There comes a point in every critical investigation when you either admit failure or strike pay dirt.
In the course of OD’s Caribbean Project, we have drilled through the leftist apologies, the pop histories, eye witness accounts, regional histories, and academic sources in an attempt to figure out why Haiti is “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”
It won’t suffice to say that Haiti is poor simply because it is black – the Caribbean is now the richest region in the developing world, and Haiti is surrounded by other sovereign black countries (the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, etc.) and European or American dependencies (Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, etc.) which are significantly better off. In the Caribbean, Haiti is the only country in the region which is classified by the World Bank as “low income.”
The fact that media favorite Jared Diamond admitted in Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed that Haiti chose the path to failure while the Dominican Republic chose the path to success ought to arouse our suspicions. This suggests that Diamond has seen something that has convinced even him that environmental determinism can’t explain the poverty and backwardness of Haiti.
This something can be found in his sources:
“Three books by Mats Lundahl will serve as an introduction into the literature on Haiti: Peasants and Poverty: A Study of Haiti (London: Croom Helm, 1979); The Haitian Economy: Man, Land, and Markets (London: Croom Helm, 1983); and Politics or Markets? Essays on Haitian Underdevelopment (London: Routledge, 1992).”
Mats Lundahl is a Swedish development economist at the Stockholm School of Economics who has written about Haiti’s economic history for more than 40 years. I’ve already seen his name pop up in several of the sources which I have already reviewed.
I don’t have the fortune to buy Lundahl’s books myself (they average over a $100 each), but I have been reading excerpts from them through Google Books and Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. Fortunately, I have access to a university library which has most of them in stock, so I will soon be able to read them in their entirety:
- The Political Economy of Disaster: Destitution, Plunder and Earthquake in Haiti (2013)
- Poverty in Haiti: Essays on Underdevelopment and Post Disaster Prospects (2011)
- Politics or Markets?: Essays on Haitian Underdevelopment (1992)
- The Haitian Economy: Man, Land and Markets (1983)
- Peasants and Poverty: A Study of Haiti (1979)
Ever want to know why Haiti is so screwed up? Mats Lundahl is your man. You will save a lot of time and money by going straight to the horse’s mouth.
Lundahl on “the predatory state” in Haiti:
“Have Hallward and Concannon never been to the Haitian countryside and seen what is taking place there? The population pressure has forced cultivation up the mountainsides. The soil must be laid bare precisely when the tropical downpours set in. This inevitably leads to erosion. The destruction of the soil is the fundamental mechanism pushing people from the countryside to the cities, and it has worked, slowly and inexorably, for a hundred years, probably even longer. Does the neo-liberal violence stimulate the Haitians to make children, or is the precipitation the result of a neo-liberal rain dance of some kind? It would have been interesting to get to know the fundamental chain of causation. Exactly what does the conspiracy look like?
Peter Hallward does not say anything about the catastrophic political tradition of Haiti, a tradition which has left the masses to their fate, created by the very Haitian politicians. In Haiti, politics has always been a concern solely for small cliques who have attempted to wring private incomes out of the population, through control of the state treasury. Between 1843 and 1915, the country had 22 presidents. All of them were predators. Four of them died during their presidencies. A single one managed to finish his term. The remaining 17 were deposed, more or less violently. During these 72 years, Haiti experienced no less than 102 civil wars, revolutions, coups, attentats … The United State must certainly have had busy days, if Hallward is to be believed.” (Mats Lundahl, Poverty In Haiti, pp.221-222)
Of these predators, the Emperor Faustin I Soulouque was our favorite.
It’s considered “racist” to point this out, but in Haiti there was a “technological retrogression” after independence. Sugar production collapsed entirely and the techniques used to harvest coffee became less sophisticated:
“A technological retrogression seems to have taken place after independence. Whereas the French colonial cultivators had introduced new techniques of pruning, drying and separating good from bad beans, once coffee became a peasant crop any technical advances that had existed were lost. By and large, nature was allowed to have its course, even when it came to the reproduction of the coffee trees. Only in the harvesting and drying did the peasants interfere.” (Mats Lundahl, Politics or Markets? Essays on Haitian Underdevelpment, p.111)
What’s more, the techniques that are used to plant and harvest food crops in Haiti – in the 21st century, in spite of population growth from around 350,000 to nearly 10 million – haven’t changed since the nineteenth century, and may have even declined from the technology that was used during the colonial period.
In 1872, the American traveler Samuel Hazard visited Hispanolia on the behalf of the US government, which at the time was debating in Congress whether to annex the Dominican Republic, a pet project of the Grant administration.
Here’s an excerpt from his 1873 book, Santo Domingo, Past and Present, With a Glance at Hayti, about the state of the Northern Plain outside Cap-Haïtien:
“It required no great stretch of the imagination to picture this section of the country before the Revolution, when this whole plain, with its handsome houses, superb plantations, and well-kept hedges, presented the appearance of a vast and beautiful flower garden.
I found the country well cut up by good roads, that originally appeared to have been solidly constructed with stone, and ditches were in many places dug on each side, while stone culverts and drains gave evidence that at one time civilisation had had some share in the improvement of this country.
I was particularly interested in seeing this; for often I had thought that it would be impossible to make roads or keep them in order in a country such as Dominica, and here I had new evidence that it was not only possible, but easy to make and drain good roads.” (Hazard, p.412)
Just as there is nothing in Detroit’s environment that stops the use of electricity and streetlights, there was nothing inherent in Haiti’s environment that prevented Haitians from maintaining and constructing roads and bridges – or public schools, or sewer systems, or later a national electric grid, or later hydroelectric dams, etc.
In the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries, the rest of the world advanced while Haiti sunk back into the Dark Ages. Rice and cotton farmers in the Mississippi Delta now use air conditioned GPS guided tractors to grow rice and cotton that compete in a free market with products grown by Haitian peasants using 18th century technology. Already in the 19th century, Cuba’s sugar plantations were linked by railroads to Havana and the coast while Haiti was losing the capacity to build roads and bridges – Haiti’s railroad system ceased operations in the 1970s.
What’s the difference between blacks in Haiti and the Mississippi Delta? In Haiti, the blacks overthrew slavery, slaughtered the Whites, and redistributed the land. In the Mississippi Delta, slavery was abolished by the federal government, but the Whites weren’t slaughtered, and they remained in control of the land, and through various means in control of the labor of blacks, and through segregation laws in control of their own public institutions. So while there is still enormous poverty and inequality in the Mississippi Delta, agriculture there is thoroughly modern and fabulously productive.
The “legacy of freedom” is the reason why Haiti is Haiti, not the Mississippi Delta, Barbados, or the Dominican Republic.