominican Republic was $5,736. Unlike Haiti, the Dominican Republic isn’t a deforested wasteland.
6.) In the 21st century, the Caribbean is the wealthiest region in the “developing world.” No other region in the world has an economy that is more specialized in services. Whether it is tourism or financial services, no other region in the world has benefited more from the actions of foreigners.
With the exception of Haiti, the word most commonly associated with the Caribbean in the 21st century is “paradise,” a word which has never been used to describe the “Black Republic.” Why is that when slavery lasted so much longer in the British West Indies (1838), French West Indies (1848), Danish West Indies (1848), Dutch West Indies (1863), Cuba (1886), and Puerto Rico (1873)?
Elsewhere in the Caribbean (and in the United States), there is a common belief that Haiti is simply cursed. How else can you explain its backward condition after the tens of billions of dollars of foreign aid that have been spent there since the 1980s? Even with Sean Pean and the whole world pulling together, Haiti is still stuck in the ditch and now it has added cholera to its list of problems.
It’s not like the US dropped 7 million tons of explosives including napalm and Agent Orange on Haiti like it did on Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s not like a fifth of the population was killed there during the Second World War and the country was occupied by the Soviet Union for half a century like Poland. As previously noted here, the island of Montserrat was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1995, and less than twenty years later it too is better off than Haiti.
How do we explain this?
Haiti won its independence, tried to govern itself, and spectacularly failed.
Like other colonies in the Caribbean, Saint-Domingue was built on the foundation of plantation slavery, capital intensive export based agriculture, and mercantilism. It “orbited” France, its metropole, like the moon.
This economic relationship between the “core” and the “periphery” has endured in the Caribbean throughout history. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe and Martinique continued to “orbit” France; Cuba and Puerto Rico continued to “orbit” Spain; Jamaica and Barbados continued to “orbit” Great Britain, and so on.
In the United States, the South had a similar colonial relationship with the Northeast and Great Britain: the South’s plantation economy exported commodities like cotton and tobacco, and imported manufactured goods. The economic policies pursued in the “core” (i.e., the Northeast and Great Britain) determined to a large extent the level of prosperity in the “periphery” (i.e., the South).
In the Caribbean, the “core” (the recipients of exports) has changed across time: from 1820 to 1900, it was composed of Great Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States; from 1900 to 1960, it was composed of Great Britain, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, and Canada; from 1960 until 2010, it was composed of the United States, Canada, the European Union, the Soviet Union (until 1991), and China.
In such a world, Haiti was the “maroon” of the region: as an independent country, it maintained a large military; it acquired and serviced a large external debt; it was responsible for building its own infrastructure; it maintained its own monetary system and fiscal policy; it selected its own leadership, etc.
Did any of this make sense? In hindsight, probably not. The French sure did a better job in their colonies.
Haiti was politically independent, but economically, it remained dependent on the consumption of the “core.” After the demise of the sugar plantations, Haiti grew dependent on exporting coffee and logwood. When those commodities inevitably ran into trouble (like cotton in the American South), Haiti’s economy broke under the stress. Exports were unable to keep up with runaway population growth. As a result, the country grew increasingly impoverished.
Surprisingly, the 1890s seem to have been the turning point for Haiti. By that time, Brazil was overproducing coffee and the world price began to plummet. Haiti’s exports of logwood went into decline because of deforestation and the switch to synthetic dyes during the Great Depression. Combine this with the fact that Haiti’s ever multiplying peasantry was mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture.
In the 20th century, the rest of the Caribbean (under some form of imperial rule) shifted towards a modern economy based on manufacturing, mining, and services. Haiti remained black, poor, rural, fatalistic, and agricultural. The US occupation may have set Haiti on a different course, but it was cut short by the Great Depression and Haitian resistance. The infrastructure built by Americans was allowed to crumble while it became the basis for new industries in Puerto Rico and the European colonies.
Then as now, Haitians were the primary obstacle to the development of their own country, the “Detroit of the Antilles.”