Haiti – the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere: Is History to Blame?

This article is an opinion piece and its contents represent the standpoint of its author, not UPF Lund or The Perspective’s editorial board.

More than three months have passed since the last big earthquake in Haiti made it to the headlines of international news. Apart from natural disasters and the human suffering they cause, the country is also facing a deteriorating political situation. Soaring corruption, poverty, and the recent assasination of president Jovenel Moïse have all fueled the state of lawlessness in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Suspected of helping plot Moïse’s assasination, interim president Ariel Henry lacks popular support. Gangs control half of the capital. Kidnapping is a widespread practice and crossfires between armed groups happen on a daily basis. In recent months, approximately 19 000 people have been displaced due to the violence experienced in the country.

But how did this start? Why has Haiti, the first independent nation in Latin America, become the poorest in the Western Hemisphere?

The island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was discovered by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. During the first years of settlement, the native population, the Taíno, was almost entirely wiped out by harsh labor conditions and the spread of disease. The cultivation of sugar led to an increase in the import of African slaves but the Spanish quickly lost interest in the island as news from the riches found in other colonies in the continent spread. French and English pirates continuously raided Hispaniola and, eventually, in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of the island to France (today known as Haiti). This part of the island became the most profitable colony in the world, producing more sugar than any other colony.

The colony’s profitability was only made possible due to the constant import of African slaves and the harsh labour conditions in which they were forced to work. Slaves in the Caribbean had a life expectancy at birth of only 17 years. Every year, between 25,000 and 40,000 slaves died in Haiti as a result of physical punishment, malnutrition, disease or suicide. At the time, Haitian society was marked by a strict social hierarchy, placing Europeans at the top of the pyramid, followed by Europeans born in Haiti, mixed-race individuals and finally African slaves at the bottom.

As years passed, a new racial class emerged, the mixed-race “gens de couleur. Although these individuals were free and able to possess property, they lacked many of the rights enjoyed by  white European colonists and their descendants. Dissatisfied with their limited liberties and inspired by the French revolution, Toussaint Louverture, one of the members of this class, gathered an army of slaves and started a revolt in 1791. After 13 years of struggle and hundreds of thousands of casualties, Haiti became the second independent nation in the Americas, only after the United States.

French soldiers throwing people of African origin overboard during the Haitian War of Independence – engraving with modern colour, 1805.
(Credit: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com)

However, Haiti could not enjoy its freedom for long. The United States refused to recognise the newly independent state, fearing that this would encourage any potential uprisings among their own slaves in the South. France blocked the country’s ports and threatened to invade if Haiti did not pay 150 million francs in reparations—equivalent to 51 billion USD today. The French claimed that the payments were compensation for their lost property, which at that time included slaves. Fearful of invasion and desperate to resume their export industry, Haiti accepted the payment.

In December 1825 the first payment of the debt fell due and Haiti was forced to pay their compensation to France, the country drew on large amounts of debt from French banks with excessively high interest rates. A debt which was supposed to be paid off in five years, ended up taking almost 60 years to be paid off. Other debts were taken on during this period to cover for government expenses. These debts took another 60 years to be paid off.

In 1915, the US invaded Haiti. Although the objectives of the American invasion were mostly geopolitical, it had many negative economic consequences. The US took control of the Haitian government’s finances for 20 years. During this time, the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) acquired large parts of the Haitian National Bank and all of Haiti’s remaining debts to France. By managing the Haitian National Bank, they made repayments of the debt a priority.  Furthermore, the US modified the constitution to allow foreign ownership of assets which had been forbidden since the country’s independence. This led to the privatisation of land in the hands of a few American-owned enterprises and increased inequality. The loss of economic and political sovereignty generated backlash from the population which was often repressed by force. While political stability was maintained during the 20 years of American control, as soon as the US Navy left, the country returned to political turmoil.

The large amount of money paid to France and the US has had long-lasting repercussions for Haiti. Firstly, the nation was unable to invest in infrastructure, education and health systems as money was used for debt and interest payments instead. Secondly, the heavy taxation levied upon the citizens to pay the debt forced farmers to focus their production on cash crops, such as coffee, wood and sugar. Consequently, Haiti now faces excessive deforestation and soil erosion, as well as an overreliance on food imports. Finally, widespread poverty brought on by the country’s debt situation and American privatisation policies have generated political instability and corruption. Groups fight each other to rise to power and get their hands on the breadcrumbs that remain.

A woman carrying water through one of the tent cities in Haiti. (Credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com)

In 2004, Haiti asked France to pay reparations for the debt imposed on them after independence and which initiated the country’s long-lasting economic and political issues. Unsurprisingly, France declined. Given the current political situation and high levels of corruption in Haiti, it is unclear whether 50 billion USD would truly benefit the country or go into some politician’s bank account. Regardless of the amount of money concerned, the debt forced upon Haiti was unjust. In order to be recognized as independent, former slaves not only lost their lives in war but they were forced to pay a ridiculous sum of money to France. After centuries, their descendants keep paying the consequences, suffering from extreme poverty, starvation, disease and conflict.  No compensation should have been paid. France abused its gunboats to force upon Haiti arguably the worst deal in the history of deals.

It is not uncommon to read about poor countries’ lack of development as a result of inefficient economic policies, lack of investment in capital and failure to develop growth-promoting institutions. Yet, these explanations often disregard the importance of historical events and historical legacies which prevail until today. Indeed, in many cases, countries are poor because other countries made them poor. I believe that when there is blame, there should be debt. In this case, France and the US should be indebted towards Haiti for their direct responsibility in causing its poverty and decline.

Francisco Cobos Cabral


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